In a recent issue of AccessWorld, one of our readers asked if we could shed any light on running a Chromebook computer using its built-in accessibility features. Reading this comment, it occurred to me that not including a few cursory and unsatisfactory sessions running Chromevox on a Mac and a Windows PC, I had never even used a Chromebook. It was time to address this lack of experience, and with the generous assistance of a Lenovo representative, who lent me one of the company's new sub-$200 Chromebooks, I set to work.

The Lenovo IdeaPad 100s Chromebook

Retailing at just under $180—I found it for $164 on—you don't expect a lot of frills from the Lenovo IdeaPad. Indeed, the only two things in the box were the Chromebook itself and the wall charger. The unit is netbook size, 11.8 by 8.2 by 0.8 inches, with an 11.6 inch, 1366 by 768 non-touch-screen display. Like most laptops, the IdeaPad included a built-in HD video camera, digital microphone, and stereo speakers. The model also includes Bluetooth and the latest AC Wi-Fi. The unit I tested featured a 2.16 GHz Celeron processor with 2GB of RAM and 32GB of SSD storage, but different processor and memory configurations are available from Lenovo's web store. A Windows version of the IdeaPad 100S is also available.

The left edge of the IdeaPad 100S includes, from front to rear, an audio jack, an SD card slot, a USB 3.0 port, an HDMI port, and the power jack. The right edge, also from front to rear, includes a USB 2.0 port and a Kensington lock slot. The battery is rated for up to eight hours. I can't say I ever got the full 8 hours, but in my limited evaluation period, I had no complaints. The IdeaPad 100S weighs in at approximately 2.6 pounds, and it is well-balanced enough to perch on the palm of one hand without worrying it will tip over.

The IdeaPad's keyboard has the touch and key travel of a standard notebook keyboard, with the usual wrist rests to either side of the touchpad. A Chromebook's keyboard is configured slightly differently than a Mac or Windows PC, however. There is no Insert or FN key, and Chromebooks replace the Caps Lock key with a Search key. Also, instead of F1-F12 function keys, by default Chromebooks include a set of Top Row Shortcut Keys. At the left end is the Escape key, at the far right the Power key. These keys are all the same size, so the first-time Chromebook user who is blind, myself included, might have to spend some time guessing how to turn it on. Only later did I find this useful Chromebook Keyboard Layout page, which included this list:

  • Key 1: Esc key
  • Key 2: Go to the previous page in your browser history
  • Key 3: Go to the next page in your browser history
  • Key 4: Reload your current page
  • Key 5: Open your page in full-screen mode
  • Key 6: Switch to your next window
  • Key 7: Decrease screen brightness
  • Key 8: Increase screen brightness
  • Key 9: Mute
  • Key 10: Decrease system volume
  • Key 11: Increase system volume
  • Key 12: Power

Chrome OS

Most operating systems provide a platform onto which you load and run word processors, music players, web browsers, and most importantly, screen readers or magnification software. Chrome OS takes a different tactic. The operating system consists of a single central application, the Chrome web browser. It is also used to run web applications that extend the functionality of the Chrome browser and enable you to create and edit documents, play music, watch a movie, and perform other essential computing tasks.

Chrome OS data files, documents, spreadsheets, music, and the like usually reside in the cloud on Google Drive. This is why most Chromebooks come with so little built-in storage—a mere 32GB, in the case of the IdeaPad 100s Chromebook. Consequently, although it is possible to work offline, it is far preferable to have a Wi-Fi connection to create, edit, save, and retrieve your files. You will also need a Google account, so that you can log into your Chromebook and Google Drive using your Gmail address and password.

The Chrome operating system is extremely lean. It can boot in as little as six seconds, and it is constantly being auto-updated by Google. It's all but impervious to computer viruses, and if you do somehow manage to corrupt the system, Chrome OS features a Powerwash option that quickly restores the operating system to factory defaults.

Chrome OS Accessibility

Most Chromebooks, including the IdeaPad 100s, include a touch pad to navigate the screen and perform mouse clicks. However, like Windows and Mac OS X, the Chrome OS also features an extensive roster of keyboard shortcuts that can be used to perform most tasks. Alt + Tab and Shift + Alt + Tab moves you back and forward through open windows, for example, and Shift + Alt + S opens the Status Area, where you can get the time, your account logon information, and battery charge level.

