An update on office solutions in the browser and on mobile

Regular readers of my blog may remember my January 2014 shout out to Microsoft for implementing great accessibility in their Office Online offering. Later in the year, I also gave an overview over the accessibility in Google apps. Now, in late April 2015, it is time for an update, since both have made progress. We will also take a look at what has changed in Apple’s iCloud on the web suite, and I’ll introduce an open-source alternative that is ramping up to becoming more accessible.

Google apps

The Google apps suite for both free Gmail and paid Google Apps for Business accounts has grown enormously in functionality. And so have the accessibility features. No matter which are you look at, be it Docs with its wide variety of document navigation and collaboration features, Sheets with its ever more comprehensive spreadsheet editing and navigation abilities, or Slides, which allows a blind person to create full-featured slide shows. Gmail itself and Drive are also running very smoothly nowadays. Creating a Google Form to conduct surveys is also going very strongly.

One of the most remarkable facts about this is the enhancements to documentation the Google apps have received. Docs now has dedicated help pages for navigation, formatting, collaboration, and a huge list of keyboard shortcuts for all supported platforms. Take alone the Collaborating on a document with a screen reader, and just try a few things described in there with a friend, co-worker or family member. Each time I use these features, I am totally blown away by the experience.

Docs also introduced braille support and has by now expanded this to Firefox and screen readers as well. If you use it, you’ll get braille output (of course), but may lose some announcements that are available when braille support is not enabled. I have found that a combination of both modes works well for me: Non-braille mode for editing and collaboration, and braille mode for the final proof-reading.

The iOS apps have also made huge leaps forward. If you use an external keyboard with your iPhone or iPad, you have a similarly rich set of key strokes available to you that you have on the web. Compared to where these apps were a year ago, … Uh … forget it, there is no comparison. It’s like day and night!

On Android, the situation looks good as well, within, of course, the limitations that TalkBack still imposes on the users in general. Future versions may vastly improve this situation, let’s keep our fingers crossed! Until then, I suggest you look at the help documentation for Docs with Android.


Microsoft has also enhanced its accessibility features. Word Online, Excel Online, and PowerPoint Online work even better than when I wrote my first article. I found that the collaboration features don’t work as smoothly for me as they do with Google Docs, but because of OneDrive and Dropbox integrations, many tasks can be accomplished using the Office for Windows suite with all its features if the browser version falls short. The start page for accessibility in Office Online gives good pointers to articles with further information.

I also found that the web mailer behaves more like a web page than a real application in many instances. But of course, it has tight integration with Microsoft Outlook and Windows Mail in Windows, so again, if the web version falls short for you if you use these services, you can use the desktop versions.

The iOS versions also have seen great improveents for VoiceOver. The new kid on the block, Outlook for iOS, is getting frequent updates which usually also contain VoiceOver fixes.

And some good news for all the Mac enthusiasts out there: The Microsoft Office 2016 for Mac preview received an update on April 14, 2015 which, according to this support article, also contains VoiceOver improvements for Word, Excel, and PowerPoint. Outlook is also said to be accessible via a different support article on this.

I can’t say much about the Android versions of the Microsoft Office applications, and the official documentation channels haven’t revealed anything. If you have any experience, please let me know in the comments! Especially the MS Word for Android Tablet, and friends, are the interesting ones I think, since they are more feature-rich than the Office for Android phone app.


As much as Apple is great when it comes to accessibility in their hardware devices, including the latest new device category Apple Watch, as dismal is the situation with their offering. This thing just doesn’t have the fit and finish that the other products have. Yes, many buttons are now labeled, and yes, in Pages on the web, lines are read when you navigate them, as well as some other information. But the overall experience is not good. The keyboard focus gets lost every so often, and unpredictably, the interface is confusing and keeps stuff around that might, in a certain situation, not even be activable. This is nothing I can recommend to any screen reader user to use productively, even after some upgrades it received over the past year.

If you want, or have to, use iWork for iCloud, use the Mac or iOS versions. They work quite OK and get the job done.


And here’s the new kid on the block that I promised you! It’s called Open-Xchange App Suite, and is actually not quite as new in the field of collaborative tools. But its accessibility efforts are fairly new, and they look promising. Open-Xchange is mostly found in web mail providers such as the Germany-based or 1&1, but also used internationally. Furthermore, anyone who runs certain types of Linux distributions as a server can run their own instance, with mail and cloud storage services. It also offers standards like IMAP and SMTP, CalDav for calendar sync, CardDav for contact sync, and WebDav for access to the files. It works in the MS Office formats, so is compatible with most, if not all, other office suites.

