Social Networking Accessibility
What a charmed life we live here at AccessWorld magazine. Believe it or not, it is actually part of my job to spend time on Facebook. I am sure human resources managers around the world are rolling their eyes at that last sentiment, but as a contributing writer for the magazine, I am obligated to investigate all aspects of new technology, including Facebook.
In my debut article, I discussed how Facebook was a brilliant way to keep in touch with family and friends regardless of geographic location. However, one feature I was unable to use on a consistent basis was Facebook Chat. This instant messaging service allows you to see which of your Facebook friends are online and send them real-time messages. In her March 2009 AccessWorld article, Janet Ingber described the method she used to access the Chat feature. Unfortunately, my head almost exploded and my fingers were twisted into a pretzel after that attempt. Obviously, this is a reflection on the complexity involved in putting a robust application like Chat into Facebook and making it accessible to screen reader users.
However, I recently ran across a press release from AOL. The company had worked with Facebook and their new Chat application programming interface to develop a way to integrate Facebook friends with an AOL buddy list. Now, this was starting to get interesting, because I knew AOL's Instant Messenger (AIM) was known to work very well with screen readers. I had not been keeping up on the latest versions of AIM, so I decided to download a fresh copy, create a username and password, and see if I could really chat with my Facebook friends with ease.
Getting Started with AIM
To get started, I opened up my browser. I use Internet Explorer 8 on a Windows XP laptop with Jaws 11. I am sure you'll have very similar results if you use Firefox or Opera with Window Eyes, System Access, or NonVisual Desktop Access. If you are not using the most recent release of your screen reader, you may want to see if there are any scripts available to improve your experience. For all the Mac users out there, it is my understanding that AIM 2.1 for the Mac is accessible with VoiceOver, but I did not try it for this article.
After navigating to the AIM home page, I selected AIM 7.2, the latest version of the software, and installed it to my hard drive. Don't worry, the download is lightning fast and easy to install. From a conversation I had with an AOL guru, I was advised to use the AIM software and not AIM on the Web to chat with my Facebook friends. I believe AIM on the Web will work, but it is not currently optimized for use with a screen reader and it is recommended that screen reader users stick with the desktop version.
Once I finished the download and installation, I launched the application. I tabbed around the screen until I found the button that allowed me to create a screen name. Tabbing through the form was quite simple, with only a couple of exceptions. After entering and confirming my desired password, I tabbed to the next field. However, my screen reader announced "Month Combo Box." I had to arrow up to discover it was actually the form control to enter in my birthday. Perhaps they want to send me presents? A couple of tabs later, as I left the zip code field, I found myself on a link announced as "audio." I arrowed up to discover that the link was actually for an audio CAPTCHA, one of those ubiquitous tests to make sure I am not a robot. The audio CAPTCHA was quite clear, but it sure was fast. After clicking the link for audio, the focus is placed on a play button. Once the button was pressed, there was a series of beeps followed by a string of numbers and letters. Once I passed the test, I was greeted with a congratulatory message and I proceeded to sign in to begin building my buddy list using my existing Web mail contacts.
Step one is to select the radio button next to the Web mail program from which you want to import your contacts. This could be any one of the popular e-mail programs such as Yahoo!, Gmail, AOL, or Hotmail. Use your screen reader to navigate to the edit fields and fill in your username and password. Click the submit button and within minutes you should be ready to go with a list of contacts from your Web mail account who also have AIM accounts. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that my AIM account was filled with more than fifty of my contacts. I guess I am pretty behind the times when it comes to instant messaging!
Integrating Facebook and AIM
My next step was to link my AIM account with my Facebook account. After opening the AIM Buddy list, I used shift plus tab to move backwards one time until I found the button labeled "Add Buddies to Your Buddy List." The next step was to tap the spacebar and arrow down to the selection for Facebook Chat. This was followed by a number of easy-to-navigate screens where I entered my Facebook username and password. And just like that, all of my Facebook friends appeared in my AIM Buddy list.
What's It Like?
AOL Instant Messenger is one of those programs that can run in the background while you attend to other tasks that, according to my boss, are more important, like work. To access your buddy list, you can find the AIM icon on your desktop or use the Windows key plus the letter B to access the system tray. Once in the system tray and on the AIM button, you can tap enter to pull up your buddy list or use the applications key to see a full list of menu options. AIM should work very well without having to make many changes to the settings, but the multipage dialog box is there if you need it.
I disabled many of the features that are visual in nature as I am the only person who uses my computer. If you are signed into AIM, you will hear lots of sound effects, especially the sounds of opening and closing doors. These effects represent your buddies signing into and out of AIM. When you are back in your buddy list, you will notice you have the option of sorting your buddies into categories such as family or co-workers. As you arrow down the list, your screen reader will announce the group name and you can use left arrow or right arrow to open or close the group.
When you find the Facebook friends group, use the right arrow to open the list and down arrow until you find the person you want to chat with. Hit enter on your keyboard. Your screen reader should repeat the name of the person and let you know if they are available or idle. I am not 100 percent sure what idle is, but my guess would be the person is logged into Facebook but perhaps has set their status to idle. They must be so busy with Facebook that they don't want to chat. As soon as you begin chatting, your screen reader will probably pass along certain information, such as the person's screen name, the time stamp of the message, and the message itself. Additionally, you can check your screen reader's help files for the keystrokes to go back and hear the message history. For a complete list of keyboard shortcuts, you can go to AOL's help center.
What It All Means
I must admit I am starting to develop a mild addiction to instant messaging. For the last several days as I wrote this article, I kept AIM on and was greeted by friends I had not "spoken" with in quite a long time. Sometimes e-mail and telephone calls seem to require quite a lot of energy, whereas instant messaging is spontaneous. I don't recommend instant messenger for every type of communication, but it certainly has its time and place. Next up, I am going to combine all of my social networking streams in the AIM Lifestream. This tab on the AIM interface will allow me to view all of my updates from Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, and more all in one place, and of course it is accessible to people with vision loss.
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