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How to Check Web Accessibility with a Screen Reader and Keyboard

Kerrin McLaughlin,

Associate Experience Designer and Researcher

Video Transcription

Hi, my name is Kerrin. I'm a UX designer with a web development background and at my job at ExpandTheRoom. I often help audit our client's websites for compliance with WCAG, which is the web content accessibility guidelines. These guidelines lay out techniques for making accessible websites. I wanted to create this video to show people in the web design industry how easy and helpful it is to audit the accessibility of the websites we make by using our keyboards and screen readers.

I want to start this video with a disclaimer that I am self-taught in accessible web dev. And while I'm a big advocate for accessible web, I am a non-disabled web user. Because of that, my experience with assistive technologies is not going to be the same as how a disabled person may experience the web. I'm very open to any constructive feedback from the Disability Community on anything I might have wrong. And I'll update this video accordingly.

So why use assistive technology yourself when conducting usability audit? When I first started doing these audits, I would use tools that attempted to scan a website and point out accessibility issues. But I found the issues were abstract and hard to parse. A key user experience design principle is to have empathy for the users who will be using your products and to understand their experience. So I thought that a better way to audit websites for accessibility issues would be to use the websites with the same techniques  a disabled user might.

Now I audit websites by seeing if it's possible to navigate and complete tasks using a keyboard only as someone with a different level of motor skills. And with a screen reader, as someone who is visually impaired might. I find using these techniques combined with an understanding of all WCAG guidelines makes the audit process much easier, faster, and more intuitive. Using these techniques allows me to truly understand why the WCAG guidelines are in place instead of making updates to code that I don't understand.

After making the updates, I can check my work to see if it's more usable with the assistive technology. Building accessible websites is a goal that all web developers should strive to meet in every web project, because it makes the web more inclusive and usable. It's always better to develop a website accessibly rather than to use an overlay widget or add on accessibility at the end, like a coat of paint. The Disability Community has spoken out about these tools saying they often make their experiences more difficult instead of helping. And they're sold to companies as a quick fix to prevent them from being sued. These add on usability plugins are probably better than nothing, but if the underlying code is not developed accessibly there's only so much they can do. And that's not how we should approach the goal of an accessible web.

One more note, before we get into this, using these tools and following these guidelines is not actually that hard, so don't be intimidated. I think that companies that sell accessibility solutions try to frame accessibility as a black box that's impossible to understand, but I believe the concepts are not that difficult if we take the time to learn them.

So let's do that. For this video I'm going to focus on desktop usage as opposed to mobile. If you meet the WCAG guidelines on desktop, most, if not, all of them will apply to mobile as well. Just keep in mind, any elements of your website that are unique to your mobile experience and make sure they're considered as well.

How to Check Web Accessibility Using a Keyboard

So most of us have a keyboard. Start by using the tab key to navigate your site. You can use shift plus tab to go backwards. Everything you can click on a site should also be navigable by keyboard. This blue outline that's following me around as I tab through the site is called the focus ring. You can change the style of this, but you should not try to get rid of it as it's essential for me to know where the focus is as I'm navigating through this site. Keep an eye out for any custom elements that should have focused on tab, but don't.

For example, my keyboard is skipping over this location selector, which is a key interactive element that key board users wouldn't be able to access. You might have to manually add elements like this to the tab index so they can receive focus.

For any interactive elements, make sure you can operate them via keyboard. Some HTML elements like links and buttons will have this keyboard usage built in by default while others, you might have to add.

[Navigating GrubHub.com with a keyboard]

Here, I can use the enter key to switch between these tabs. I can use the enter key to open and close this accordion if I go to these check boxes though, I seem to be having trouble using the enter key to turn them on and off. Not sure why.

It looks like the rating button works.

And so does the slider, let me shift tab back up to show you something else.

Make sure to avoid keyboard traps. This happens when an element such as an overlay traps a user if they can't use a keyboard to get out of it. I see this all the time with popups. When I try and press the escape key,

I can open this overlay, but now I'm trapped. If I'm using a keyboard I'm pressing tab, and I can see that the elements underneath this overlay are being affected while at the same time I can't access as overlay. If I press escape, nothing happens. So basically I'm stuck.

An often overlooked and helpful keyboard navigation tool is a skip to main content button. This button is usually located at the top of the page and hidden unless focused on making it easy for a keyboard user to access by pressing tab when they load the page, pressing the skip to main content button automatically jumps past all of the typical website, header content like navigation and the site logo for easy access to the body of the page.

I won't go into every keyboard usage guidelines in this video, but even just starting to use the keyboard on websites instead of your mouse will quickly show you where the gaps are next up.

How to Check Web Accessibility Using a Screen Reader

Let's talk about screen readers. Every year, webaim.org puts out a survey on screen reader usage that I encourage you to check out.

53% of users surveyed use the Jaws screen reader followed by 30.7% using NVDA and 6.5 using Voiceover. Jaws is a screen reader that must be purchased. NVDA can be downloaded for free on Windows computers while Voiceover is already built into Macs. I found that both parse websites in a similar way. So if you can pass guidelines with one reader, the site should also pass using another.

Using screeners allows you to imagine the web experience for someone who is blind or visually impaired. Screen readers on desktops or laptop computers are usually operating via a keyboard, which is why testing to make sure websites are fully keyboard accessible is essential with the screen reader.

It's time to listen as you navigate.

[Screen reader being used on Weather.com]

Look for things like, are images described via text?

Screen readers have the option to use a menu or rotor to navigate by certain parts of the page, such as by headers links or regions. It is a very important to make sure the headers are descriptive. And in the correct order, you shouldn't switch from an H4 to an H2 without a structural reason.

[Screen reader reading]

 I think this one's actually a pretty good example of using headings for styling rather than structure, because in actuality, the author byline probably shouldn't be a heading.

It should be a different HTML element. The same rule applies to buttons and links. If you read the text of a link in isolation, would you be able to figure out where it leads? An example of linked text with poor accessibility is a click here link. Without the context of the surrounding text, you have no idea where it will go link, 

[Screen reader reading]

In addition to these guidelines, there are several components to consider that use ARIA or accessible rich internet applications. ARIA can be added as HTML attributes that make certain interactive elements accessible, such as indicating when collapsed content like a dropdown or accordion can be opened or helping to identify what element the label is associated with. I won't go into the details now, but I will provide the links to learn more about ARIA.

When auditing with a screen reader, remember to always think yourself, am I hearing the full context on what this page element is for and how to use it, or is something missing? If something is missing, look into what labels are already, attributes can be added.

This video just scratches the surface of accessibility guidelines need to be considered in web development, but the main takeaway I want to convey is that using a screen reader and the keyboard really helps you to understand what needs to be considered for accessibility. It's so much less abstract than using a plugin so much less expensive than hiring a tool to do the thinking for you.

Please take a look at the links I've included in the description for further learning, and don't be afraid to use assistive technology in your process going forward. Thanks all.


ExpandTheRoom might be able to help with your accessible web development needs, contact us today.

More links for further learning

Bonus: Screen Reader Only Website - this website is only usable for screen reader users to demonstrate the accessibility challenges many websites pose

Previous video on accessible web development by ExpandTheRoom - https://youtu.be/EKwfHV9C6zo

Kerrin McLaughlin

Associate Experience Designer and Researcher