Its accessibility features on the web are on their way to becoming really good. They’ve still got some ways to go, primarily also in the way the keyboard focus handling works and how to get some tasks done really efficiently, but Mail, some parts of Calendar, Contacts, Drive, Text and the dashboard really work quite well already. It is nothing that compares yet to what Google is offering, but it comes close to the quality of what Microsoft is offering on the web, and definitely surpasses that in some areas.

This is definitely something to keep an eye on. I certainly will be watching its progress closely.

In summary

As of this writing, Google definitely comes out strongest in terms of accessibility and fit and finish when it comes to working efficiently with their apps. Granted, it takes some getting used to, and it requires that a screen reader user know their assistive technology and are willing to learn some keyboard shortcuts and familiarize themselves with certain usability concepts. But once that is mastered, Google Apps is definitely something I can whole-heartedly recommend for online collaboration. Furthermore, if you look at new features for commercial screen readers such as JAWS, you can see that they’re paying attention and improve their support for Google apps bit by bit where support is still lacking.

Microsoft is close behind, with some areas that are better accomplished in their desktop apps or on tablets rather than on the web.

Open-Xchange still has its bumps in the road, but is on a good way to becoming a viable alternative for those who can rely on their own infrastructure and want to go to a full open-source stack.

And for Apple, I recommend staying away from the web offering and doing all the office work in iWork apps for Mac or iOS. The web stuff is just too much of a hassle still.

Accessibility in Google Apps – an overview

I recently said that I would write a blog series about Google apps accessibility, providing some hints and caveats when it comes to using Google products such as GMail, Docs, and Drive in a web browser.

However, when I researched this topic further, I realized that the documentation Google provide on each of their products for screen reader users is actually quite comprehensive. So, instead of repeating what they already said, I’m going to provide some high-level tips and tricks, and links to the relevant documentation so you can look the relevant information up yourself if you need to.

There is really not much difference between Google Drive, GMail and the other consumer-related products and the enterprise-level offerings called Google Apps for Business. All of them are based on the same technology base. The good thing is that there is also no way for administrators to turn accessibility off entirely when they administrate the Google Apps for Business setup for their company. And unless they mess with default settings, themes and other low-vision features should also work in both end user and enterprise environments.

A basic rule: Know your assistive technology!

This is one thing I notice pretty often when I start explaining certain web-related stuff to people, be they screen reader users or users of other assistive technologies. It is vital for your personal, but even more your professional life, to know your assistive technology! As a screen reader user, just getting around a page by tabbing simply isn’t enough to get around complex web applications efficiently and deal with stuff in a timely fashion. You need to be familiar with concepts such as the difference between a virtual document (or virtual buffer or browse mode document) and the forms or focus mode of your screen reader, especially when on Windows. You need to know at least some quick navigation commands available in most browse/virtual mode scenarios. You should also be familiar with what landmarks are to navigate to certain sections of a page. If you just read this and don’t know what I was talking about, consult your screen reader manual and key stroke reference now! If you are a person who requires training to memorize these things and isn’t good at self-paced learning this, go get help and training for this, especially in professional environments. You will be much more proficient afterwards and provide much better services. And besides, it’ll make you feel better because you will have a feeling of greater accomplishment and less frustrations. I promise!

Now with that out of the way, let’s move on to some specific accessibility info, shall we?


One of the most used things you’l be using is GMail. If you want to use a desktop or mobile e-mail client because that is easiest for you, you can do so! Talk to your administrator if you’re in a corporate or educational environment, or simply set up your GMail account in your preferred client. Today, most clients even won’t require you to enter an IMAP or SMTP server any more, because they know what servers they need to talk to for GMail. So unless your administrator has turned off IMAP and SMTP access, which they most likely haven’t, you should be able to just use your preferred client of choice. Only if you want to add server-side e-mail filters and change other settings will you then need to enter the web interface.

If you want to, or have to, use the web interface, don’t bother with the basic HTML view. It is so stripped down in functionality that the experience by today’s standards is less than pleasant. Instead, familiarize yourself with the GMail guide for screen reader users, and also have a look at the shortcuts for GMail. Note that the latter will only work if your screen reader’s browse or virtual mode is turned off. If you’re a screen reader user, experiment with which way works better for you, browse/virtual mode or non-virtual mode.

Personally, I found the usability of GMail quite improved in recent months compared to earlier times. I particularly am fond of the conversation threading capabilities and the power of the search which can also be applied to filters.

