Bill Holton

AccessWorld authors strive to stay current and keep our accessibility skills sharp, but we don’t know everything. That's why we're launching the “AW Asks the Experts” series, where we go to those in the know to get you, our readers, the inside track on accessibility and tech. Though we can't offer tech support to individuals, we do welcome your general accessibility questions for, and feedback on, this series.

This article was prompted by a reader question that can be paraphrased as: “What’s up with YouTube? Why is the website so complicated and difficult to use with a screen reader?”

To help answer these questions we consulted with Hueiyen Tsai, Program Manager for YouTube Accessibility. We covered YouTube in general and its layout and some of its most perplexing features. Toward the end of the article you'll find some resources that may make your YouTube video watching more accessible.

The Basic YouTube Experience

“Yes, the YouTube webpage can be very complex and confusing to users of access technologies,” Tsai agrees. “There is a tremendous variety of selections to be presented and considerable functionality to explore and use.”

A quick “sight” tour reveals that the top of each page includes a navigation bar with a "Skip Navigation” button and search region. Various functions, such as "Create a video or post" and "YouTube apps," and commands, such as screen Messages,” “Settings,” and "Sign in,” are also at the top of each page. After that, the web interface splits into either two or three columns, depending on whether you're on the homepage , a search results page (where you see the results of a search you've requested), or a watch page (where you actually watch videos). The left navigation will either be shown or hidden via the "Guide toggle button," although it is displayed ("selected") by default. The Guide provides a list of links that are marked as heading level 3, to take you to Home, Trending (list of trending videos), your Library (which includes all your playlists), and various other quick links. The rest of the page is a series of video thumbnails, unless you're on the Watch page, where the layout is different.

You can usually reach the first video with a few taps of your screen reader’s heading quick nav key, but of course things may change. Google is known for adjusting its interface on a regular basis.

What you will find and where depends on whether or not you are signed in. If you do not have a Gmail account or if you haven’t signed in, the first level 2 heading will offer up a collection of “Trending" videos. These are videos that have proven popular over the past many hours and days. Each video is denoted by a level 3 heading, so it’s easy to go from one to the next. Recommended videos are found at the next level 2 heading, and "Recently Uploaded” at the next.

Once you have signed in with your Gmail account your homepage results will look much different. “We use your search history and watch history to give us a better sense of what videos you would like to see on your homepage,” says Tsai. You may also find various offers to subscribe to special interest channels dynamic collections of videos grouped by producer, topic or theme that you might be interested in subscribing to and receiving notifications for. There is almost always a “Not interested” button, which will make these recommendations disappear…at least for a time.

The YouTube Player

After many years of Flash, the YouTube player now runs entirely on HTML5. Begin any video by pressing Enter or the Spacebar on the title and the player will autoload and begin video playback. YouTube often inserts an ad before the beginning of the video. You can often skip this ad after a few seconds. It can be tricky to find the Skip button while the video is still playing, but a couple of presses of the Tab and Shift+Tab keys will often navigate your screen reader to this button. Tsai reports that Google is actively looking for a more accessible way to notify screen reader users when an ad can be skipped and then help to skip it.

YouTube incorporates many keyboard shortcuts, most of which use either a single character or the shift modified key, such as M for mute/unmute and Shift+N for the next video. Your screen reader will doubtless interfere with some of these commands, so be sure to use your bypass key before pressing < (greater than) to speed up video playback or J to skip ahead 10 seconds. For JAWS the bypass key is JAWS+3; for NVDA it’s NVDA+F2, and for Narrator it's Narrator+3.

Unfortunately, YouTube does not currently support “Application Reserved Keystrokes,” which perform an auto-bypass of certain single-key web shortcuts.

Here is a complete YouTube web player keyboard command list. This list can be accessed anytime on YouTube by activating the Settings menu and then Keyboard commands, or by simply pressing ? (question mark).

As you Tab through the YouTube player you will find many options besides Play/Pause, including Share, Like and Dislike this video, and Next and Previous video. There is also a seek slider for volume.

