Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Is the AJAX accessibility problem, really a problem?

I've been looking at the issue of AJAX and dynamic content updating, with regards to screen reader users. And my conclusion is, if there is a problem its this: You've got an old version of JAWS? Then upgrade...

End of.

I've heard from many folk reporting to be in the know regarding this issue that "there's no way for the user to know if the content is updated" with panic in their eyes. Well actually it turns out that the issue was with JAWS using a buffer to store the DOM, which only updated after page refreshes and loads. Well that wasn't the best way of doing things, and so they've changed that.

I have good sight, but poor reading skills due to abnormal neurological morphology. My brains a funny shape. Not drastically so, but enough to make reading a pain. Its called dyslexia, and I'm far from alone. 10%+ of the population are effected. I realized something today. I had been missing bits of info updating magically on the screen, through new funky use of newly famed AJAX trickery. But something struck me. I soon learned to look for it. Yes I know many screen reader users can't "look" for it exactly, but the can use their tech to scan for it. And they, like I, will soon learn to do this...

So if the problem is solved, as long as JAWS users upgrade, and users continue to learn to use the evolving tech they're confronted by, then there really isn't such a problem is there?

Or is there?

Please do comment. I'm looking for answers still...


Benjamin Hawkes-Lewis said...

I'm afraid this issue isn't as simple as you're making out:

Problem 1: You can upgrade up to two consecutive versions of JAWS if you're already covered by a Software Maintenance Agreement. But buying such an agreement is expensive, to the tune of $180 for JAWS Standard and $260 for JAWS Professional.

Problem 2: Upgrading to a version of JAWS released before Vista entered the Release Candidate stage and that is not optimized for Internet Explorer 7 is not going to be terribly appealing even to those who can afford it.

Problem 3: What about other screen reading and voice browsing software? Virgo? Window-Eyes? Home Page Reader? HAL? Edbrowse? Orca? Gnopernicus? ZoomText? Opera? VoiceOver? Thunder? This isn't just a JAWS issue. Screen readers are extremely complex software (ever tried one?) and asking someone to switch to a different screen reader is not dissimilar to asking someone to use a new operating system. Oh yeah, and if you go for a commercial screen reader, switching can be even more expensive than upgrading. JAWS Standard will set you back $895.

Problem 4: If we are willing to demand that the more vulnerable members of internet society spend serious money to access our content, why aren't we willing to demand users upgrade to Windows XP ($99 for the Home Edition upgrade off to install Internet Explorer 7? Indeed, we don't even seem willing to require that users switch to free browsers that have better support for and compliance with web standards than Internet Explorer, such as Opera, Konqueror, SeaMonkey, Firefox, and Netscape Browser. Talk about double standards!

Problem 5: W3C's Web Content Accessibility Guidelines explicitly request that we attempt to accommodate those users who "have an early version of a browser, a different browser entirely, a voice browser, or a different operating system". Obviously, even good principles should rarely be taken to extremes. But from an ethical perspective, surely the limit of our compromises on behalf of outdated user agents ought to be what we might reasonably expect users to do (for example, continuing to use the expensive screen reader of their choice), not what will make us the most money (for example, going out of our way to support Internet Explorer 6)?

It would be really useful to have some links to whatever it is you've been reading. Here's a few links for anyone unfamiliar with the issue:

a) W3C: "Dynamic Accessible Web Content Roadmap" (editor's draft, April 2006)

b) Joe Clark, "Build Half a Product: Is Ajax accessible? At all?" (April 2006)

c) James Edwards, "AJAX and Screenreaders: When Can it Work?" (May 2006)

d) Gez Lemon and Steve Faulkner, "Making Ajax Work with Screen Readers" (May 2006)

e) Bruce Lawson, "Ajax, accessibility and assistive technology" (May 2006)

f) Aaron Leventhal, "Firefox: An open source accessibility success story" (October 2006)

g) Mozilla Developer Center: "Accessible DHTML"

PAT said...

Great reply, And my next post will be in response.

Briefly, my main point still stands. That, as web tech eveolves, so must screen readers, AND user habits/knowledge. Be you disabled, dyslexic (seen as a disability) or whatever...

However you've raised enough good points to warrent a full response, which will follow...


vacuum cleaners said...

Benjamin above certainly raises some good points. One of the points, in particular, which I think deserves attention is the costing issue. $895.00 for a new version of JAWS, with everything? Surely they can do better than that. Personally, if others can do it for free, then they could at least do SOME things for free.
As for internet browsers, yes - I think that there are a great many options available. Opera is a very good choice, and I do wonder why it is that people want to make IE7 such a standard when it actually falls short of accessibility bonuses like Opera has. Great points raised from both of you, though.