How to: Add image descriptions to pictures you tweet

On March 29, 2016, Twitter announced that description of images is now available when tweeting photos. This helps first and foremost the blind and visually impaired who cannot see images, but may also help people with certain cognitive disabilities who cannot interpret photos, but can make use of descriptions. Here’s how describing your tweeted images works! Continue reading “How to: Add image descriptions to pictures you tweet”

Social networks and accessibility: A not so sad picture

This post originally was written in December 2011 and had a slightly different title. Fortunately, the landscape has changed dramatically since then, so it is finally time to update it with more up to date information.

Social networks are part of many people’s lives nowadays. In fact if you’re reading this, chances are pretty high that you came from Twitter, Facebook or some other social network. The majority of referrers to my blog posts come from social networks nowadays, those who read me via an RSS feed seem to be getting less and less.

So let’s look at some of the well-known social networks and see what their state of accessibility is nowadays, both when considering the web interface as well as the native apps for mobile devices most of them have.

In recent years, several popular social networks moved from a fixed relaunch schedule of their services to a more agile, incremental development cycle.. Also, most, if not all, social network providers we’ll look at below have added personell dedicated to either implementing or training other engineers in accessibility skills. Those efforts show great results. There is over-all less breakage of accessibility features, and if something breaks, the teams are usually very quick to react to reports, and the broken feature is fixed in a near future update. So let’s have a look!

Twitter

Twitter has come a long way since I wrote the initial version of this post. New Twitter was here to stay, but ever since a very skilled engineer boarded the ship, a huge improvement has taken place. One can nowadays use Twitter with keyboard shortcuts to navigate tweets, reply, favorite, retweet and do all sorts of other actions. Screen reader users might want to try turning off their virtual buffers and really use the web site like a desktop app. It works really quite well! I also recommend taking a look at the keyboard shortcut list, and memorizing them when you use Twitter more regularly. You’ll be much much more productive! I wrote something more about the Twitter accessibility team in 2013.

Clients

Fortunately, there are a lot of accessible clients out there that allow access to Twitter. The Twitter app for iOS is very accessible now for both iPhone and iPad. The Android client is very accessible, too. Yes, there is the occasional breakage of a feature, but as stated above, the team is very good at reacting to bug reports and fixing them. Twitter releases updates very frequently now, so one doesn’t have to wait long for a fix.

There’s also a web client called Easy Chirp (formerly Accessible Twitter) by Mr. Web Axe Dennis Lembree. It’s now in incarnation 2. This one is marvellous, it offers all the features one would expect from a Twitter client, in your browser, and it’s all accessible to people with varying disabilities! It uses all the good modern web standard stuff like WAI-ARIA to make sure even advanced interaction is done accessibly. I even know many non-disabled people using it for its straight forward interface and simplicity. One cool feature it has is that you can post images and provide an alternative description for visually impaired readers, without having to spoil the tweet where the picture might be the punch line. You just provide the alternative description in an extra field, and when the link to the picture is opened, the description is provided right there. How fantastic is that!

For iOS, there are two more Apps I usually recommend to people. For the iPhone, my Twitter client of choice was, for a long time, TweetList Pro, an advanced Twitter client that has full VoiceOver support, and they’re not even too shy to say it in their app description! They have such things as muting users, hash tags or clients, making it THE Twitter client of choice for many for all intents and purposes. The reason why I no longer use it as my main Twitter client is the steep decline of updates. It’s now February 2015, and as far as I know, it hasn’t even been updated to iOS 8 yet. The last update was some time in October 2013, so it lags behind terribly in recent Twitter API support changes, doesn’t support the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus screens natively, etc.

Another one, which I use on the iPhone and iPad, is Twitterrific by The Icon Factory. Their iPhone and iPad app is fully accessible, the Mac version, on the other hand, is totally inaccessible and outdated. On the Mac, I use the client Yorufukurou (night owl).

Oh yes and if you’re blind and on Windows, there are two main clients available, TheQube, and Chicken Nugget. TheQube is designed specifically for the blind with hardly any visual UI, and it requires a screen reader or at least installed speech synthesizer to talk. Chicken Nugget can be run in UI or non-UI mode, and in non-UI mode, definitely also requires a screen reader to run. Both are updated frequently, so it’s a matter of taste which one you choose.