Users of most third-party screen readers and screen magnification packages are accustomed to loading and running these applications separately on top of the Windows operating system. Mac and Windows Ease of Access users have their accessibility built-in. This is the model employed by Chrome OS: using browser extensions to enable screen magnification and to provide speech output.

Low vision accessibility options can be found in the status area Settings menu. Click your account picture, then Settings, then Advanced, then Accessibility. You will only need to dig this deeply into the menus once, if you enable the option to show the Accessibility menu on the Status Area. Other low-vision options include:

  • Show large mouse cursor
  • Use high contrast mode
  • Turn on screen magnifier

The Settings menu also includes an option to turn on the Chrome OS screen reader, called Chromevox, but there is an easier way to do this, which I will describe in the next section.

The Chromevox Screen Reader

In the past I made a few half-hearted attempts to use the Chromevox (CVox) screen reader while browsing with Chrome on my main desktop. I found it limited and overly complicated, especially when compared to my regular screen reader, to which I quickly returned. Running a Chromebook, however, the CVox screen reader is the only speech access solution available. So it was time to try again.

Let's start with the good news. First, you can toggle CVox on and back off on any Chromebook by simply pressing CTRL + Alt + Z. At this point language and keyboard options are presented, which can be effectively navigated using the Tab and arrow keys. You are then asked to select your Wi-Fi and enter its password, and then to log into your Google account. Use the Tab key to move from field to field, then press Enter. At this point the Chromevox user is offered a nine-lesson tutorial on running the screen reader, which I found extremely useful and easy to follow.

Similar to most screen readers, CVox uses a special modifier key combination to issue screen reader commands. Shift + Search (located where usually you would find the Caps Lock key) is the default modifier key, but you can change this in the Chromevox Settings menu. I preferred using either CTRL + Shift or the Search key alone. Note: There is no Insert key, and the default CVox modifier key is still needed to sign in to your account and to navigate most Settings screens.

Chromevox Navigation

CVox employs an object model, which means as you navigate using the CVox + Up and CVox + Down Arrow keys the focus is moved using a higher-level granularity, whereas CVox Left and Right move you by smaller increments. If the main, higher level granularity is set to "Lines," for example, CVox + Up and Down move the focus and read the screen in the desired direction one line at a time. CVox + Left and Right arrow use the next lower level granularity, in this case advancing by word. Use CVox = and CVox − (minus) to increase or decrease the level of granularity to character, word, line, object, and groupings. Android TalkBack users will already be familiar with this structure.

Many CVox commands consist of a single key combination, such as CVox + R to begin reading at the current position, and CVox + Space Bar to issue a force click. A complete list is available at the Chromevox Keyboard Shortcuts Reference.

Unfortunately, most of the Chromevox navigation keys require two separate keystrokes. For example, by default all of the jump commands, including next and previous headings, form fields, buttons, combo boxes, list items, and the like, require that either the P or N key be pressed for Previous or Next, followed by a second keystroke, H for headings, F for form fields, etc.

At first glance this may seem like a minor inconvenience. But this literally doubles the time it takes to navigate a page. Rapidly locating the seventh heading on a web page using CVox + N, H seven times is literally a "rubber baby buggy bumper" for your fingers. And if the combination is difficult to perform (I had trouble typing several CVox + C, T "Next Table" commands in a row) CVox tended to go silent, and I was forced to toggle the screen reader off and back on to continue.

I suspect that the reason for these double key commands is related to Chromevox's lack of shortcut key availability. Chromevox does not offer browse or forms modes. Consequently, the H for Next Heading and Shift + E for Previous Edit Field quick keys offered by other screen readers would make entering text into a form field or writing a report in Google Docs impossible without extensive use of the CVox + 9 bypass key. Another limitation is due to the fact that you can only reassign hotkeys to a CVox + character combination; Alt + CVox + character and CTRL + CVox + character combinations are not supported, further limiting the available hotkey combinations.

You can improve the default layout somewhat, but it takes thought and planning. I could have reassigned the CVox + H combination to jump to the next heading, but I could not use Shift + CVox + H to move to the previous heading. You would need to use up another precious key combination to create a previous heading single CVox key command?or you can do what I did: Assign the CVox + H key to "Show Headings List," and then use this list to navigate to my desired location.

Getting Help

You can repeat the original CVox tutorial at any time by pressing the two keystroke CVox + O, T command. You can also consult the Command Help feature using CVox +. (period). Type the first letter of the CVox command you wish to use. Arrow up or down to locate the desired command. Its CVox hotkey will be voiced after the command name. Alternatively, press the Enter key to issue the command immediately.

