Testing websites with the WebAnywhere screen-reader

Written By: Peter Abrahams
Content Copyright © 2009 Bloor. All Rights Reserved.
Also posted on: Accessibility

When I was at recent conference I was asked how website designers can check their websites using a screen-reader. The concern was that to provide a commercially available screen-reader to all the developers would be prohibitively expensive.

I have just found a solution to this question. WebAnywhere is intended to enable a blind person to access the web from any computer that has a sound card. The user first accesses a special website that provides text-to-speech and the basic controls of a screen reader and through this site they access the website they are interested in. The system provides the necessary controls for navigating a page, such as skip to next heading, and the controls to start and stop the reading of the page.

I have tried it on a number of websites both accessibility friendly and less friendly. I very quickly picked up problems such as links without any text connected to them; the screen reader just said “link, link, link,…” Which would be very frustrating to a user who is dependent on the screen reader. The experience also emphasised to me the importance of headings to enable the user to navigate around the page, and ‘Skip to content’ functions; having to listen to a lot of verbiage before getting to the content of the page is very time consuming and disheartening.

The system was developed by Jeffrey Bigham and run by the University of Washington in Seattle. At present it is freely available to anyone who wishes to use it; just go to the website http://webanywhere.cs.washington.edu/wa.php and follow the instructions.

Using it to test the accessibility of a website seems to me to be a valid use of the system and I will be using it as one of the tools in my testing armoury. However, it would be a shame if the system was overwhelmed by testers. I would, therefore, recommend that it is used for initial light testing by individual developers and for training of web developers; but that any intensive testing is done with a commercial in-house screen-reader such as JAWS WindowEyes or Thunder.

Try it out and see how it improves your website.