In short, for Twitter, there is a range of clients, one of which, the EasyChirp web application, is truly cross-platform and useable anywhere, others are for specific platforms. But you have accessible means to get to Twitter services without having to use their web site.

Facebook

Facebook has come a long long way since my original post as well. When I wrote about the web site originally, it had just relaunched and completely broken accessibility. I’m happy to report that nowadays, the FB desktop and mobile sites both are largely accessible, and Facebook also has a dedicated team that responds to bug reports quickly. They also have a training program in place where they teach other Facebook engineers the skills to make new features accessible and keep existing ones that way when they get updated. I wrote more about the Facebook accessibility changes here, and things constantly got better since then.

Clients

Like the web interfaces, the iOS and Android clients for Facebook and Messenger have come a long way and frequently receive updates to fix remaining accessibility problems. Yes, here too, there’s the occasional breakage, but the team is very responsive to bug reports in this area, too, and since FB updates their apps on a two week basis, sometimes even more often if critical issues are discovered, waiting for fixes usually doesn’t take long. If you’re doing messaging on the desktop, you can also integrate FaceBook Messenger/Chat with Skype, which is very accessible on both Mac and Windows. Some features like group chats are, however, reserved for the Messenger clients and web interface.

Google Plus

Google Plus anyone? 🙂 It was THE most hyped thing of the summer of 2011, and as fast as summer went, so did people lose interest in it. Even Google seem to slowly but surely abandon it, cutting back on the requirement to have a Google+ account for certain activities bit by bit. But in terms of accessibility, it is actually quite OK nowadays. As with many of their widgets, Google+ profits from them reusing components that were found in Gmail and elsewhere, giving both keyboard accessibility and screen reader information exposure. Their Android app is also quite accessible from the last time I tried it in the summer of 2014. Their iOS app still seems to be in pretty bad shape, which is surprising considering how well Gmail, Hangouts, and even the Google Docs apps work nowadays. I don’t use it much, even though I recreated an account some time in 2013. But whenever I happen to stumble in, I’m not as dismayed as I was when I wrote the original version of this post.

Yammer

Yammer is an enterprise social network we at Mozilla and in a lot of other companies use for some internal communication. It was bought by Microsoft some time in 2012, and since then, a lot of its accessibility issues have been fixed. When you tweet them, you usually get a response pointing to a bug entry form, and issues are dealt with  satisfactorily.

iOS client

The iOS client is updated quite frequently. It has problems on and off, but the experience got more stable in recent versions, so one can actually use it.

identi.ca

identi.ca from Status.net is a microblogging service similar to Twitter. And unlike Twitter, it’s accessible out of the box! This is good since it does not have a wealth of clients supporting it like Twitter does, so with its own interface being accessible right away, this is a big help! It is, btw, the only open-source social network in these tests. Mean anything? Probably!

Conclusion

All social networks I tested either made significant improvements over the last three years, or they remained accessible (in the case of the last candidate).

In looking for reasons why this is, there are two that come to mind immediately. For one, the introduction of skilled and dedicated personell versed in accessibility matters, or willing to dive in deep and really get the hang of it. These big companies finally understood the social responsibility they have when providing a social network, and leveraged the fact that there is a wealth of information out there on accessible web design. And there’s a community that is willing to help if pinged!

Another reason is that these companies realized that putting in accessibility up-front, making inclusive design decisions, and increasing the test coverage to include accessibility right away not only reduces the cost as opposed to making it bolt-on, but also helps to make a better product for everybody.

A suggestion remains: Look at what others are doing! Learn from them! Don’t be shy to ask questions! If you look at what others! have been doing, you can draw from it! They’ll do that with stuff you put out there, too! And don’t be shy to talk about the good things you do! The Facebook accessibility team does this in monthly updates where they highlight stuff they fixed in the various product lines. I’ve seen signs of that from Twitter engineers, but not as consistent as with Facebook. Talking about the successes in accessibility also serves as an encouragement to others to put inclusive design patterns in their work flows.

WAI-ARIA for screen reader users: An overview of things you can find in some mainstream web apps today

After my recent post about WAI-ARIA, which was mostly geared towards web developers, I was approached by more than one person on Twitter and elsewhere suggesting I’d do a blog post on what it means for screen reader users.

