The current state of accessible Firefox on the Mac, your help is appreciated!

I’ve been asked time and time again about what the current state is of the possibility of an accessible Firefox on the Mac that interacts with the VoiceOver screen reader. Well, let me recap what the current affair is.

First of all, the bad news is that getting the remaining quirks out of Mac accessibility is not going to happen this or next quarters.

The main reason is that our code currently needs to be made ready for future enhancements. Our recent work on the IAccessibleTable2 interface showed us that painfully: The refactoring and reorganization needed took much longer than we had estimated and required us to touch much more code than we had hoped. We also have some nasty event firing problems that have been a pain in the neck for those ATs supporting us that we desperately need to attack these now.

However, the good news is that since early May, the accessibility unit tests (Mochitests) have been running mostly successfully on the Mac on both the mozilla-central and mozilla-1.9.2 branch tinderboxes. Those tests had been running successfully on Windows and Linux since December already. They’ve been intermittently showing some flakiness (what we call random orange) in especially the events area, which is what we’ll be working on in the immediate future anyway, but otherwise been quite stable.

On top of that, at least investigating and driving the Mac accessibility effort forward has been sort of a pet project of mine all the while, even though Mac a11y is no longer part of our team’s official goal set for this year.

What I’ve been doing is build Mac builds with accessibility enabled on my MacBook and test them whenever I had some cycles. On Mac OS X 10.5 (Leopard), VoiceOver and the Firefox builds played terribly together, with lots of sluggishness and delayed responses that made it impossible to get any really useful testing done.

This, however, has changed with Snow Leopard. Without consciously changing things on our end, a build done under Snow Leopard is much more responsive with VoiceOver. We’re nowhere near the good performance blind people have come to appreciate from Safari yet, but we’re doing much better now. Whether it’s the improved VoiceOver or the fact that we’re now building against the MacOS10.5 SDK, or both, I don’t know.

The following are what I’d consider the most pressing issues before we could even think about sending this off to a bunch of voluntary testers:

  • VoiceOver is not speaking most accessible roles of UI and web page elements. Strangely enough, when pressing a button, it will say “Press button” and the like.
  • VoiceOver skips over plain text on pages, and the text is also not visible in VoiceOver’s Obbject Chooser menu.
  • Other inconsistencies having to do with roles like VoiceOver not recognizing our HTML area as such and not automatically starting to read pages etc.
  • Performance problems: Right now, navigating from one element to the next takes about half a second, which is unacceptable.

And this is where you might be able to help us! Are you a developer who is fluent in Objective-C, and (as a bonus) versed in Apple’s accessibility APIs? We could use your voluntary help in trying to nail this down!

So if you’d like to help improve Firefox on the Mac and have an idea about what might be going on here, go grab the source and build it! In order for accessibility to be turned on, in addition to all the stuff you need to put into your MOZCONFIG file, you need to add the following line:

ac_add_options --enable-accessibility

With this exception, commence as described in our docs.

Once you’ve got Firefox built, you can press CMD+F5 to turn on VoiceOver. A friendly male voice named Alex will start talking to you immediately and give you feedback on your actions through your Mac’s speakers. CMD+F5 is a toggle, so the same keystroke will turn VoiceOver off and leave no trace of it having been active.

Once VoiceOver is running, the following is a list of hot keys that can be used to navigate. Note that VO refers to the VoiceOver modifier, which is both Ctrl and Option held down.

Key Description
VO+Arrows Navigate in all 4 directions. Left and Right from item to item sequentially.
VO+Shift+DownArrow Interact with the currently spoken item. Interacting is examining an item in more detail. For example, interacting with a table will expose the individual cells to VoiceOver and restrict navigation inside this container.
VO+Shift+UpArrow Stop interacting and return to the parent level of navigation.
VO+Space Press or activate the current item. This will perform the default action, which is usually identical to clicking the mouse.

More information is available on Apple’s accessibility site. A Key commands chart (PDF) will give you more keystrokes, and the linked-to bugs above will give exact steps to repro the bugs themselves.

Since Firefox is not a native COCOA application on the Mac in the sense that we implement all our UI elements ourselves, we have to expose the whole accessibility contract and are obviously doing some things wrong there. The initial work that was done was done by a Mozilla Foundation grantee back in 2006, but this project was never finished and the project had been in limbo since then.

If you are willing to help, feel free to connect with me through e-mail (available from my About page) or via IRC on the #accessibility channel. I’ll be glad to assist with getting involved. The accessibility team definitely would appreciate it, and so would many community members I’m sure!

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