Thunderbird 3 is coming out soon, and it’s accessible!

The release of Thunderbird 3 is just around the corner. Aside from all the great new features Thunderbird 3 has in general, its accessibility story is also one which should be celebrated once the release has happened.

Thunderbird 3 is based on the Gecko 1.9.1 platform, which is the same version that Firefox 3.5 is based on. As such, Thunderbird 3 has learned all the great new features of the platform, many of which have a significant impact on users with disabilities. Please allow me to highlight the major improvements and new features.

Support for new accessibility APIs

Thunderbird 3 supports the IAccessible2 standard on Windows. IAccessible2 is a major enhancement to Microsoft Active Accessibility (MSAA), which allows assistive technologies to directly interact with the rich content an HTML e-mail message can have, through a defined set of APIs. Screen readers for the blind, for example, no longer need to rely on old-school screen-scraping methods to try and guess what the application is showing. Instead, headings, block quotes (such as in quoted messages) etc. are all identifiable without question. Font and styling information is available as well. NVDA 2009.1, Window-Eyes 7.1 and JAWS 10 and above take advantage of these technologies already and offer a hugely improved experience for their user bases over what Thunderbird 2.0 had to offer.

This also includes support for in-line spell checking. If enabled, screen readers can identify misspelled words just like in Firefox, and users can go and correct their mistakes on the fly without having to invoke the extra spell checking dialog.

Accessibility on the GNOME Desktop

Thunderbird 3 is accessible to Orca users on the GNOME desktop in Linux. While Thunderbird 2 offered close to no accessibility support, Thunderbird 3 offers a wide range of accessibility to visually impaired users.

Also, the support for ATK/AT-SPI allows other assistive technologies such as GOK (GNOME On-screen Keyboard) to interface with Thunderbird and allow the use by people with motor impairments.

Tabbable and properly labelled message headers

When reading messages, most of the header fields of a message are now reachable via the tab key. This is a huge improvement for any keyboard user. Access includes the “star” that allows to quickly add a contact to the address book or to edit a previously added contact.

All these fields and controls also have proper accessibility labels so that screen reader users immediately know what they’re interacting with.

One known problem is that the multi-functional “reply” control currently isn’t part of the tab order.

Better support when composing messages

Aside from the above mentioned API improvements, the UI also received some love to better communicate the happenings when filling out the from:, to: etc. fields while composing a message. Selecting a different field type now also does not throw newer versions of screen readers into limbo or confused states any longer. Working with the Contacts side bar is also supported.

Over-all UI improvements

Over-all, the various dialogs in Thunderbird such as Tools/Options, Tools/Account Settings and others have received a major accessibility overhaul esp with regards to properly labeling textboxes, radio groups and other XUL widgets so screen reader users get accurate information while tabbing through. Infact, a Thunderbird XUL UI fix was my very first patch when I started contributing to Mozilla. :)

New UI features were also made accessible

New UI features such as the all-new facetted search were also made largely accessible. The new Search, for example, makes heavy use of WAI-ARIA to allow both an appearance that’s visually appealing and keyboard and assistive technology communication that’s accessible. The one exception in this new piece of the product is the graph that shows the search results over time. This is based on SVG, which is totally inaccessible at the moment.

A call-out to Thunderbird extension developers

With the above improvements now being in place, it is equally important for Thunderbird extension developers to follow these simple rules to make their extensions accessible, as it is for developers of extensions for Firefox. DOM Inspector offers an accessibility view which allows you to check whether your XUL has proper labels for textboxes and other good markup! Also, don’t be shy to ask questions! The accessibility team hangs out on the #accessibility channel on irc.mozilla.org and will be happy to assist!

A few known problems remain

As always, nothing can be perfect, but we’re striving to be as perfect as possible. Having said that, there are a few issues that remain, but for which fixes are already visible on the horizon:

  • When viewing messages as threads, the fact whether a thread is expanded or collapsed is not yet communicated to screen readers. This will be different once a new version of Thunderbird switches to using Gecko 1.9.2 or later, which includes the all-new tables support.
  • The same is true for the “subscribe” dialog for newsgroups and IMAP folders. Right now, screen readers do not yet get the state whether a certain folder is checked or not. This will also change with a switch to the new Gecko platform.
  • Folders in the folder pane cannot be navigated to using first-letter navigation. I’m hoping we’ll find a solution to this often voiced request in the future.
  • The picker for rearranging the columns in the message list isn’t accessible via the keyboard yet. You can use the mouse emulation of your screen reader to get to that button to the right of the column headers to access options.

Thanks!

I’d like to thank everyone who has been writing to me over the past two years pointing out Thunderbird accessibility issues. As was expected, these actually made up a higher volume than Firefox since there were more UI-related issues. Keep the feedback coming!

I’d also like to extend a huge thank you to the team at Mozilla Messaging and the voluntary contributors who all helped with implementations, reviews, suggestions and advice while improvements for Thunderbird 3 were requested, triaged and acted upon. I really feel that accessibility is being taken seriously, and I honestly hope that a lot of users worldwide will show their appreciation by downloading and using Thunderbird 3 when it comes out! I’ve been using it for over 2 years now while it was being developed and haven’t regretted making the switch!

Keep up the good work!

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Comments

23 Responses to Thunderbird 3 is coming out soon, and it’s accessible!

  1. Pingback: Ludovic Hirlimann (ludovic) 's status on Thursday, 19-Nov-09 10:01:57 UTC - Identi.ca

  2. Michael Marshall says:

    all i can say is thank god! i have been wateing for this for a very long time now all i kneed is firefox 3.5.6 and i’m set

  3. Is it accessible with VoiceOver? Apple Mail is really pretty basic (that’s a euphamism), and has some quirks with VoiceOver. My wife would prefer to use Thunderbird, which she is more familiar with from her PC days.

