Rebecca Jackson, an experienced screen reader user and advocate for web accessibility From May 28 to June 3, it’s National AccessAbility Week, which is dedicated to celebrating disability inclusion and accessibility in Canada! In today’s digital age, the importance of web accessibility cannot be overstated. As we strive for inclusivity, it becomes imperative to understand the experiences of those who rely on assistive technology to navigate the online world. We had the opportunity to interview, Rebecca Jackson, a Carleton University alumnus with a background in Psychology and Disability Studies. Currently serving as a Contract Technology Trainer at the Paul Menton Centre, Rebecca has been using screen readers (Jaws, NVDA, and VoiceOver) for over 16 years. Screen readers enable individuals with visual impairments to navigate and interact with digital content. Through our discussion, Rebecca shares her invaluable insights on screen reader usage and the importance of creating web content that is accessible to all.

Insights from an Experienced Screen Reader User

Can you describe the process you use to navigate web pages with your screen reader (with regards to text, images, tables and links)?

When using Jaws or NVDA, I use the arrow keys to read by line of text. I can also use control with left and right arrows to navigate by word, or left and right arrow keys to navigate by letter if I want to double-check the spelling of the word. I also have a braille display which I sometimes use to read text. When navigating images, I rely on alternative text to tell me what is in the image. Some screen readers have a feature where they can describe an image. I press t to navigate to a table and using NVDA or Jaws, I use control alt and arrow keys to navigate. Tables are easier to navigate if column and row headers are labeled, as they are spoken by screen readers. Descriptions or table summaries are helpful if there is a lot of information in the table.

How do you typically search for information on a website using a screen reader?

I search for information in a few different ways. I use headings to easily skim a webpage for information. If there is a place to search for information on a website I will use that. Titles of links are also very important, as they might provide clues to search for information. The easiest websites to navigate are ones with good page structure. Headings and landmarks can help with this.

Have you encountered any accessibility issues with websites in the past? If so, can you describe the issue?

There is some content that is more of a challenge to access with a screen reader. Complex charts and tables can present issues if they do not include a summary of the content. I have noticed this can be an issue in academic articles from time to time. Lack of alt text for images can be a particularly difficult issue and is encountered on things like social media and shopping websites. Captchas can sometimes create issues if there is no audio challenge for them.

Have you found that certain types of content are more difficult to access with a screen reader than others? If so, can you give an example?

I have encountered accessibility issues with websites. Many websites do not put alt text on their images, meaning that I don’t know what the image depicts. Another common issue is unlabeled elements such as links, buttons, or form controls. When there is no label for the element the screen reader will say “button” or “link” and so you don’t know what you’re clicking on. Another issue is the use of slideshows on websites that cannot be paused. This causes the screen reader to continue reading the content of the slideshow while navigating. In more recent years there has been a trend towards using accessibility overlays on websites. You might see a “screen reader” mode or something like that. I often find these can create problems, as they sometimes lead to accessibility issues. I recently encountered a website with this mode and was unable to press a button even though it was correctly read. 

Can you describe any strategies you use to ensure that you’re getting all the information you need from a web page using your screen reader?

I use a few strategies to ensure that I get the most information that I can from a web page. If the page structure is not very good e.g. no headings, I will rely on the title of links instead. If there aren’t very many links, I use the find feature to look for a particular word. If images have no alt text, I will use OCR or an app that connects me with visual assistance.

Are there any features or functionality on websites that you’ve found to be particularly helpful or useful when using a screen reader?

Skip to content links are helpful on websites where there is a lot going on. They make it more efficient to navigate right to the content that is most important.

How do you feel about the current state of web accessibility for screen reader users?

Websites have become more accessible overall, however there is still a lot of work to be done.

Do you have any suggestions for web editors on how they can make their sites more accessible for screen reader users?

Web editors can use headings and landmarks to make websites more efficient to navigate. Describing the purpose of a link and having clear links for names is also helpful for finding information. If using a captcha, make sure there is an audio alternative. Make sure that all images have alt text that is concise. Make sure to label form elements like checkboxes and buttons. If ever you are unsure if a website is accessible, consult with various users including screen reader users.

Demonstration of Screen Reader Usage

As part of our news story, Rebecca kindly provided a brief demonstration of screen reader functionality, allowing us to witness firsthand how screen readers empower navigation through web pages. Rebecca showcased her experience in accessing various elements such as images, tables, and links, highlighting both positive and challenging examples. This demonstration provides a glimpse into the experience that screen reader users encounter while navigating digital content.

Advocating for Accessibility at Carleton

Through our interview with Rebecca Jackson, we gained invaluable insights into the world of screen readers and the challenges faced by users. Their expertise shines a light on the significance of inclusivity, and we hope this encourages website editors at Carleton University to prioritize accessibility when creating digital content. Implementing accessible practices not only supports individuals with visual impairments but also benefits everyone!

National AccessAbility Week is a perfect time to put the spotlight on accessibility and inclusion in Canada. Join the conversation by following and sharing posts from @AccessibleGC on Twitter and from Accessible Canada on Facebook. Remember to use the hashtags #NAAW2023 and #FromPossibilitiesToPractice when referencing the week in social media posts!

Resources for Creating Accessible Web Content

Web Services’ Accessibility Training Workshop: This training is an introduction to web accessibility and its importance. It gives a brief overview of the relation between disability and accessibility, as well as approaches to accessibility strategy, regulations, and guidelines. Topics include making text, images, tables, and videos accessible. As well, the workshop includes an Accessibility Checklist that you can use to review your website for accessibility.

Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG): The WCAG provides a comprehensive set of guidelines and best practices for creating accessible web content. It covers various aspects, including perceivable, operable, understandable, and robust web design principles.

Screen Reader Documentation and Guides: Each screen reader has its own documentation and user guides. Some popular screen readers include JAWS, NVDA, and VoiceOver. Familiarize yourself with the documentation for the screen reader(s) you want to optimize for, as it will provide insights into the specific functionalities and features available.

Request an Accessibility Scan: Web Services offers an accessibility scanning service. We do this in two ways: we run the website through our scanning application, and we visit a number of pages on your site to physically check items that the software scan cannot. The software we use to scan sites is called PopeTech. You can read more about PopeTech here. It uses the WAVE application from Accessibility in Mind to examine multiple pages at a time.

Don’t forget to stay up-to-date with our accessibility blogposts!