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Feed Readers: Not Satisfying the Appetites of Blind Computer Users

AFB Evaluates One of the Hottest Trends in Internet Technology

NEW YORK (October 12, 2005)—Getting news and blog updates through RSS (Really Simple Syndication) feeds is all the rage in the online world. But how easy is it for people with vision loss to use feed reader technology—programs that check for, download, and organize new content, delivered through RSS, from blogs and news sites? According to a new report from the American Foundation for the Blind (AFB) finding accessible RSS readers can be challenging for computer users with vision loss.

"The blogosphere is still foreign to many web users, but it can be particularly confusing for blind computer users because several of the blogging sites and tools are inaccessible," said Jay Leventhal, editor of AccessWorld®, AFB's online technology magazine. "AFB hopes to help people with vision loss navigate this world with ease by identifying screen reader friendly services and by working with bloggers and technology companies to ensure their sites can be used by everyone."

Using a JAWS screen reader—an assistive technology product that reads the text and images on a computer screen—AFB evaluated five popular RSS readers: Bloglines, Feedster, Newsgator, FeedDemon and My Yahoo!.

Of the five sites reviewed, AFB found Bloglines and NewsGator to be the most screen reader-friendly.

Overall, AFB found the Bloglines interface intuitive and the site well labeled and screen reader-friendly. Users can create an account without encountering a captcha—those abstract renderings of random characters that ask users to retype the word they see (these images make it impossible for blind computer users to sign up for user accounts because captcha images cannot be read by screen readers). Bloglines also makes it easy to manage account preferences and set up personal blogs without sighted assistance. What's more is the site's feed reader software called the "Notifier" allows users to activate an auditory alarm that indicates when new content has been received.

In addition, AFB also found NewsGator to be usable for people with vision loss. The service provides a simple and easy-to-understand interface, with brief explanations of site features when they are implemented for the first time. Signing up for an account is also accessible and like Bloglines, the service does not require users to confront a captcha.

While Evaluating the Five Feed Reader Services, AFB Encountered the Following Accessibility Problems:

  1. The most serious accessibility issue around blog-hosting services was the inability to create user accounts. This is due to automated pictorial verification—also known as a captcha or the "vision test."
  2. There is a lack of comprehensive how-to information aimed at novice bloggers and most tutorials assume users are able to access and see the instructional diagrams, applications, and web pages.
  3. RSS readers are often difficult to work with. Some of the more serious problems included inaccessible installation procedures, menu bars that were difficult to navigate, and the inability to view the list of a user's own subscriptions.
  4. On almost all the sites, evaluators found improperly labeled links, radio buttons, and edit fields; inaccessible combo-boxes; automatically scrolling lists of links; or a non-intuitive interface. All of these things make it difficult for screen reader users to navigate a web site.

The good news is that making a web site accessible is easy. With a few simple changes in web page design—like properly labeling forms when building web interfaces and providing descriptive alt text for graphics—it is possible to make these Internet tools user-friendly to the millions of computer users with vision loss worldwide.

For a full copy of AFB's report on RSS, visit http://www.afb.org/RSSeval.asp.

For tips on how to make blogs and web sites accessible to people with vision loss, visit http://www.afb.org/blogtips.asp.

For a copy of AFB's May 2005 report on the accessibility of blogging, visit http://www.afb.org/blogeval.asp.

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Contact:
Adrianna Montague-Gray
AFB Communications
212-502-7675
amontaguegray@afb.net

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