Accessibility in Firefox OS: An update

After my introductory video, quite some things happened in the realm of Firefox OS accessibility, and although we’re still not quite ready yet to release builds to beta testers, we’re getting closer to a state where this will be the case.

In the interim, I’d like to share a few things that have happened over the past few months that may get you a bit excited! We certainly are! 😉

A screen reader toggle

It recently became possible to toggle the screen reader and thus gain access to a Firefox OS device running the Feb 12 or later nightly builds of Firefox OS 1.4/Master. The way this works is as follows:

  1. Press the Power button three times, with close to one second pause between each press. So unlike iOS, which some of my readers may be familiar with, here it’s slowness that matters. The reason is that currently, the Power button doesn’t register properly when you press it too fast in rapid succession.
  2. You’ll then hear an announcement instructing you to press the Power button three more times in the same manner to toggle screen reader on.
  3. Do so, and you’re ready to go.

This even works in the Welcome wizard/First Time User experience screen. In essence, I can now setup a Firefox OS phone as a blind user.

Turning the screen reader off works in a similar fashion: Press the Power button three times in slow succession, confirm that you want to end it, and off it is switched.

Speech property controls

Also, recently, speech controls were added to an Accessibility panel in the Settings app. You can control the screen reader on/off state itself, the speech rate and the volume.

The Accessibility panel is enabled when the screen reader is turned on, or it can be enabled from Developer settings, which in turn can be enabled from Device Info/More information. This, of course, is only interesting for sighted folks interested in trying things out, a blind user will most likely use the toggle. The important thing to note is that the screen reader setting has been moved out from the developer settings into the Accessibility panel in 1.4. So the occurrences that we had over the past couple of weeks where people turned on the screen reader accidentally and then didn’t know how to work their devices, should occur less. 😉

Automatic focusing on new elements

When switching pages, bringing up an application or a website, the first element is now automatically focused after load. This is something Firefox for Android 30 and later will also do when a new web page loads. With that, speech response is much moe intuitive.

Accessible Settings

The Settings app in Firefox OS is the first to become fully accessible. It was the ground work laying app for us and turned out pretty well. We learned a lot about how to style, or not style, stuff, how to properly use techniques to only have items to swipe to that are actually relevant, and other details.

Problems, problems, problems

Oh yes, there are still a lot of problems, primarily in the user interface itself. The whole user interface of Firefox OS is written in HTML5, JavaScript and CSS, and when we started making it accessible, some of the code was pretty rough in terms of semantics. But Eitan and Yura sank their teeth into it, and despite several refactorings and such, we’re getting to a point where important work is being done that will make a lot of apps at once much more accessible. Along the way, we’re setting some rules for everyone on the Gaia team to follow, and implementing tests to make sure breakage occurs less often in the future. Some of these rules include things like “don’t use WAI-ARIA roles as parts of CSS selectors”, for example.

Everyone who has made a so far mostly inaccessible web app accessible knows how much tedious work this can be. And even more so with a dynamic project like Gaia, the Firefox OS user interface. But we’re getting a lot better, and seeing other team members pick up knowledge and attention on proper accessibility semantics. 🙂 Gaia’s code is also improving a lot over-all, and that definitely helps, too!

In summary, we’re working hard, with me testing and other team members coding their butts off to give everyone the best possible user experience in Firefox OS in the near future! Stay tuned for more updates!

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