Since before Web-accessibility evaluation tools were available, developers have used JAWS to test their Web sites. I have for so long that not using it never occurred to me. I was spurred to consider the possibility at a recent demo about the newest version. Eric Damery of Freedom Scientific, the maker of JAWS, proposed it. This post details the reasons I am considering no longer using JAWS for Web accessibility testing. Future posts will discuss alternatives.
Description of JAWS
JAWS is wonderful software. For a person with a significant visual disability, it reads aloud or converts to Braille the content sighted people view on their computer screens. Without the JAWS screen reader or one of its competitors, hundreds of thousands of people would be unable to use computers, nor would they be able to access the Web.
Using JAWS For Accessibility Testing
People who are blind have long been considered the most excluded from the Web. This is the central reason Web accessibility standards have been focused on making sites accessible to them. (An even larger excluded population are people with cognitive disabilities, but that is a topic for another day.) Thus accessibility-minded developers have always considered it important to test sites with a screen reader. JAWS is chosen for this because people with visual disabilities use it more, by far, than any other screen reader.
Another benefit of accessibility testing with JAWS is that sites made compatible with it also often work well for people with physical disabilities. People who can not use a mouse, and/or who use a single-switch device instead of a keyboard, can navigate an accessible Web site in a way similar to that of JAWS users. A simple approximation of this experience is to visit a Web site and attempt to navigate it using only the Tab key.
Reasons I Am Considering No Longer Using JAWS
- Though I have used JAWS to help test Web accessibility since the time (1995) it was first available, I know only enough about it for such testing. Like all screen readers, JAWS is complicated. For people who must use it to access a computer, many months are typically needed to learn it well. Over the years, as I have hired developers and introduced them to Web accessibility and JAWS, it has been difficult for each to master it sufficiently for accessibility testing. In part this is because they don’t have to use it all the time as people who are blind do.
- Another reason developers find JAWS troublesome is that the Web content it reads can not be visually tracked. The temptation for sighted developers to watch JAWS is too great. They are so dependent upon their sight that trying to get them to test Web sites while their screens are off, for instance, is difficult.
- Sighted developers inexperienced with JAWS, and sighted people to whom JAWS is being demonstrated, are often confounded by the way it reads Web content. They expect it to read an entire Web page as they perceive they do. Instead, JAWS reads Web pages in chunks and pauses before links. This behavior closely mimics what sighted people really do, which is to skim Web page content.
- JAWS is expensive. At the time of this writing, it costs $895 for most people, plus an annual software maintenance agreement (SMA) of $120. Cost alone can be an initial barrier for people who are blind and, as a population, are chronically underemployed. For developers who use JAWS to test accessibility, Freedom Scientific requires the more expensive professional version. Its cost of $1,095 plus a $200 yearly SMA can be a barrier for developers without institutional backing. To evangelize accessibility testing to other developers, I am interested in lower-cost or free alternatives.
- “Ninety percent of blind people don’t use a screen reader.” Kevin Carey, Chairman of the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB), said that recently at an INMD seminar for Web developers. He also said that is the reason Web sites should be made “self-voice”. I imagine he was referring to people who are legally blind. To access Web sites, they must use screen-magnifiers, text-to-speech software, and/or Web site widgets.
- JAWS is only one of many tools my team has used to test Web site accessibility. Most importantly, people with disabilities have always been hired to vet the accessibility of our Web sites as much as possible.
- Reason 5 may mean I should place more emphasis on my experiments with text-size enlargement and incorporation of text-to-speech features.
- The quotes attributed to Kevin Carey were provided to me by a person who attended the seminar.
- I am interested in feedback. Please comment.
[Editor's Note: Readers may be interested in a follow-up post, "First Experiment with MAGic for Web Accessibility Testing".]