Like other screen readers, CVox includes a CVox + O, K Keyboard Explorer. Bafflingly different from all other screen readers, however, with the Explorer activated, pressing a key does not announce its function. It merely speaks the key name, such as Shift, Tab, D, P, or Enter.

The online Chromevox Users Guide contains little information not already included in the device tutorial and the keyboard reference mentioned above.

Both Microsoft and Apple have acknowledged that users of accessibility features occasionally need a bit of extra assistance, and they both offer excellent e-mail and phone support. Google offers neither. For most users of accessibility features this is not a major concern, as we do not rely on Chromevox as our primary screen reader; we use JAWS, NVDA, VoiceOver, and Window-Eyes. Support for these platforms is readily available via multiple channels, from access tech podcasts and blogs to screen reader company documentation and training webinars.

Unfortunately, the times they are a-changing.

A Call to Action

Today, many school districts have begun deemphasizing shared resource computer labs in favor of issuing high school, middle school, even elementary school students their own low-end laptop, iPad, or Chromebook. Of these three, Chromebooks have the somewhat dubious distinction of being the fastest growing option…and the one with the least mature and least supported accessibility features and capabilities.

During my research for this piece, I spoke with several access technology instructors, and only one offered her mainstreamed blind or low-vision students training in Chromebook accessibility. Others chose to request their districts to allow their students to use a Windows notebook with JAWS or another major screen reader. Not only did these teachers not offer Chromebook accessibility training, they were also unable to direct me to any resources where an access technology instructor might go to become certified to teach Chromebook accessibility.

A year ago when a DeKalb County, Georgia, charter school began using Chromebooks, access technology instructor Katrina Lowrey had to purchase her own Chromebook and teach herself to use CVox so she could assist a student who is blind, who is now in seventh grade. "Having access to her own computer 24/7 has given her a great deal more independence than if she had to share a PC part-time in a school lab," Lowrey acknowledges. "But there are still some serious issues we have to work around. For example, occasionally there is a click control that simply cannot be accessed using Chromevox. Also, Chromebook's braille display support is extremely limited, and even if you do get one to pair, it doesn't work everywhere. None of the text inside a Google Doc will read—only the menus and other controls. My student still needs a braille notetaker to read documents, complete her writing assignments, and take her tests, which her teacher has to e-mail to her."

Lowrey is hopeful that greater Bluetooth support for braille displays and other screen reader improvements will be forthcoming in the next Chromevox release. But there are no guarantees. As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, prior to this writing assignment I have not spent a lot of time running Chromevox. I am no power user, and consequently, it is difficult for me to distinguish an accessibility bug or limitation from a simple inability on my part to understand the ins and outs of the software. And I'm guessing I am not alone.

For any screen reader to be successful, it needs to be used. Bugs need to be reported, feature requests submitted. Unfortunately, from my limited vantage point, it seems that the blind community has more or less ceded these tasks to the school kids who are forced to use Chromebooks, and for whom this is their first screen reader so they may not know increased accessibility is even possible.

How many among us know exactly when the latest JAWS, NVDA, Window-Eyes, VoiceOver or TalkBack update went live, and at least a few of the release's new features? Can we say the same about the latest version of Chromevox?

The AccessWorld readership includes many extremely savvy accessibility users, a number of whom devote considerable time and financial resources purchasing, testing, blogging about and recording podcasts about the latest and greatest high-tech gadgets and accessibility devices. I invite these readers to focus a bit more of your expertise toward using and evaluating Chromevox, especially the dev track release of the upcoming ChromeVox Next, reporting bugs, and creating or lobbying for some much-needed tutorials and other educational resources.

For many individuals and organizations spending $180 on a new test device is imminently doable. To those I can recommend the IdeaPad 100S as a solid device that offers good value for the money. Others may have an old Mac or Windows laptop lying around unused. Consider installing the Chrome OS onto that machine, or creating a flash drive Chrome install you can use to boot temporarily into the OS.

Getting Started

If you have a child in school who is using a Chromebook and you'd like to be able to offer support, or if you are simply interested in improving accessibility for blind and low vision students who use Chrome OS, here is a pair of excellent "Getting Started" podcasts I highly recommend:

Mystic Access: First time set-up Asus Chromebook with ChromeVox

Vision Australia: Demo of the Samsung Chromebook using ChromeVox

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