Is Blogging Accessible to People with Vision Loss?
The American Foundation for the Blind Answers
From Business Week to The New York Times, everyone's talking about blogging—the online pastime that is impacting both politics and journalism, and providing people with a new way to speak out and connect. But how accessible is this world to blind and low vision computer users? The American Foundation for the Blind (AFB) set out to answer that question by evaluating two blog services: Blogger and Bloglines and four popular web logs: Hacking Netflix, Fastlane General Motors Blog, Micropersuasion, and Blogspotting - Business Week Online.
What AFB found is that each of the six sites included in the evaluation contained at least a few inaccessible elements. The impact for blind computer users ranged from mild inconveniences when navigating a page, to extreme difficulty when trying to decipher content.
Using JAWS for Windows screen reader and an Alva Satellite braille display—two popular assistive technology products that provide access to information on a computer screen—AFB sought to answer two questions:
1. How easy is it for a blind or low vision user to become a blogger?
2. How easy is it for blind or visually impaired users to read others' blogs?
Rather than emphasizing each problem—untagged graphic, unlabeled button, and unusable combo-box—the evaluation focused on whether blind users could independently perform the essential functions associated with each site.
In the case of blogging services, essential functions include the ability of an individual to create their own user account; edit their user profile; compose, read, and lend style to their own blog entries; link the content of their blogs to relevant online material; and review the comments of their readers.
By comparison, the essential functions of topic-specific blogs are up to designer discretion. Examples include the ability to read posts; conduct site searches; submit comments; request content alerts via e-mail, MSN Messenger, or wireless text messages; listen to podcasts; and access RSS feeds. Many topic-specific blogs also provide links to third-party blogging and e-mail services.
Registering to Become a Blogger
In terms of the overall accessibility of blogging services, the majority of the essential functions listed above are impossible to execute without first creating a user account. The most commonly encountered barrier to account creation was the need for the user to complete their registration by "entering the characters seen in the picture." The implications of such instructions for a blind consumer are obvious. In some instances, no registration alternative was provided. When an alternative was made available, the user was either instructed to leave their contact information for a company customer care representative, or they were given the option to have their blog hosted elsewhere.
The most accessible registration process found during the course of the evaluation was on Bloglines and involved the completion of a form (with all entry fields, combo-boxes, and radio buttons properly labeled). The user then received a validation e-mail, which could be read in their preferred e-mail application. The e-mail contained a link, which could be activated from the open e-mail message, or pasted into the user's web browser of choice. Once the user's account had been set up, blogs could be written, edited, and reviewed. It appears that the problems with blog creation exist more in the implementation of visual elements, such as formatting, text attributes, and other stylistic features that lend character to a blog.
Reading Others' Blogs
Reading the blogs of others is much easier than becoming a blogger. All of the topic-specific blogs in the evaluation were predominantly accessible. In every case, it was possible to execute searches, read site content, and submit comments. A challenge with topic-specific blogs is that they tend to contain a voluminous amount of content, and numerous hyperlinks. This can make it difficult for blind users to construct a mental image of the site's layout without the benefit of formatting cues. Accessibility issues arise when the user attempts to exercise their option to view the contents of a blog via e-mail, MSN Messenger, or wireless text message.
Read the Reviews of Blog Services
Although this site offers some flashy technical features, such as "Blogger Mobile" (a service that "allows the user to create and update their blog by sending an e-mail message from their mobile phone to blogger.com") the features do not extend to the site's overall accessibility. When trying to "create an account," the user is presented with a three stage process:
(1) Create an account.
(2) Name your blog.
(3) Choose a template.
Unfortunately, a blind user cannot get past the "name your blog" stage because they are confronted with a message that instructs them to complete their registration by "entering the words they see in the picture." Below these difficult to follow instructions for a screen reader user is an alternate option, which has been labeled "advanced setup." This option allows an individual to host their blog elsewhere. The text entry fields and radio buttons on the "advanced setup" page are JAWS-friendly. However, the information the user is asked to provide is extremely technical in nature, and is not likely to be part of the average user's knowledge base. For instance, detailed information about server settings.
Bloglines (www.bloglines.com), is operated by Ask Jeeves, Inc. The Bloglines home page is accessible and easy to navigate. The links are well labeled, and the combo-boxes can be navigated when JAWS is in "forms mode"—the setting which allows JAWS users to fill out forms on a site.
The accessibility issues on Bloglines are minor. They include:
(1) An unlabeled company logo (which appears at the top of each page).
(2) The "go" button in the site's "search all blogs" feature (which has not been properly labeled). Other than the unreadable button label, the search tool is completely JAWS-friendly.
(3) The "languages" feature, which allows the user to select which language they would like to view the contents of blogs in, contains some links that JAWS cannot read. This is likely because of the presence of accented characters, or graphical symbols that are commonly found in languages such as Chinese or Japanese.
(4) A series of unlabeled image links, which appear on the Bloglines home page, just above the site's main navigation menu.
Although the Bloglines site is not 100% accessible, it allowed us to log in independently because there was no graphically based verification request, and no dealing with unintuitive user interfaces.
Bloglines' "register" feature is completely accessible when JAWS is in "forms mode." All of the fields, combo-boxes, and radio buttons in the registration form have been properly labeled, including the activation button at the end. After completing the registration form, the user receives a confirmation e-mail from Bloglines. Since this e-mail appears in the user's preferred e-mail application, it is also accessible. The URL to validate the user's registration can be accessed directly from the open e-mail message, or it can be pasted into the user's web browser of choice. Once the user's account has been created and validated, they can edit their profile (accessible except for two mislabeled radio buttons), and obtain help (in the form of a "frequently asked questions" page).