Note that in some documentation, it is said that the chat portion of GMail is not accessible. However, I found that this seems to be outdated information, since the above guide very well states that Chat works, and describes some of its features. Best way to find out: Try it!


Contacts are accessible on the web, too, but again you can use your e-mail client’s capabilities or extension to sync your contacts through that as well.


Google Calendar’s Agenda View can be used with screen readers on the web, but it, too, allows access from desktop or mobile CalDav clients as well. The Google Calendar guide for screen reader users and Keyboard Shortcuts for Google Calendar provide the relevant info.

Google Docs and Sites

This is probably the most complicated suite of the Google offerings, but don’t fear, they are accessible and you can actually work with them nowadays. For this to work best, Google recommends to use either JAWS or NVDA with Firefox, or IE, or Chrome + ChromeVox. I tested, and while Safari and VoiceOver on OS X also provided some feedback, the experience wasn’t as polished as one would hope. So if you’re on the Mac, using Google Chrome and ChromeVox is probably your best bet.

Also, all of these apps work best if you do not rely on virtual/browse modes when on Windows. In NVDA, it’s easy to just turn it off by pressing NVDA+Space. For JAWS, the shortcut is JAWSKey+Z. Bt since this has multiple settings, consult your JAWS manual to make this setting permanent for the Google Drive domain.

The documentation on Drive is extensive. I suggest to start at this hub and work your way through all linked documentation top to bottom. It’s a lot at first, but you’ll quickly get around and grasp the concepts, which are pretty consistent throughout.

Once you’re ready to dive into Docs, Sheets, Slides and the other office suite apps, use the Docs Getting Started document as a springboard to all the others and the in-depth documentation on Docs itself.

One note, in some places, it is said that creating forms is not accessible yet. However, since there is documentation on that, too, those documents stating that creating forms isn’t accessible yet are out of date. One of those, among other things, is the Administrator Guide to Apps Accessibility.

I found that creating and working in documents and spreadsheets works amazingly well already. There are some problems sometimes with read-only documents which I’ve made the Docs team aware of, but since these are sometimes hard to reproduce, it may need some more time before this works a bit better. I found that, if you get stuck, alt-tabbing out of and back into your browser often clears things up. Sometimes, it might even be enough to just open the menu bar by pressing the Alt key.

Closing remarks

Like with any other office productivity suite, Google Docs is a pretty involved product. In a sense, it’s not less feature-rich than a desktop office suite of programs, only that it runs in a web browser. So in order to effectively use Google Apps, it cannot be said enough: Know your browser, and know your assistive technology! Just tabbing around won’t get you very far!

If you need more information not linked to above, here’s the entry page for all things Google accessibility in any of their apps, devices and services. From here, most of the other pages I mention above can also be found.

And one more piece of advice: If you know you’ll be switching to Google Apps in the future in your company or government or educational institution, and want to get a head start, get yourself a GMail account if you don’t have one. Once you have that, all of Google Drive, Docs, and others, are available to you as well to play around with. There’s no better way than creating a safe environment and play around with it! Remember, it’s only a web application, you can’t break any machines by using it! And if you do, you’re up for some great reward from Google! 🙂

After some requests, I also produced a little audio demo (about 40 minutes) where I demonstrate a few Gmail, Drive and Docs features.


The WAI-ARIA Windows screen reader shootout

Firefox 3.5 has been released, and now it’s time to take a look at what features of WAI-ARIA are being supported by which Windows screen reader. Competition is healthy in this market, and two new screen readers have started supporting Firefox during the 3.5 development cycle: Dolphin’s Hal/SuperNova and Serotek’s System Access (including the free SAToGo offering). So to document the current state of affairs, I’ve taken each one of the following screen readers running on the Windows platform on a tour through some WAI-ARIA implementations that are out there for everyone to use. I’ve chosen not to do a widget-by-widget walkthrough of the Dojo DIJIT Toolkit or some other JS library already including WAI-ARIA, but instead concentrated on stuff users will actually encounter while surfing the web under non-clinical conditions.

The following are the candidates:

The scoring is simple: For each important feature that is fully supported, each screen reader gets 1 point. A particular web app may have more than 1 feature, so it is possible to score multiple points for web apps.

Note that, even if WAI-ARIA support is not explicitly documented, it is still possible to score points because Firefox exposes many widgets through MSAA and IAccessible2 that are not standard HTML widgets. The interesting question here is: Are the various forms of Forms/Focus mode flexible enough to deal with these?


