For tech-savvy computer users who have low vision, options for enlarging text and adding speech are plentiful. Operating systems, web browsers, and third-party accessibility technology tools offer a variety of accessibility options. But many people who could benefit from low-vision tools don't use them, either because they don't know what's available to them, or because they don't consider themselves to be print-disabled. sitecues, a tool developed by ZoomText maker Ai Squared, seeks to make the web easier to read for users who could benefit from text magnification or speech, especially those who don't use other assistive technology solutions.
Released in 2014, sitecues allows website owners to offer screen and text magnification, and spoken access to the site's content. Ai Squared believes this software benefits people with low-vision who need occasional magnification or speech access, as well as seniors, people with learning disabilities, and non-native language speakers. When sitecues is present on a website, users can magnify the current page, zoom into and navigate between text blocks, and/or hear the page's content, all using a few straightforward keyboard shortcuts. The challenge for the Ai Squared, and for those seeking to use the web with zoom or speech, is getting a wide range of organizations to add the tool to their websites.
When you encounter a website where sitecues is installed, you will find a sitecues control badge that resembles a text sizing control you might encounter in a word processing application. The site owner can place the badge where they wish; it usually appears in the upper-right corner of the page, or elsewhere above the site's navigation menu. The sitecues control is designed to provide a consistent, recognizable presence on the site that does not connote the presence of an accessibility tool. The badge is designed to be visible to users with vision better than 20/200. When you mouse over the sitecues badge, it enlarges significantly to show labeled controls for zoom and speech.
Use the large and small As or the slider to change the zoom level for the page as a whole. The zoom setting you've chosen remains in effect as you move through pages on the site. To zoom to specific text blocks instead, turn zoom on, and move the mouse onto the webpage. Text blocks will be selected (surrounded by a boundary box) as you mouse over them. Press the spacebar. sitecues zooms the selected block, and grays the rest of the page's content, so you can concentrate exclusively on the selected material. Use the arrow keys to move to another text block. Control + H and Control + Shift + H move focus forward or back through headings on the page. Press the Esc key to view the full page again. Once you've enabled sitecues on a page, zoom with the + and − keys on your keyboard to increase or decrease magnification as needed. You can view all of the sitecues keyboard commands by clicking the Help button on the expanded sitecues badge.
You can use sitecues speech alone or in combination with zoom. Mouse over the sitecues badge, and click the "Speech" button to turn it on. sitecues speaks a quick explanation of how to use the speech feature, in the native language of the site. Move to the area of the page you wish to read and press the spacebar to hear the contents of the heading, paragraph, or other highlighted area. With speech on, pressing the spacebar to focus on a text block dims the rest of the current page, just as it does when you're using Zoom. sitecues speaks the content. While you're focused on a text block, use the arrow keys to move to adjacent text, which is then spoken. Escape returns to the standard site view. You can use speech without isolating the text block you're reading by holding down the Shift key while a text block is selected. This works whether or not speech has been turned on. If you hold down Shift while using an arrow key to move to a text area, sitecues speaks the text.
sitecues supports a number of languages, including English, French, Spanish, Dutch, German, Italian, Turkish, and Russian. Ai Squared says more languages are coming in future versions, including Arabic and Japanese.
See sitecues in Action
A number of websites associated with providing accessibility services, or that serve a large number of consumers who are blind or who have low-vision have added sitecues. They include: Perkins School for the Blind, The Florida Alliance for Assistive Services and Technology, Baum USA, Duxbury Systems, The Texas Assistive Technology Network, and WindowEyes for Office. Ai Squared has also sold sitecues licenses to libraries, educational institutions, government agencies, and a few financial services organizations focusing on the needs of seniors. Among these are: Warren County Library (New Jersey), Insulin Nation, OurAgingMarket, The US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, TICC Capital Corp., and Easter Seals' N.A.T.E Project, You'll find a list of sitecues-enabled sites on the Customers page of the sitecues website.
To make the tool truly useful to the tremendous number of people Ai Squared identifies as underserved by traditional accessibility tools, sitecues will need to gain acceptance in a wider range of mainstream organizations and sites, including shopping outlets, social media, employers, and general-audience government sites.
sitecues works in most modern desktop web browsers, including Internet Explorer 9+, Firefox, Chrome, and Safari for Mac OS X. Ai Squared intends to support Edge, the Windows 10 replacement for Internet Explorer. sitecues doesn't work with browsers in most mobile environments: Apple iOS and Google Android are gesture-based operating systems, the company notes, and sitecues currently depends on access to a keyboard. The company intends to develop mobile support in future releases, but was unable to provide specifics. Other planned compatibility improvements include an improved ability to navigate web forms with zoom and speech, and the addition of color themes to assist low-vision users who benefit from enhanced visual contrast between backgrounds and text.
Implementing sitecues on a Website
Once an organization buys a sitecues software as a service (SaaS) license, the Webmaster adds a snippet of code to the website template. The code places the sitecues badge at the top of each page within the site, and links the site to the sitecues server infrastructure, which is maintained by Ai Squared. All functions are performed by the sitecues server, not the organization's website. sitecues delivers the zoomed and/or spoken content to the website visitor. This also allows Ai Squared to make updates to sitecues immediately available to all customers. Organizations pay a license fee, the amount of which is based on the number of unique visitors to the site per month. Though the percentage of visitors accessing sitecues varies by customer, Ai Squared says the engagement rate averages five to eight percent.
Next Steps: sitecues Everywhere
The Ai Squared sitecues development path is proceeding on two fronts: adding more kinds of accessibility, and bringing sitecues functionality to a wider range of sites. The next release of sitecues will add color theme selection, a valuable tool for low-vision users who need greater contrast between backgrounds and text on all sites they visit, and for anyone who struggles with sites whose stylized color palettes focus on design rather than maximum readability. Ai Squared has also released a Chrome browser extension called sitecues Everywhere, that places a sitecues badge on any website you visit with a compatible version of the Chrome browser. The extension effectively adds sitecues to any website you visit, placing the familiar badge above the site's contents, and offering the same zoom and speech options available with the server-based version of the product. Ai Squared currently licenses the extension to individuals and organizations, including shared-computer labs.
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