WebAIM has just published the preliminary results of a survey of screen reader users. With over 1,100 respondents — among whom over 1,000 used a screen reader due to a disability — the survey shows promise of revealing an interesting and valuable perspective on the practical usage of screen readers among disabled populations.

Obviously, no survey is perfect — but observing the overall scope of responses can effectively expose some aspects of screen reader usage.

In fact, the preliminary results evidence a number of interesting conclusions. Among the statistics are indications that screen reader and web site evaluators who do not have a disability sometimes have a very disparate idea of what is more accessible than those with disabilities — an issue possibly connected to the evaluator’s lack of sophisticated familiarity with the screen readers.

It’s not altogether surprising that we in the web accessibility industry do not always choose the path which is actually most preferred — our impressions are necessarily biased by our own understanding of the technology, our presumptions of what is sufficient information, and our lack of ability to fully ignore the visual input we do receive.

That’s what makes this survey so particularly valuable: it begins to expose the difference between common misconceptions of what is accessible and those which are truly of benefit.

In the evidence in this study are included indications that disabled users would prefer that photos which are part of a page should be fully identified: as a photograph, and as the object depicted. There are indications that while site maps may be valuable, they are not in fact widely used by disabled users. There are indications that on-site search and navigation by headings are two of the most important navigation methods on a site for the disabled.

And, unsurprisingly, there’s fairly definitive confirmation that Flash is difficult for the disabled to use.

Nonetheless, the conclusions drawn from this information aren’t really that simple. With Flash, for example: the problem with Flash is almost certainly that the Flash web sites visited were not designed with accessibility in mind. Flash can be used accessibly, but in 9 cases out of 10 (a number I’m making up for hyperbolic purposes) it’s been developed with no regard whatsoever for accessibility issues. So the issue is not precisely with Flash — rather, the problem is with Flash developers.

The preliminary observations from this survey are well worth reading; and I’m definitely looking forward to seeing further analysis of the results.

Thank you, WebAIM!