Well, I’ve got news for all my blind and visually impaired readers: You’re not getting one blog post, you’re getting a whole series instead! 🙂

This blog post will kick it off, and I will cover some general uses where you will find that WAI-ARIA improves your user experience. These examples are most useful when using modern screen reader/browser combinations, as is the case with most web stuff today anyway. So if you’re using NVDA or JAWS on Windows, Orca on Linux, or VoiceOver on the Mac, most, if not all, example uses below should work for you in one way or another. Browsers on Windows are Firefox and Internet Explorer, on Linux it’s also Firefox, and on OS X most likely Safari. Chrome and ChromeVox may or may not work in a similar way, but I’ll leave that to those using that combination to test it.

Some WAI-ARIA basics

WAI-ARIA stands for Web Accessibility Initiative – Accessible Rich Internet Applications. It is a World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) standard. It allows web authors to tell assistive technologies that certain constructs of HTML markup — the stuff that makes up web pages — mean something that is not actually available in normal HTML, but maps to some desktop control that users are probably familiar with.

WAI-ARIA has three pillars: Roles, States and Properties, and Live Regions. I will briefly cover each of them below, but not extensively, since this is mostly for end users.

Roles

Roles tell the screen reader that a particular element of a web page is actually meant to be something else. For example, if assigning a role of “button” to a fancy looking clickable element made up of one or more generic HTML elements, screen readers will simply read it as a button in virtual buffer. If the author did a good job of providing keyboard accessibility, you can even tab to it and press Space to activate. All examples below do that.

Roles are oriented along known control types from the desktop. Using WAI-ARIA, you can mark up even fancy stuff like whole tree views, similar to what the folder tree in Windows Explorer is. In a later article, we’ll see such a tree view in action.

States and Properties

States and Properties tell the screen reader something more about a particular control than normal HTML can. For example, even in older web pages, they can tell the screen reader that a field is required or invalid. They can tell whether a button opens a popup or sub menu, if something has an auto-complete, if a fancy checkbox is checked or not, etc. We’ll see a lot of these in action in this and other articles.

Live Regions

Live Regions allow the web author to make the screen reader tell the user about some dynamic updates. For example, a live region can be used to make the screen reader say information like “auto-complete results are available”, or “Your message has been sent successfully”. Status information that is good to know at a particular moment, but not important enough to stick around for long, or even be exposed in a dialog form.

Live regions can be either polite, meaning they speak once your screen reader has finished speaking what it’s currently speaking, or assertive, meaning they will interrupt whatever the screen reader is currently speaking, to immediately make you aware of a certain status change.

OK, now that we’ve got these pillars of WAI-ARIA laid out a bit, let’s get started looking at some examples! it is important that you have JavaScript in your browser turned on. Yes: On, not off! Modern web apps live only because of JavaScript, and turning it off nowadays is like cutting off an arm or foot, it will leave you mostly immobilized on most modern web sites. So throw away those old beliefs that javaScript is no good for accessibility, and turn it back on or uninstall that NoJS add-on you’ve been keeping around!

Each of the below examples will open in a new tab or window on purpose, so you can play around with them a bit and return to the article when you’re done.

Twitter

Twitter got a huge accessibility boast over the last year to a year and a half. Twitter even has a dedicated accessibility team now making sure their web site and mobile apps are becoming more accessible, and stay that way.

When you open Twitter and log in — assuming you have an account –, you can do several things to try out its accessibility.

First, focus on the Tweet Text edit field and invoke focus or forms mode, or whatever that mode is called in your preferred screen reader. Even that alone will give you several bits of information. It will tell you that the edit field is collapsed, that it has a sub menu, that it has an auto-complete, and that it is multi-line. The bits about having a sub menu and being collapsed are coming from WAI-ARIA markup. The other info could be encountered in just any multi-line edit field on the web.

Next, start typing some text. Notice that on occasion, Twitter will speak numbers as the number of available characters that you have left in the tweet decreases. Twitter has a limit of 140 characters per tweet.

Now, let’s add a user name. Type the @ sign. My Twitter handle is MarcoInEnglish (in one word, capitalization is not important). So after the @ sign, type the letter m. If you’re following me, at least one result should come up. The first thing you’ll hear now is that the edit field changes state from “collapsed” to “expanded”. After a moment, depending on your internet connection, you will also hear something like “3 results available” (number may vary). This means that Twitter has found matching handles that start with, or contain, the letter m.