YouTube Channels

As we mentioned earlier, once you have signed into YouTube and begun watching videos you will be asked if you wish to subscribe to various channels. Channels are collections of videos assembled by a YouTube user. They may contain all of the user's own videos, such as the Microsoft Channel, or a user may assemble a curated list of third-party videos, such as the humor of George Carlin or funny pet videos.

Once you click on a channel, you are presented with the various videos that have been collected there. You can watch them in any order and you can subscribe to the channel to make it easier to summon the next time you use YouTube.

Want to find a good channel that matches your interest? Start at the YouTube Channel Official Site, where you can search for and subscribe to channels

If you search for the term “audio description,” along with videos about audio description you will also find a list of YouTube videos that have been described by the producer of that video. Currently, YouTube does not have a way to add audio description in a secondary language channel.

YouTube Playlists

Playlists are your own collections of videos that you want to watch now or save for later. Perhaps you'd like to make a collection of your favorite music videos and then play them one after the other automatically you can make a playlist to do so. You may also find videos on other websites with the offer to “Watch Later as (your account name)" These videos are saved into a special “Watch Later” playlist on YouTube. Videos in the “Liked Videos” playlist are just that: videos where you have clicked the Like button.

How screen-reader accessible these and other YouTube features are may vary, depending on which browser you are using. Naturally, Tsai recommends Chrome, both for PCs and Macs. For Chrome OS users it’s the default. Other browsers, such as Safari, Firefox, Edge and IE may have issues with this or that feature.

Getting YouTube Accessibility Help…and Offering It

Google offers a central help center for all accessibility and a disability support team, where you can get help with various products, including YouTube, via either email or chat sessions. I used this service when I could not figure how to retrieve a list of additional videos when I subscribed to a channel. The tech was friendly and followed up with pertinent questions. After several chat exchanges and a few emails they used the screen reader I myself use to figure out the solution. You can see the final email with the solution in the last section of this article.

According to Tsai, “one of the hurdles to implementing better accessibility is a paucity of feedback from our users.” Did you know you can become an Accessibility Trusted Tester and offer your feedback and suggestions on new and updated Google products? Or sign up to participate in Google accessibility studies as a potential subject for a future Google Research Study?

A Little Extra Access: Resources for Using YouTube with a Screen Reader

JAWS users may be interested in downloading and installing a free set of YouTube scripts produced by Doug Lee. Use these scripts to help skip ads, check remaining time, mute a video, and other commands that aren't easily accessible. For example, with the scripts installed, typing { (left brace) followed by the S key will skip the remaining ad. Typing { followed by C will take you to the YouTube channel that owns the current video. These commands only work on a video page.

Another way to watch YouTube videos more accessibly is to visit and bookmark the YourTube Accessible YouTube site from povidi. You can also go to the Povidi homepage and search for the accessible YouTube link. (Be warned: visiting directly will lead you to a different site that makes extensive use of popups.) YourTube creates an accessible skin for the YouTube platform. All of its controls are accessible. It achieves near-complete YouTube accessibility using headings, links, buttons, combo boxes, and slider controls. The only control missing from the site is a button to skip ads. But you won’t need it. The site does an excellent job of removing nearly all of them for you!

Getting a YouTube Channels List of Videos

Here is the final email I received from Google’s accessibility support:

I did some testing on my side for you and seem to have found a solution to the issue. Meaning I found a way to access the YouTube page which displays all videos uploaded by a channel, using JAWS 19.

  1. Search the YouTube channel you are searching for or alternatively navigate to the channel name if you are currently watching a video from the channel.

  2. Select the Channel name.

  3. This should bring you to the channel page.

  4. Navigate by pressing Tab until you find the home tab button.

  5. Once you have found the home tab button please press the right arrow key to navigate across to the videos tab button.

  6. Select the videos tab button.

  7. You can then use the Tab key to navigate through all of the videos that have been uploaded by that particular channel, and select at will any one you would like to play!

Note: I found it easier to use the JAWS CTRL+F “find” command to locate the channel name and the Home tab of the channel, and the Down Arrow or CTRL+Right Arrow key to move from there to the Videos tab.

This article is made possible in part by generous funding from the James H. and Alice Teubert Charitable Trust, Huntington, West Virginia.

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Bill Holton
Article Topic
Access Issues