WAI-ARIA landmarks are one of the most widely used features of the spec already. They allow another means of navigating a web page, finding things such as the banner, main content, search, complementary or footer information. The newly relaunched Mozilla Add-Ons website uses them now, as does this blog.

Yes. Landmarks are announced, they can be navigated to using the Semicolon quick navigation key, and there’s a list of landmarks available through JAWSKey+Ctrl+SemiColon. 1 point
System Access To Go

So after the first round, JAWS is in the lead with 1 points.

Contact form from my Easy ARIA tips

The example contact form I created for my Easy Aria tip #3 offers several features that can be incorporated without having to create widgets, and which have appeared in some form or another on pages throughout the web already:

  • Does the fact that the Name, E-Mail and Message fields are required get indicated by anything other than the label saying “required”?
    • By navigating the virtual buffer
    • When in forms/focus mode and tabbing around
  • When entering an invalid name by just entering the first name:
    • Does the alert get spoken when tabbing away?
    • When tabbing back, does the field get indicated as having an invalid entry?
    • Does the fact that this field has an invalid entry get indicated when navigating in the virtual buffer?

In total, there are 5 points to score for this test.

NVDA indicates the field as being required in v cursor mode and when tabbing around. 2 points. It speaks the alert. 1 point. It indicates the invalid attribute both when navigating the virtual buffer and when in focus mode and tabbing around. 2 points. Total: 5 points
While the label gets spoken in virtual cursor mode, when JAWS switches to forms mode automatically when hitting the entry field, the plopping sound drowns out every indication of attributes such as required or invalid. Only when deviating from default settings and turning AutoFormsMode off one will hear those attributes in V cursor mode. No points for these two. The alert gets spoken. 1 point. When tabbing around, the attributes such as required and invalid do get announced with the default settings. 2 points for these. Total: 3 points
The fact that the field is required gets spoken in both browse and focus modes. 2 points. The alert gets spoken. 1 point. The fact that the field has an invalid entry gets spoken in both browse and focus modes. 2 points. Total: 5 points
None of the asked for features work. Sorry, 0 points.
System Access To Go
The alert gets spoken. 1 point. None of the attributes are spoken when navigating or tabbing. Total: 1 point.

After round 2, NVDA and Window-Eyes take the lead with 5 points each, JAWS follows on third place with a total of 4 points, System Access has 1 point, and SuperNova has 0 points.

Yahoo! Search

The new Yahoo! Search is an interactive widget allowing browsing of possible search terms and related concepts that fit the currently selected search term. It uses a whole range of WAI-ARIA widgets, properties and states, live regions etc. When performing a search, the following things should be working:

  • When focusing the textbox:
    • Does the screen reader speak the name “Search query”?
    • Does the screen reader announce the description “Use the up and down arrow keys to select suggestions, or press down and then right to explore concepts.”?
  • When typing, does the screen reader announce that search suggestions are available?
  • When search suggestions are available, does pressing DownArrow properly announce that focus shifted to the list of suggested search terms, and what to do to get back to the search field?
  • Does pressing RightArrow announce the shift to the “related concepts” list and the selected item?
  • When arrowing through either list, does the highlighted/focused item get spoken, and does the search that will be performed when pressing Enter get announced by the screen reader?

So, there are 7 points to score for this one.

It speaks the “Search query” label. 1 point. It speaks the “Use the..” description. 1 point. When search suggestions are available, the fact is announced. 1 point. When pressing DownArrow, the transition to the list of suggested terms is announced along with the full instructions and the selected item. 1 point. When arrowing left and right to the related concepts and back, each focus transition is properly announced and the highlighted item read. 1 point. When arrowing up and down through either list, the newly highlighted search term is announced, and the search that is going to be performed is announced automatically. 2 points. Total: 7 points
When focusing the search field, the “Search query” label is announced. 1 point. The “use …” description is not announced automatically. It is also not being announced when pressing JawsKey+Tab or Insert+F1. The only way to get to it is to use their HomeRow utility functions and cycling to the “Description” item with HomeRow+F10 and then listening to it with HomeRow+F9. For this almost non-discoverability I can’t give a point, sorry. When search results are available, this gets announced. 1 point. When pressing DownArrow, the transition to the list is announced along with the prompt. 1 point. When RightArrowing, the transition to the “Explore related concepts” list is announced. 1 point. When arrowing up and down, the newly highlighted item is not announced, and neither is the search that is going to be performed. One can get the currently focused item by using Insert+Tab, but the description is once again burried in HomeRow. I’m willing to give half a point for this one since initially it will be confusing to users that they don’t hear anything when arrowing up and down. Total: 4.5 points
The label “Search query” is announced. 1 point. The “Use…” description is announced. 1 point. The availability of search results is not announced. The transition to the search term suggestions is partially announced: The focused item is, but the prompt is not. Half a point. The transition to the “Related concepts” and back is announced partially: The newly focused item is, but the prompt isn’t. half a point. When arrowing up and down, both the search suggestion and the search that is going to be performed are being announced. 2 points. Total: 5 points.
Announcing the “Search query” label works. 1 point. But unfortunately, that’s where the fun ends. The description is not announced, the availability of search term suggestions is neither. And the rest of the functionality of this widget is broken. DownArrow is captured by SuperNova and will not fall through to the widget, getting one stuck inside the textbox. Tabbing around will only get up to the “Submit your site” link, but the search terms aren’t reachable. SuperNova will say “bottom”, and no further can one go. Total: 1 point.
System Access To Go
The picture is roughly the same as with SuperNova. The label “Search query” is spoken. 1 point. The description is not spoken. The availability of search term suggestions neither. DownArrow gets you to the “Search” button instead of the list of search terms. In fact, this virtual buffer also ends at the “Submit your site” link. Total: 1 point.

