New accessibility features in Firefox 3.6

Firefox 3.6 is just around the corner, and despite all the birthday celebrations, and the looking back that comes with it naturally, I think it is also time to look ahead. So here’s a roundup of what accessibility features will be in the next major release of our favorite browser.

Support for voice dictation software in Windows Vista and Windows 7

Firefox 3.6 introduces support for the Microsoft Text Services Framework. Among other things, this allows users to dictate into text fields on the web using the Microsoft voice dictation software that comes with Windows Vista and Windows 7.

Because this is fairly new technology to Firefox, and because there are undoubtedly quirks to iron out, this support has to be specifically enabled in the advanced configuration editor. To do this:

  1. In an empty tab, type about:config in the awesome bar.
  2. Acknowledge the warning by clicking the “I’ll be careful, I promise!” button.
  3. Type the letters tsf in the filter textbox
  4. In the list that appears, select the preference intl.enable_tsf_support. This is off by default (its value is FALSE).
  5. Right-click that preference and choose the “Toggle” menu option. This will change the option to read TRUE.
  6. Restart Firefox.

This setting will now be saved in your profile and the functionality is available to you.

This expands the range of supported accessibility-related APIs yet again and offers good integration with one more native feature of the Windows Vista and 7 operating systems. Now, users with typing difficulties can use Firefox in a more efficient manner than before.

Windows 7 task bar integration

The new task bar integration in Windows 7 is accessible. If you have more than one tab open, and you navigate the task bar using the keyboard, a screen reader such as NVDA will announce “sub menu” for the Firefox task bar icon. This means that you can use the up and down arrow keys to select the tab you want to bring to the foreground when you switch to Firefox. This is just as seamless as sighted users will choose the tab preview from the Windows 7 task bar using the mouse.

More consistent focus handling

This affects everyone, keyboard and mouse users alike, but is mentioned here nevertheless since it brought us a few bug fixes for free like more consistent tabbing on pages that have the tabindex attribute on some elements but not others. Also, when saving executable files on Windows, the dialog that comes up prompting to save the file is now automatically being announced by screen readers.

Support for the IAccessibleTable2 interface

I blogged about this in more detail here. This gives screen readers access to all kinds of table structures, be it ordinary data tables, ARIA tree grids, XUL tree tables and other possible table constructs, in a unified and consistent manner.

More consistent and maintainable naming rules

Also in line with the user agent implementor’s guide for WAI-ARIA, we’ve improved the way we calculate the accessible names (often similar to on-screen text) of various elements in HTML and XUL. This makes our code more robust, predictable and maintainable, and therefore will allow easier adding of new features/element support in the future.

Notifying screen readers when an object attribute’s value changes

For better support of WAI-ARIA Drag And Drop, we’ve added support for the IAccessible2 object attribute changed event. This event notifies screen readers when an accessible’s object attribute’s value has been changed by the page. This usually happens if a certain HTML element’s attribute is exposed via its corresponding accessible’s object attributes, and that element’s attribute value is changed by a user action (usually done via JavaScript).

And again tons of bug fixes

Of course, there have also been a good number of fixes for existing features that were reported to use by users and assistive technology vendors alike. We’ve also kept track and participated in last-minute changes to the WAI-ARIA spec and kept our implementation up to date.

The whole accessibility team hopes that you’ll enjoy using this new version of Firefox as much as we enjoyed creating and testing it!

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