New approaches to Flash and Java accessibility in the browser on Windows

Mick and Jamie from NV Access, the organization behind the free and open-source NVDA screen reader for Windows, are taking new approaches to accessing accessible Flash and Java applets inside the browser.

Traditionally, Adobe Flash content is being rendered into the virtual buffer in Windows screen readers such as JAWS. Over the years, this has proven to cause several issues:

  • Dynamic content frequently updating causes the virtual buffer to either get out of date, or to update so frequently that reading the content is close to impossible.
  • Accessing content can be cumbersome if Forms Mode or similar concepts are not properly handled.

For these and other reasons, the WebAIM screen reader survey taken last year ranked Flash as the technology posing the most accessibility obstacles on the web for blind users. 71% of all participants found Flash to be difficult or extremely difficult to use. Inaccessible Flash applets, which take up the vast majority of Flash content out in the wild, are doing the rest to strengthen this view.

With Java applets, things get even more complicated. For one, one has to install the Java Access Bridge from Sun Microsystems, to get Java to be accessible at all, inside the browser and elsewhere. Once that hurdle is taken, Java applet content is not rendered inside the virtual buffer, but is present somewhere within the browser window, and one usually has to try to tab to it and get focus to it that way, outside the context of the virtual buffer. Accessible Java applets are very rare and currently hardly play any role when considering accessibility on the web. If at all, they’re viewed as obstacles and something to be avoided.

However, this could change with the approach the NV Access team is taking. In their latest snapshot build, they are introducing an interaction model that is remotely similar to what blind Mac users have come to know and appreciate from Apple’s VoiceOver screen reader. What you do is this:

  1. You load a web page that contains Flash content. For example, take any YouTube video.
  2. You navigate to a spot that says “embedded object clickable” with the normal virtual buffer navigation methods. For easiest access, NVDA provides the quick navigation key o to get to embedded objects.
  3. Press Enter.
  4. What this does is zoom in on the embedded Flash object and give it focus. Now, use Tab and Shift+Tab to navigate around the Flash app. Other keys such as the arrow keys also will perform differently now, for example left and right will scrub through the video on YouTube.
  5. When done, press NVDA+Space to leave the embedded object and zoom out, returning to the parent web page. Your virtual buffer navigation will now function the same way as it did before you zoomed in on the Flash.

One note of caution: I fell into the trap that I thought the content would be rendered in the virtual buffer, as is traditionally done with Windows screen readers. To be honest, I didn’t read the note on this feature before I played with it. 🙂 But if you don’t tab after pressing Enter, you will immediately leave the embedded object and continue navigating with the virtual cursor. This is because Flash does not focus any particular object inside the applet by default when the applet itself gains focus.

When I tried this on YouTube earlier, I had the feeling I had never seen so many details of the YouTube player before! 🙂

One more thing: The above technique will work in Firefox 3.5.x and the latest Minefield nightly builds, and it will also work in the 3.6b1 that’ll be available some time soon, but is not going to work in the 3.6alpha release we issued beginning of September, due to a regression that only recently got fixed in the 3.6 codebase.

With this new, in my opinion more user-friendly approach to accessing Flash content and Java applets, making sure your Flash or Java applets are accessible is becoming even more important than it already is, since blind users will be able to interact with applets more seamlessly than before.

And while we’re at it, the better support in NVDA for Flash should also be an incentive to Adobe to make Flash accessible on other platforms such as Linux and Mac. For the Mac, have a petition to Adobe for making Flash accessible on the Mac. If you haven’t already done so, I encourage you to show your support by signing that petition!

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