  4. Marco says:

    Hi Aaron, nope, Thunderbird 3, like Firefox, doesn’t work with VoiceOver on the mac yet, sorry!

  5. Pingback: The Blind Buzz on Accessibility, Friday Nov 20th « The Blind Buzz

  6. Peter says:

    Hi marco,
    Thanks for good work. There is still one problem with invisibility (for screen readers) of an attachment icon in mails list. I’m using a filter for labelling mails with attachments to have information about this but… Is it possible to fix this in near future?
    With best
    Peter

  7. Marco says:

    Hi Peter,

    unfortunately, this will also only be possible once we have the proper tables support with a new Gecko version. So, all Thunderbird 3.0.x versions based on Gecko 1.9.1 will not have a possibility to fix this problem. But once Thunderbird starts using a newer version, this will work, similar to the above mentioned known problems.

  8. Adrina says:

    I use to work with Firefox on windows xp where i never tried with Thunderbird but my new collage computer lab is equipped with linux and Thunderbird actually working on linux ubuntu is not that bad experience but even not that easy for windows addicted person well for Thunderbird i found this 3.0 new version simple and easy extensions similar to Firefox where interface is much improved there is five reason to try Thunderbird check here for details http://www.techarena.in/guide/19023-five-reasons-move-thunderbird-3.htm

  9. Kazé says:

    Hello Marco,

    I’m the lead dev of the KompoZer project: http://kompozer.net/
    I’m looking for someone who could evaluate the accessibility of KompoZer. We’re in beta stage at the moment, and it would still be time to correct some aspects of this application to improve its accessibility.
    It would help me a lot if you could write a blogpost (or mail me) about that!

    Thanks in advance. :-)

  10. Twitter Comment


    And again: Thunderbird 3 has a ton of accessibility features and enhancements! Read more here: [link to post] #tb3

    Posted using Chat Catcher

  11. Twitter Comment


    RT @MarcoZehe Thunderbird 3 has a ton of accessibility features and enhancements! Read more here [link to post] #tb3

    Posted using Chat Catcher

  12. Twitter Comment


    RT @webaxe @MarcoZehe Thunderbird 3 has a ton of accessibility features and enhancements! Read more here [link to post] #tb3

    Posted using Chat Catcher

  13. TB3 is pretty groovy, I gotta say. I think the only thing I haven’t really figured out yet is attachments, not only does it not show up that a message has one, there doesn’t seem to be any option in the menus or such for dealing with them. Also, this might be related to the other issues, so far as I can tell I don’t see statuses either, e.g. read, unread, etc. This under whatever the latest version of jaws 11 happens to be. Hopefully if that needs a new version of gecko that’ll be happening soon. I haven’t tried sending new mail with it yet, I know under the old one it was tricky to type an address not in your contacts, and I’d like to find out if there’s a way to add words to whatever the dictionary is that catches misspellings, I assume there is. Other than that, I’d say my it’s great. All the things I can think of that aren’t quite working right or that I’ve asked about like spelling are prety minor issues in the scheme of things. The message reading is bunches better, replying works well, all that good stuff. Good job Mozilla!

  14. Gianluca Nucci says:

    I have two issues:
    1 – when pressing the delete key from the mesage list Jaws would repeat “read” and the same subject, I have to refresh the screen every time.
    2 – when reading the message list with the pc cursor it seems it reads everything, no matter how the columns are set.
    Can tgese be issues expected to be solved?

  15. Marco says:

    Hi Gianluca,

    regarding issue 1, this is definitely a JAWS issue and should be reported to Freedom Scientific. I’ve seen it on occasion, but never enough to reproduce it.

    Issue 2 is a limitation as I mention in my “known issues” section, having the same root cause. This will be possible to implement by ATs once a Thunderbird version comes out supporting the message list as a true table.

  16. Pingback: The Blind Buzz on Accessibility « The Blind Buzz

  17. Donna Hill says:

    I just downloaded Thunderbird 3.0.4 a few days ago. I’ve been using T’bird 2 with Jaws 10, and the only problem I had was that Jaws keeps saying “x-Western” and the like when reading messages. Now, I can’t access attachments. The Attachments submenu which used to be under the file menu is gone. What’s up with that? I have messages that contain attachments which I was able to access with the old version, so I know they’re there, just can’t get to them. Thanks.

  18. BeerKingMan says:

    I just downloaded Thunderbird 3.0.4 a few days ago. I’ve been using T’bird 2 with Jaws 10, and the only problem I had was that Jaws keeps saying “x-Western” and the like when reading messages.

  19. TB3 is pretty groovy, I gotta say. I think the only thing I haven’t really figured out yet is attachments, not only does it not show up that a message has one, there doesn’t seem to be any option in the menus or such for dealing with them. Also, this might be related to the other issues, so far as I can tell I don’t see statuses either, e.g. read, unread, etc. This under whatever the latest version of jaws 11 happens to be. Hopefully if that needs a new version of gecko that’ll be happening soon.

  20. Marco says:

    You might want to try Thunderbird 3.1. The table is exposed in much more detail in TB 3.1, so you will hear if a message is unread, has attachments etc.
    Also, under the File menu, in an open message, there is an attachments sub menu that has options to open or save individual attachments, or save all attachments in one strike.

  21. Marco says:

    Re the language announcements, see this blog post.

  22. panubon says:

    I do thunderbird 3.1 and firefox for my work. It great, thank you

  23. lang says:

    I know under the old one it was tricky to type an address not in your contacts, and I’d like to find out if there’s a way to add words to whatever the dictionary is that catches misspellings, I assume there is. Other than that, I’d say my it’s great. All the things I can think of that aren’t quite working right

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