Now, press DownArrow. You will now hear that you are in a list, that a certain list item is selected and what it contains, and that it’s item 1 of 3 (or whichever number of results are being displayed). All this is WAI-ARIA magic. You can press Up and Down to select an entry, Tab or Enter to insert that into your tweet, or Escape to dismiss the AutoComplete and return focus to the edit field without inserting anything, and resume typing.

If you decided to press Enter or Tab, you’ll hear that focus returns to the edit field, and that it is now collapsed again. Your cursor is positioned after the Twitter handle you just inserted, and a space has been added for you so you can continue typing uninterrupted.

Next, let’s look at something else on the Twitter page. Press Escape or whichever hotkey gets you out of forms or focus mode back into browse mode/virtual cursor mode. Find the heading level 2 that says “Tweets”, then DownArrow to the first tweet. After the tweet text and possible links, you’ll find a list of 4 items. The first three items are normal buttons named Reply, Retweet and Favorite. The fourth, however, is a menu button that has a sub menu. Screen readers will announce it as such. Press it. Focus will now shift to a menu, and you have 3 items: Share via E-Mail, Embed, and Report. These are announced as menu items within a menu. Press Escape to dismiss this menu without selecting anything.

These are also WAI-ARIA menus. Menu items, or menu buttons with attached sub menus are normally not available in HTML. However, through WAI-ARIA markup and some focus/keyboard handling via JavaScript, these widgets can be made fully keyboard accessible and expose all relevant information to screen readers, including menus.

Want to get even more app-like? If you’re on Windows, which probably most of you are, turn off your virtual cursor. With NVDA, you do this by pressing NVDA+SpaceBar. JAWS’s shortcut is Insert+Z. You may have to press it twice to also prevent JAWS from reinvoking virtual PC cursor when a new page loads. Once you’ve turned off your browse mode or virtual cursor, start pressing J and K (yes, the letters) to move through tweets. You’re now moving the actual keyboard focus, and through WAI-ARIA labeling, and some live regions on occasion, you are getting a fully accessible experience. Press your Question Mark key to hear which other keyboard shortcuts you have available. You can reply, favorite, retweet tweets, expand conversations and jump to the new tweets that might, in the meantime, have been added while you were browsing your timeline. You can also quickly jump to the compose edit we were in earlier, to write a new fresh tweet. In essence, you might hardly ever need virtual cursor at all on Twitter, because the app-like experience is so good!

On Mac OS X, you don’t even have to worry about switching modes, because there is no virtual cursor, and you can use those Twitter shortcuts right away. In fact, this might be a much more efficient way to navigate the Twitter experience than the VoiceOver commands for web browsing.

All the while, keyboard focus will make sure that pressing Tab will actually move into the tweet you’re currently reading.

Facebook

Facebook has made similar advancements in making their regular web presence more accessible in the last 18 to 24 months. If you log in with your Facebook account and start exploring from the top, you’ll immediately encounter a few menu buttons that have popups attached to them. These are the Friend Requests, Messages, and Notifications buttons. If you have the newest design, the Privacy and Account Settings buttons will also be there.

A bit further below, you will find the Search field. It is announced as a combo edit field, one of those edits that you can either type in or choose from a list. Focus it, and start typing, for example the name of the Facebook Accessibility page. You will automatically hear announcements as results become available. Like you would expect, you can arrow up and down through the results, and if you found the one you were looking for, press Enter to go to that page.

But let’s stay on the main page for now, and find the edit field that alllows you to post a status update. This is not only a normal edit field. It, too, has the possibility to auto-complete names or locations as you type them. If you start typing the name of a friend, a list will pop up that allows you to select from the available auto-complete results, and press Tab to insert that name into the text field, including tagging that person once you post the status update. Unlike we’ve seen on Twitter, the list comes up automatically, but you can continue typing without the danger of selecting something. You will only insert a search result via the Tab key.

Again, listen to what your screen reader tells you about the results, the list items, etc. Also, the widget to post a status update has a few buttons at the top that allow you to switch whether you’re posting a news item, a photo or video. These are called toggle buttons. They are a bit similar to radio buttons, but because they will immediately perform an action once you press them, they’re buttons. Radio buttons normally only change a selection, but don’t cause whole widget environments to change. You will hear the announcement that one, by default the Story item, is pressed, meaning this is the button that is currently active. An analogous construct could be in your word processing toolbar where you have Left, Center, Right, and Justified buttons. Only one of them can be active — or pressed — at a particular time. If one is pressed, the pressed state of another goes away. Same here in this Facebook widget.