New blogs can be created by visiting the "my blog" section of the Bloglines web site. Other than the icons that indicate whether or not the folders on the page are expanded or collapsed (which must be deciphered one character at a time), the page is JAWS-friendly.
The user can easily enter, modify, and review text in the edit field when JAWS is in "forms mode." The field has not been labeled with any sort of instruction, such as "enter text of blog here," but because of the intuitive nature of the user interface, its purpose is easy to determine.
Directly below the blog text entry field are a series of inaccessible combo-boxes that allow the user to choose a style, font type, and text size for the blog they have just created. JAWS indicates whether or not an item in the list has been checked, but the actual text of the item is not read aloud. The combo-box that allows the size of the blog text to be increased or decreased holds great accessibility potential, because it may provide users with low vision a greater degree of control when it comes to enhancing the readability of their own entries.
Below these combo-boxes is a group of "clickable graphics." Based on the presence of a "view source" button, these options appear to represent a primitive type of HTML editor. These controls provide the user with more options in terms of giving style to the text they have created. For instance, the user can center, italicize, and justify their own blogs. However, one problem does exist. When a JAWS user clicks on these "clickable graphics," by using the "enter" key or the "space bar," no auditory feedback is provided to indicate that an action has been taken, or that changes to the text have been implemented.
Read the Review of Four Popular Blogs
1. Hacking Netflix
This blog, located at www.hackingnetflix.com, was started as "an experiment in company and community relations." It is a forum where fans of Netflix can learn more about the company, and share their experiences with one another. All links directly related to the actual Netflix company open in a separate browser window and were not part of the evaluation.
On the Hackingnetflix home page, there is a list of three blogs:
(1) Netflix Fan.
(2) Netflix Odyssey.
(3) Netflix Film Critic James Rocchi.
All of these blogs open in their own window, and the layout of each is slightly different. The blogs themselves are content-heavy, but relatively easy for a JAWS user to navigate. The links on the pages are properly labeled, and the formatting is simple and intuitive. A reader is able to post comments on the various blogs, using a very basic, and accessible form. The edit fields, radio buttons, and buttons on the "post a comment" form are properly labeled, and can be accessed when JAWS is in "forms mode."
In cases where navigation links appear at the top of the blog page, all but one are screen-reader-accessible. In addition, the site's search engine contains an edit field, radio buttons, and an activation button—all of which have alt text.
2. Fastlane General Motors Blog
Another example of a topic-specific blog, fastlane.gmblogs.com is devoted to the discussion of General Motors cars. The overall accessibility of the page is very good. Even the company logo at the top has been properly labeled. In addition to the sorts of common features listed above, the site contains links to other car-related blogs, as well as links that provide additional information about General Motors and the specific types of cars it manufactures. Users are able to enter comments about what they read, using the same accessible "post a comment" form described above. The form is very basic, and includes a "name" field, an "e-mail address" field, an option to submit a URL, a space to enter comments, a "remember me" prompt with "yes" and "no" radio buttons, a "preview" button, and a "post" button.
Micropersuasion, located at www.micropersuasion.com, is maintained by Steve Rubel, who serves as Vice President, Client Services at CooperKatz & Company. The site, which reflects Rubel's personal opinions, is approximately one year old and was designed to "help clients build and manage their reputations in consumer-generated media channels."
The site is dense in terms of the content it offers and the number of links provided. Each blog entry contains several links, which presumably link to other related entries or articles. The site's navigation links appear to have been properly labeled. Conversely, the contact links for Steve Rubel are a mixture of the accessible and the inaccessible. For instance, the "my employer" link has been given a text label, but there is an unlabeled link directly below it that is a company logo.
The Micropersuasion site also offers users the option of getting "real-time blog post alerts via e-mail, MSN Messenger, or on a wireless device." An e-mail digest form of the blog is also available. The signup process for these various options is accessible for JAWS users, as the edit field and activation button are properly labeled. The site's search tool is also accessible, with a screen-reader-friendly edit field and radio buttons. The most inaccessible portion of the Micropersuasion site appears to be a series of photos, which are unlabeled.
4. Blogspotting - Business Week Online
Business Week Online's Blogspotting web site, which can be found at www.businessweek.com/the_thread/blogspotting, describes itself as the place on the web "where the worlds of business, media, and blogs collide." Like the Micropersuasion site, this page is extremely full of content. Again, numerous links are interspersed throughout the various blog entries. These links connect the reader to related blogs, companies, and Business Week Online articles.
The site is a very informative site for beginning bloggers, as it provides explanations for many commonly used terms and concepts. In addition to its wealth of material, the site offers an accessible search engine, and a similar "post a comment" form to the one already described in this evaluation. The site's navigation links are image links, but they have been properly labeled with alt text, and are accessible to screen reader users.
As is the case with most new technological advances, education regarding accessibility for computer users with visual disabilities is essential if improvements are to be made by designers and developers of blogs and related applications. Currently, a number of barriers exist that prevent blind individuals from benefiting fully from a mainstream blogging experience. One of these barriers exists in a fundamental component of the process: the creation of one's own user account.
The inaccessibility of the current blogging experience represents more than just a lack of access to relevant information for blind computer users. Blogs are a rapidly growing avenue to self expression, a means of exchanging information with communities of like-minded peers, and even (as evidenced by the Micropersuasion web site) a potential source of employment. Though this world is still out of reach for many blind and low vision computer users, the good news is these problems are easy to fix using some basic web accessibility tips.
To learn more about how to make your blog accessible visit www.afb.org/webaccess.asp.