For many years, Web browsers have had varying degrees of built-in accessibility, but it’s been a pretty bumpy road for the user with low vision. By 2006 Internet Explorer 7 added magnification to Web browsing, but this first version often changed the page formatting so that users would need to use the horizontal scroll bar as they read the page. At the same time, Firefox 2 had a free add-in that didn’t require the horizontal scrolling, but didn’t enlarge the page images. As a result some of us just gave up and used a commercial screen magnifier, like ZoomText, that provided screen magnification to everything, including the Web browser.
Built-in Web browser accessibility—magnification, contrast, colors, and text-to-speech has improved since those original webpage magnifiers. The browser landscape has certainly changed in recent years and there are some great built-in accessibility features available on popular Windows-based web browsers like Mozilla Firefox, Google Chrome, and Microsoft Edge.
Firefox offers several ways to increase the size of webpages. At the most basic level, Ctrl plus + increases zoom, Ctrl plus – decreases zoom, and Ctrl plus 0 restores the webpage view to the default view. Using these commands increases the text and images proportionally. In fact, these shortcuts can be used for webpage magnification or zoom in all three browsers. Magnification can also be applied to the text alone from the Settings menu. To do this, first press Alt + V to open the View menu, then select Zoom > Zoom Text Only. With Zoom Text Only selected the Ctrl plus +, -, or 0 commands now only affect the text size. This setting may work well for certain pages or applications, but when using it on a webpage with text and images, at higher magnification, the horizontal menus on some pages overlapped the text and appeared jumbled.
Another method of changing the text size can be found in the Main Menu under Select Options > General > Language and Appearance. There are several settings here for changing font size and style. Changing the Default Font setting will only change pages where the webpage developer hasn’t specified a font. Opening the Advanced tab allows you to select a Minimum Font Size, which will override the font set by the webpage style.
Changing the font sizes in both these settings sometimes altered the page’s appearance so that text or menus overlapped. One of the advantages of these settings, however, was that the text wrapped within the browser window, making it easier to read without scrolling. If, for example, you are using a full screen magnifier like ZoomText or Windows Magnifier, as the magnification increases, more scrolling is required for reading. By changing the minimum font size in this setting to one that is large enough to read, this may reduce the magnification needed and the amount of scrolling to read.
For the low vision user who requires text magnification, relying solely on the screen magnification from the browser will be a bit of a challenge. Zooming in within the browser only increases the size of the content inside the browser window—the text size in the other elements of the browser, like the menu settings, tabs, address bar, etc., remain unchanged unless a full screen magnifier is being used.
Firefox, like Chrome, has additional features that can be added as extensions or add-ons. In the Add-Ons menu, Firefox has two additional themes that may be enabled for additional contrast. In addition to the color Default theme there are Light and Dark themes. The Dark theme provides lighter foreground and font colors on dark background colors, and the Light theme offers darker foreground and font colors on a lighter background. A search for High Contrast add-ons turned up an additional 160 theme options that could be installed as extensions.
Firefox has a number of text-to-speech extensions that can be added to the browser. These can be managed from the Main Menu, under Add-Ons. Select Extensions from the Add-Ons menu and search for extensions to add them to your browser. The Read Aloud extension works consistently well and has several handy features. Specific text can be selected and read, or the whole webpage can be read. By selecting the extension icon in the top right corner of the window, text is copied into a window and highlighted as it’s read. Playback can be managed using the icons in this window or with keyboard shortcuts. Reading can be started or paused with the shortcut keys, Alt + P, and stopped with Alt + O. Read Aloud has additional settings including alternative voices, reading rate, pitch, and text highlighting.
One of the best low vision features in Firefox is the Reader View, which strips out most of the graphics and menus on a webpage, reducing it to plain text. When Reader View is available, there is an icon to the right of the address bar that looks like a rectangle with horizontal lines on it. Clicking the icon or pressing F9 toggles the Reader View on and off. In Reader View, there are four icons, on the left side of the windows, including Type Controls, and Narrate. Type Controls provides options for increasing and decreasing type size and style, line margins and line spacing. Text wraps within the window and makes for a much better reading experience. Narrate provides text-to-speech using one of the installed Windows voices. When Narrate is open, a dialog box provides a slider for volume and speed, and a dropdown menu for voice selection, and play/pause, forward, and rewind buttons. The Reader View offers the best integrated accessible reading options but is not available on all webpages.
Chrome, like Firefox offers full screen magnification using the keyboard shortcuts Ctrl plus +, -, and 0 to increase, decrease and return the browser window contents to actual size. Font sizes may be changed in much the same way as the Firefox font settings, although there is no option for magnifying just the text, like the Zoom Text Only setting in Firefox. To change font settings, start from Chrome’s Main Menu, and select Settings > Appearance. The Font Size setting offers five selections ranging from Very Small to Very Large. This can be fine-tuned even further by selecting Customize Fonts. Here, a minimum font size and style can be selected as well as standard font sizes and styles.