All of this is, again, WAI-ARIA. In earlier years, you would not have known which item was the active one, or that these were toggle buttons at all. The auto-complete results would not have spoken as such, either.

There’s one more thing I would like you to try: Find a friend who will be your guineapig and send them a private message. After you send it, leave your focus in the edit field and wait for their reply. Ideally, you’d choose a friend who is currently showing as online. Once she or he replies, you should automatically hear the message and can start replying right away. This is again a live region at work. Once new messages come in, even those that you just sent, they’ll be read out aloud.

Microsoft OneDrive and Office Online

Microsoft also has made some great strides in making their online services more accessible. Their cloud storage is called OneDrive, and it is a web frontend to the files and folders you have stored in their cloud.

If you have an account at Microsoft OneDrive, log in and look at the list that is available on that page. It will list all your files and folders. Here, you can see a not yet fully complete implementation (as of this writing) of WAI-ARIA. For one, the list items are in multiple columns, so you can not only use up and down, but also left and right to move to items. Second, when pressing Enter, screen readers are not yet notified of changes. You have to press an arrow key again to hear that the contents has actually changed. Now, select a file, and press the context menu key. This is also called the windows key and is located to the left of the right control key on most keyboards. You should now hear a context menu open, and when you press up and down, you should hear the selected menu item. Yes, you should, but you won’t. 🙂 Because this is currently still a bug in the implementation. The context menu appears, you can move up and down, but the newly focused item is not yet being communicated to screen readers. Yup, it’s a bug, and I let Microsoft know about it when I found it just now. 🙂

As a workaround, you can turn virtual mode back on manually (NVDA+Space or for JAWS the NUMPAD PLUS key), move to the end of the virtual document, and find the menu items there. Arrow to the one you want and press Enter to select and activate it.

The Word document, if you selected one, will now open in Office Online. I wrote a more detailed review of Office Online already, so I strongly suggest you read that for an in-depth look at what Word in the browser has to offer! And it’s all done through a combination of modern web technologies, including WAI-ARIA. The tool bars and ribbons etc. are all rich internet application stuff.

More goodies are coming

The use of WAI-ARIA is spreading. Since many web sites use re-usable components such as jQueryUI and others nowadays, making these accessible will bring better accessibility to many web sites automatically. Other components, such as the TinyMCE and CKEditor rich web editors, have also made great strides in accessibility in the last year or two, and sites using these will get that accessibility for free. If you have a WordPress blog on version 3.9, try using the visual editor for a change, and from the edit area, press Alt+F10, for example! 🙂

Sometimes, as shown in the Microsoft OneDrive case above, things may not be fully implemented yet. Yes, these things can happen, and they happened on the desktop before, too. The best is to provide constructive feedback to the site owners and point out where the problems lie exactly. That way, they can be fixed most easily.

In the next few blog posts on this series, I will take an in-depth look at Google apps like GMail, Contacts and calendar, Google Drive, Docs, Sheets and Slides, etc. These have become more and more important in many work as well as educational environments, and Google has made great progress in the last 6 to 9 months alone making their offerings much more accessible than they were before. Their documentation is also generally pretty good, but I’d like to provide my own perspective nevertheless, and provide a few tips and tricks and point out possible caveats. So stay tuned!

I hope this article helped you get a bit of a glimpse into what WAI-ARIA is and what good it can do for you as a blind or visually impaired user when used properly. More and more web sites, components and companies are using it.

And if anyone tries to tell you that WAI-ARIA is not important or its importance is greatly overstated, ask them if they can do what you can do, without using WAI-ARIA, and without offering any 3rd party app, just the web browser and assistive technology. WAI-ARIA is important, and it is being enhanced to provide even richer and more accessible experiences in the future. More and more apps are moving to a web-based user interface for both desktop and mobile operating systems, and it is important to have a technology that can make these rich applications as accessible as their native counterparts or legacy offerings. The technology is there, it’s working, so let’s use it!

So keep your JavaScript turned on, fear not, and embrace the future of web apps!