Roundup: What is the Mozilla Accessibility Team working on?

Well, it’s been a while since I posted here I’m afraid. The reason was not an outbreak of laziness, but on the contrary the fact that the accessibility team at Mozilla is alive and kickin’, and working on the next version of the Gecko platform. And to give you an idea what we’re working on, here’s a quick round-up.

De-XPCOM-ing the Accessible module

XPCOM is used to communicate to the Mozilla core, getting information out of and into it from languages such as JavaScript, Java, Python and C++. Unfortunately, due to historic reasons, modules internal to the Gecko platform also used to use XPCOM to get information. One of these modules was (and partially still is) the Accessible module. XPCOM, while very powerful, also has some performance limitations when querying for a lot of information via QUERY_INTERFACE. Therefore, over the past couple of months, Alex and David have been working on de-XPCOM-ing our module to make it more performant and ready for the future.

To the end user, this will feel more performant especially on complex pages.

Event management

Firing events, and calculating when and how to fire them, has been a big performance killer for the Accessible module in the past. While this was for the most part not particularly noticeable for screen reader users, since we are sort of limited by the rate our synthesizers talk, recently more and more technologies have started using the Accessibility services. Fingerprint devices to enter passwords into Firefox, tablet PC interfaces etc., all use parts of the Accessible module. Since there is currently no way to turn parts of it on or off, as soon as any piece of software accesses just a single accessibility service, the whole engine gets started, and from that point on, all calculations take place as if a screen reader for the blind was present.

Again, since this cannot currently be selectively turned off, and it is not certain that this will ever be possible, it is our goal to make this fact the least noticeable to users. To that end, we’ve started a project called event coalescing. Event coalescing will, as the name suggest, coalesce the stream of events we get from the DOM to only fire those event assistive technologies absolutely need. However, the rules have not been finalized yet, and the code as it is in the current platform based on some initial ideas and feedback, is not very performant, in parts even less performant than in Firefox 3.6, which fires more events but calculates less before sending them.

For those interested in the very technical details, the wiki page for event coalescing is here.

HTML5 form element enhancements

While we’re working hard on improving performance, work in other areas of Gecko is also progressing, requiring us to work together to make sure these enhancements are also accessible. One of these is the work that needs to be done to make new additions that HTML5 brings to form elements accessible. I wrote up a summary with bug links and some information here. If you have feedback on the ideas and proposed roles, you’re welcome to contact us by leaving a comment down here or on the #accessibility IRC channel.

UI work

As the road to the next major release of Firefox is being walked, there are also some UI redesigns happening. One, which has already landed, was the conversion of the tab strip to a real toolbar. My job was to make sure screen readers can still cope with them after this change. Some minor regressions were found, but all in all this still works great.

Another, much bigger change, is the redesign of the Add-Ons Manager to include support for language packs, Jetpacks and other ways to extend Firefox. This work is still underway, and I recently took a first round of testing. Some keyboard navigation issues, and one XUL markup issue that needs to be addressed, but so far, although this is a major UI change, things look very accessible, and I’ll make sure it stays that way. 😉

Other areas

Work that is not directly related to the Gecko platform, but which is also important in the field of accessibility, is, among others:

  • Thunderbird 3.1 Beta2 has been released recently. Thunderbird 3.1 comes with the same platform version as Firefox 3.6. Due to the table enhancements in the Gecko 1.9.2 platform, the message list and other areas will be much more accessible to screen readers. Information such as the unread status, the presence of attachments etc. can now be queried using the IAccessibleTable2 interface or equivalent on other platforms. The control is now a real table control rather than a flat ListView on Windows, giving much more accurate semantics.
  • The Instantbird team has also done a great job at providing good XUL markup in their multi-instant-messaging client. We’re currently working together to work out some very specific problems with buddy status and others, but Instantbird is a great multi-messenger worth trying!

As you can see, lots of exciting stuff happening, some of it very user-visible, other more technical and very low-level in nature, but all exciting!

Stay tuned!

Update: Article translation

Thanks to community member Patricia Clausnitzer, this blog post is now available in Belorussian. How cool is that! Thank you very much! And BTW: This is a first!

CSUN 2010 recap

From March 22 to 27, the 5th Annual International Technology & Persons with Disabilities Conference took place at the Manchester Grand Hyatt Hotel in San Diego, California. It is most commonly referred to as CSUN 2010.