Like Firefox, there are many theme variations that may be selected and installed as extensions. To explore themes, from the Main Menu, select Settings > Appearance > Themes, to open the Chrome Web Store. Chrome does not have built-in alternatives like the Light and Dark Theme in Firefox, so additional themes must be added from the Chrome Web Store. Selections available include Chrome High Contrast Colorful, as well as both a Dark theme and Light theme.
For screen reader options, you will again need to go to the Chrome Web Store to select and install an extension. Read Aloud is also available as a Chrome extension and works on the Chrome browser just like Firefox. Read Aloud can also be started, after installation, by right clicking the mouse and selecting it from the menu, or by clicking the icon installed to the left of the menu icon to the right of the address bar. When opened from the icon, text is copied into a window and highlighted as it’s read.
Select and Speak, appeared as another text-to-speech extension and reported more overall installs than Read Aloud. With Select and Speak, a blank window is opened, where copied text can be manually pasted. Once pasted the text is read out loud. It lacks many of the settings found in Read Aloud including the text highlighting. It does have one very interesting download feature on the menu at the bottom of the reading window. Download will create and save a copy of the audio of the text being read, as a MP3 file. This can be a handy feature for many users.
Lastly, the Google screen reader, ChromeVox Classic, is available as an extension. ChromeVox is a full-featured screen reader that is enabled as soon as it is installed as an extension. Using this extension makes the entire browser application more accessible. For the user familiar with ChromeVox this is a great feature, but for the rest of us, just looking for that simple, as-needed screen reader, this may involve more of a learning curve than remembering the few keyboard shortcuts on Read Aloud.
Chrome does not have a built in Reader View like Firefox, but there are a number of extensions for it. The Reader View extension offered by fredericagolden2071 had the highest rating at the time this article was written and was installed for the review. It has similar features to the Firefox Reader View, plus several more. The text controls include font style, size, margin width, and line spacing. It also contains a setting for basic colors—Light, Dark, and Sepia. The Dark setting inverts the colors to a light font on a dark background.
In addition, the text-to-speech menu option, called Read This Article, provided more voice options and a pitch control, in addition to the reading speed, volume, play/pause, forward and reverse controls found on the Firefox Reader View.
If all webpages offered the option of a Reader View there might not be a need for any of the other extensions, because this one does a great job of making pages more accessible. Like Firefox, the Chrome Reader View is available on certain webpages.
Microsoft Edge (Version 80.0.361.69)
The latest version of Microsoft Edge also offers a Zoom feature using the familiar keyboard shortcuts Ctrl plus +, Ctrl plus-, and Ctrl plus 0 to increase, decrease, and remove magnification from the browser window. Font size and style can be managed from the Main Menu in Settings > Appearance > Fonts. Options for Font Size and Customize Fonts can be managed here. An overall font size may be selected by choosing one of five sizes from Very Small to Very Large. Customizing Fonts provides more options for font styles. For example, Arial might be selected as the San Serif font of choice. The Font Size and Minimum Font Size each have a slider to select between Tiny (9 pt.) and Large (72 pt.). Also, in the Settings > Appearance menu, Edge has a Theme option. Theme offers a dropdown with Light, Dark, and System Default.
Edge also offers extensions to add to the browser’s functionality. Select Extensions from the main menu to see which extensions are installed. From the Extensions menu select Get Extensions from the Microsoft Store, to search for and add extensions. Several extensions appear with a search on “text-to-speech,” including Read Aloud. It worked the same on Edge as it did with Chrome and Firefox, including the basic keyboard shortcuts.
Of the three browsers, Edge incorporates more accessibility integration into the browser before the need for extensions. For starters, Edge has a built-in screen reader accessed with a right mouse click or the Windows application menu (Shift+F10). Select Read Aloud (not to be confused with the extension Read Aloud) and the webpage will be read starting from the current focus. When Edge’s Read Aloud is selected, a Play/Pause, Forward, and Rewind control appears at the top of the webpage content window, with Voice Options to the right. The dialog box for Voice Options contains a slider for voice speed selection, and a dropdown to choose and add voices.
Immersive Reader also has a tab for Text Preferences. A slider increases or decreases text size. Presumably the text style follows that set in the Font Customization Settings in the Font settings. Edge offers 22 themes in Text Preferences, for foreground and background colors. Regardless of which theme is chosen, when Read Aloud is started, the background color dims, and the text is highlighted as it’s read.
Of all the browser reading views, Immersive Reader offers the most accessibility options. Like the reading views in Firefox and Chrome, it is not available on all webpages. In fact, when using Edge on two websites where Reading View in both Chrome and Firefox was available, Immersive View was not available.
Like many tools and applications in the world of low vision, one solution rarely works in all situations. At one time, a system-wide screen magnifier with speech, like ZoomText, worked well enough with Firefox that there was no need to use any of the accessibility features or extensions that Firefox offered. With the improved accessibility features and extensions in these browsers it’s sometimes easier to use the Reader View with text-to-speech from Read Aloud for various applications. You may also find that for some Web browsing tasks, certain browser/extension combinations are better. One thing is for certain, regardless of the browser you choose, or the extensions you customize it with, the number of out-of-the-box accessibility options on these popular browsers is most welcome!
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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