WebAIM Survey on Screen Reader Usage

January 31, 2009

Topics: Accessibility, Web Development.

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!

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11 Comments on “WebAIM Survey on Screen Reader Usage”

  1. Steve morris (webmojo Yorkshire); February 25, 2009 at 9:50 am

    As web designer our first thoughts are not of screen readers , but of the viewing public, But I don’t think its a deliberate action its just a case of not knowing what you don’t know. The industry just needs educating on disability. You should also remember accessible web sites have the added bonus of being quite search engine friendly as a by product,

  2. I have stayed in both US and UK, and relatively I observed that US has stricter laws regarding this than UK. Currently, I am in UK and could feel the difference.

  3. Its the same in the uk, you do anything without planning, they will make you pull it down, regardless of how far you got, or how good it looks.

    However at the moment they only force public buildings (I think) to be have wheelchair access.

    So they wont for now force my fav shops to close. Something I am all for, we have too many big corporations like starbucks, costa, mc donals et al making our high streets clones of each other.

    Big up the little man.

  4. Well, that’s not really quite the way it usually works. When a shop choose to undertake remodeling, they generally need to get their plans approved by a planning agency. The planning agency is responsible for determining whether the plans meet requirements; if they don’t, the planning agency can’t grant permission for the remodeling.

    The specifics of how this work will vary widely — obviously, I know United States laws quite a bit better than their UK equivalents; but generally speaking, a business will already be breaking some other law if they undertake unapproved renovations.

    It’s all very complicated, of course…

  5. Fair point I agree with both of you, but that’s in an ideal world and its far from perfect where I live in London. One of my fav shops in Manchester is the Vinyl exchange, its in a basement with very steep steps, I don’t think its possible to install a ramp or lift. Would the dda shut them down?

    I’m playing devils advocate of course you are right we should strive to make the world a better place.

  6. Is the fact that getting around in a wheelchair is difficult justification for not making it easier?

    There are laws surrounding when a renovation will require accessibility accommodations — there aren’t accessibility cops coming by shop fronts and issuing tickets for inaccessibility. There are, however, inspectors who will check on these issues when a building has been remodeled.

    The same should probably be true of any legislation surrounding web sites: existing flaws will need to be fixed when any changes are made.

    If you can’t get on the bus, or get on the tube, its the equivalent of the brick wall is it not?

    Yes, it is. Are you then saying that we should not require that buses be equipped with wheelchair lifts? If so, I think there’s a fundamental difference in how we approach life and business.

    There are many costs associated with being in business — accommodating the disabled is hardly one of the greatest, especially in the web realm, where most web accessibility is simply not that complicated. It just requires a little understanding of the issues and limitations disabled users are likely to have.

    Let me be blunt: a business is only required to put a lift in place if they are making structural changes to their place of business. If they are willing to spend thousands to remodel their place of business, but are not willing to set part of that aside to accommodate the disabled, then they should not be in business. I have no problem with a business with that attitude being broken.

  7. simon,
    People in wheelchairs are purchasers, just like people who have no access issues, and mothers with children in strollers access businesses that allow for easy access. While installing the ramp or the lift may be expensive, not only is it the right thing to do but it also improves brings more cutomers to the business, and that, it seems to me, is what business is all about.

  8. No not me, most designers. Have you tried to get around london in a wheelchair, its very, very difficult. If you cant get on the bus, or get on the tube, its the equivalent of the brick wall is it not?

    Don’t get me wrong i’m all for accessability but forcing everyone to do it – well I think that’s just wrong.

    Shop metaphor again, if you were a small shop, how could you afford 50K or more to install a lift, it would break you

  9. I think you’ve completely missed the point of designing for accessibility, simon — it’s really not about whether the users will be able to doing things easily. Where that’s an option, we can certainly pursue it, but the pointpossible for the user.

    The problem isn’t that a wheelchair user may have a more difficult time getting up the curb; it’s that you may have dropped a six-foot wall right in front of them, making it impossible for them to move forward.

  10. Most designers don’t care about screen readers at all, I mean positive discrimination is one thing, but just walk down the street, if you use a wheelchair its still hard to get about in the real world, why would it be any different in the virtual world?

  11. Intresting reading .

    I think designers are going to have to take accessibility seriously especially those trading in the european markets as disability laws already there if applied stringently would find a good number of sites on the wrong side of the law.

    It makes good business sence to ensure disabled users can easily use your site – its a no brainer really