At the end of this round, NVDA leaps ahead with 12 points. Window-Eyes is second with 10 points, followed by JAWS with 8.5 points. System Access scores a total of 2, and SuperNova got their first point!

GMail Chat

GMail has an integrated Google Talk widget that I talked about before. The following should be working:

  • Ability to activate the “Set status here” label by pressing Enter on it to input a personal status message.
  • Ability to activate the “status menu” and navigate inside it with speech output.
  • Navigate inside the list of buddies and hear their names and status.
  • Inside the Chat window, announce typed and incoming messages.
  • Track going to the Chat window toolbar.

Once again, there are 5 points to score. Let’s see how everyone fares!

Pressing Enter on “Set status here” works fine, and one can input a status message. 1 point. Activating and navigating in the status menu works fine. 1 point. The list of buddies talks fine. 1 point. Chatting works fine. 1 point. Trying to access the toolbar items by first going out of focus mode with Escape made NVDA hang each time I tried it. It somehow has a conflict with the chat widget. Sorry, no point for this one. Total: 4 points
The label to input a status message is not activable by pressing Enter. It can only be activated using the JAWS cursor emulation. Since this is a well-known workaround, I’m giving half a point. The Status menu is activable and works fine. 1 point. The list talks fine. 1 point. The incoming and typed messages are spoken in the chat output. 1 point. The chat toolbar to pop out the chat into its own window is accessible. 1 point. Total: 4.5 points.
Accessing the label to input a status message works with workaround of routing WE cursor to element, then mouse to WE cursor, and clicking with the mouse. However, I cannot input a status message afterwards, even though I hear the prompt for it. a quarter of a point for that. The status menu cannot be activated through any means. The list talks fine. 1 point. The chat window works with restrictions: It can be activated and typed in, but incoming messages are not read. half a point for that. Trying to access the toolbar items of the chat window sort of works by turning browse mode back on, and then searching, but since the last position is not retained, I can only give half a point for this one. Total: 2.25 points.
Activating the “Set status here” works. I can input a new status. 1 point. The status menu button does not work, cannot be activated or found through other means. The list of buddies talks. 1 point. Activating a chat with a buddy does not work. Consequently, since the chat window never comes up, the toolbar items for the chat window obsolete themselves. Total: 2 points.
System Access To Go
The “Set status here” and Status menu items are not accessible. The list talks fine. 1 point. Activating a chat works. 1 point. Finding the toolbar buttons is not possible, because the cursor gets stuck within the textbox of the chat window and there’s no way to move it out. Total: 2 points.

…and the winner is…

Congratulations go to the NV Access team and their screen reader! In this WAI-ARIA shootout, you scored 16 points.

Number 2 is JAWS by Freedom scientific, scoring a total of 12.5 points.

Window-Eyes by GW Micro is third with a total of 12.25 points.

Fourth place goes to Serotek with their System Access screen reader product line, with a total of 4 points.

And SuperNova by Dolphin receives 3 points.

In summary

This was a close match, although there is clearly a dividing line between the three screen readers that have been supporting Firefox for a longer period of time, and those that came on board fresh within the past year or so.

I hope this little competition encourages each of the vendors to better themselves for the benefit of the users. We’re here to help each and everyone of you with technical advice and discussion on how things should be implemented.

Keep on rockin’!