Now that Christmas has come and gone and Canadian Boxing Day sales are in full swing, it's time to welcome you all back for the 2017-2018 edition of the Accessible Apple column series, The 12 Requests of Christmas. This is the first post in our annual 12-part series covering the accessibility features we would like to see Apple bring to its products in the coming year. This series is being put together by Accessibility Editor Alex Jurgensen, with the help of several contributors. If you missed our series last year, you can find it here. Alternately, you can check out the 2015 series here.
For the first request of Christmas, we ask Apple to give to us:
1. Easier Web Browsing with VoiceOver
VoiceOver currently includes two main ways to navigate the web. The first and default method uses the order in which the parts of the webpage were included by the website's authors to determine the order in which the contents of webpages are read to the user. To move between parts of the webpage, VoiceOver users use the left and right arrow keys together with the VO Key(s) (Caps-Lock or Control + Option). The second method of navigating the web builds on the first approach but groups similar items, such as navigation bars or the body of an article, into logical groups of related items. To access items within groups, VoiceOver users must first tell VoiceOver they wish to explore a group's elements by using the interaction command (VO Key(s) + Shift + Down Arrow).
The two methods above give usable ways to browse the internet, but there is another way, one that Windows and Linux-based screen readers have used for many years. In Windows and Linux, screen readers by default use the order of the document to provide navigation, much like VoiceOver does by default. However, instead of navigating by breaking the webpage up into items like paragraphs and headings, screen readers in Windows and Linux can treat webpages the same way they do documents, reading each line of a page at each press of the up and down arrow keys. Windows and Linux-based screen readers do still announce headings and paragraphs but also allow their users to enjoy a simplified reading experience that takes a much shorter time to become accustomed to.
Indeed, Apple began work on implementing a mode similar to that described above, but years later, it remains half-baked. For example, lines are read when VoiceOver users press the up or down arrow keys in Safari but important information such as the type of item being navigated, for example a link, is not consistently read out. This means that users can go right past text that is a link to another part of the website without realizing it.
What we would like to see Apple do is to finish the work they already started and bring a third way of accessing the web to VoiceOver. Adding a simplified way of accessing the internet, especially one many people switching from Windows or Linux are familiar with and which carries a smaller learning curve with it, will serve to strengthen VoiceOver as a screen reader and the Mac as an accessible platform. Bringing the technology to iOS would take Apple one step further as the most accessible mainstream tech company. At the same time, we are not saying that VoiceOver's ways of accessing the web are broken or in any way insufficient, it's just that a simpler and more beginner-friendly approach to navigating the web should be an option for new and existing users alike.
Accessible Apple articles take a significant amount of volunteer effort to put together. This year, we ask readers to consider making a donation to support the development of an independent living skills training centre for training Canadians who are blind, partially sighted, and deaf blind in independent living skills such as assistive technology, literacy, independent travel, cooking, etc. These skills are essential and training centres help provide them. More information and donation links can be found here.