The Mozilla Foundation had a booth at CSUN for the fourth year in a row. David, Alexander Surkov and I were present to man the booth, talk to people, and also participate in a couple of general sessions at the conference to gather information and news, and also to network.

Adobe announces broad range support for IAccessible2

One of the biggest news bangs to come out of the conference is Adobe’s announcement to support the IAccessible2 and WAI-ARIA standards in thenext versions of their Flash and Flex products. Both these standards were heavily driven by, among others, Mozilla, IBM and several assistive technology vendors such as NV Access of the NVDA project. Support for the native GNOME and Mac OS X accessibility APIs is also in the works.

In addition, Adobe announced that they will also include IAccessible2 support in their Acrobat and Reader products.

This means that another big player in the software industry is coming forward and supports these widely recognized standards. It is good to see Adobe getting behind the over-all accessibility efforts and helping to drive adoption in this manner!

Three Firebug-related sessions

Hans Hillen of the Paciello Group had two very successful talks about the UI accessibility support in Firebug. The first was a demo of many of the features, using NVDA as the screen reader to demo them. the second was a use-case talk, where Hans explained in some more technical detail how he went about making the Firebug UI accessible to screen reader users.

Both talks were very well received. The first one had quite a broad audience, while the second audience was smaller, but very focused and involved.

In addition, Jon Gunderson of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign held a talk on the Accessibility Testing Extension for Firebug. But unfortunately, due to my travel schedule, I did not have a chance to visit this talk.

It was good to see two Mozilla grantees doing talks at this year’s CSUN, giving visibility to the many facets of Mozilla’s accessibility strategy.

Newer mobile accessibility technologies marching forward

Apple, RIM and Google, the three vendors of mobile devices with well-defined accessibility APIs, all had well-visited talks at CSUN. In addition, I am aware of at least two talks involving the accessible iPhone and iPod Touch 3rd generation that put these technologies to good use to provide a new generation of assistive software, built on mainstream devices.

Well-visited booth

The Mozilla Foundation booth was well visited on all three days that I helped staff it. Comments and questions ranged from the very flattering “I love Firefox and I love what you guys are doing for accessibility!” to “What’s a browser vendor doing at this conference?”. When we then explained why we attended, many of them were keen on trying out Firefox when they got home or back to thheir hotel rooms.

Also, this conference made quite a number of people aware of other Mozilla products than Firefox. While many had heard about Firefox, they had not heard at all about Thunderbird before. But with the better accessibility in Thunderbird, we can now change this and spread Thunderbird in the accessibility community even more!

I personally had a very moving moment on Friday when a deaf/hard of hearing gentelman and his interpreter stepped up to our booth. He was very interested in what we do for accessibility. Before I knew it, I was talking to him through his interpreter, but wasn’t actually noticing it until well into the conversation. At some point, I mentioned Thunderbird, at which point he started joking about the Ford Thunderbird. David, who was present at this conversation, can probably tell a bit more about this, since this was very visual and I only got a third of what he was actually meaning. 🙂

David and Alex also took a lot of pictures, which they’ll hopefully upload and share very soon so you all can get a better picture about what CSUN 2010 was like! Mozilla received a big big chunk of good attention, our funding of other accessibility-related open-source projects such as NVDA, Orca and others, definitely is being recognized in the industry as being exemplary. Also, we got a very nice compliment from a gentleman from the Office of homeland security, who told us that he thought our Voluntary Product Accessibility Template is among the best he has encountered so far.

One big failure is there, though

One big problem, which I think should not go unmentioned, is the lack of good internet connectivity in the exhibition hall. For a 2010 information technology conference, having no useable WIFI connection down in the exhibition hall at all is simply unacceptable. The internet connections that were offered were hideously priced, almost like in the mid 1990s when internet connectivity was still not as common as today. Up in the session rooms, the situation was a bit better, at least there were hotspots one could use most of the time.

For next year, one thing I’d like to see is a well thought-through strategy for free wireless internet connectivity throughout all conference locations. A technology conference lives and breathes with the buzz people can create around it by tweeting, uploading pictures etc. People with disabilities are no exception, and instead of roadblocking it, the responsible powers at CSUN should embrace this trend and encourage people to get the word out as easily and hazzle-free as possible!

In summary

I can only say that it was worthwhile going to CSUN yet again, and I am hoping we’ll have a chance to participate next year as well!

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 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.


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!