by Amy Mason
From the Editor: This is the fourth article in a series intended to help users of assistive technology learn to use and get the most out of the World Wide Web. Navigating the web is possible, productive, and enjoyable, but there are many parts to the puzzle, and this series of articles is intended to let readers examine each piece and decide how they will put together the system that gives them the access they desire to the vast resources of the internet. With her analytic mind, her vast knowledge of resources, and her command of language, here is what Amy Mason has to say:
(Music fills the hall as you open the classroom door… “Get your motor runnin’/head out on the highway/lookin’ for adventure/and whatever comes our way.” –Steppenwolf)
Welcome back to web driving school! Today’s class is an especially exciting one. We are pulling our cars… er... I mean browsers, out of the garage, and we are going to hit the open road. Today we begin to seek adventure, profit, and entertainment on the information superhighway.
Just a quick aside before we begin: from this point forward in the series, I am going to be sharing broad techniques you can employ when browsing the web and not specific solutions. If you were counting, you know that so far in the previous articles, we have discussed nineteen different possible combinations of screen readers and browsers (more than that if we include those with poor support or low adoption). Shockingly enough, I cannot keep up with all the quirks of these combinations to give you a comprehensive tutorial on how to do everything precisely with your tools of choice.
Driving instructors are unable to teach each student how to use his or her own car but must instead explain the overarching skills a student can employ in their own vehicle. Therefore, from this point forward, I am going to be primarily providing examples using my tools of choice, NVDA and Chrome. If you are unfamiliar with how to perform these types of commands with your screen reader, you may want to look back at the previous article in this series. I included directions for accessing several helpful resources for each screen reader we discussed in that piece.
Of course, this leads to the question, “Where do you want to go?” And its companion, “How do you plan to get there?” There are many different ways to reach a given destination on the internet and several different options for how you can find what you are looking for. Some of the most common options include:
If you know the address of your destination, you can drive right there. This is the most straightforward way to reach any given site on the web. If you have a particular website in mind, you can directly enter its address in the address bar of your browser. On Windows you can reach the address bar in any of the browsers we discussed by pressing Control-L. On Mac you can reach it by pressing Command-L. Once you have entered the address bar, you can type the address of the site you wish to visit, followed by pressing Enter then, almost like magic, your browser will take you directly to the site in question.
Honestly, this is probably the most popular method for finding destinations on the internet today. Whether you have a topic you wish to research, a question you wish to have answered, or a particular site in mind, you can use a search engine to start you on your journey. Much like a map, the search engine can point you to where you want to go. It can also act as a guidebook by offering suggestions when you are seeking something specific or a compass by pointing you in the right direction when you aren’t entirely sure where to start.
Several search engines exist, but by far the most popular in the United States, if not the world, is Google, located at www.google.com. If Google doesn’t suit you, you might prefer Bing at www.bing.com.
To use this method begin by visiting one of these or any other search engine you prefer by typing its address into the address bar. We will be using Google as our example so that we can all begin, both literally and metaphorically, on the same page.
When you open the search site, you are likely to be placed in the “Search” edit field (which may also be called a “combo box” or “editable combo box” depending on the screen reader and browser you are using). If your focus is not in this edit field, use your arrow keys or tab and shift tab until you are in this box.
Here is where things get both a bit more complicated and a bit more fun. Enter your search term or terms and press Enter. The browser will load a new page containing a list of results based on what you typed. For our example today, I chose “NFB.”
So, I just mentioned that things can get more complicated. Well, “NFB” is actually a pretty great example of how that can happen. Although all of us here would think of the “National Federation of the Blind” first when we hear the acronym “NFB” this is, in fact, not the only organization represented by these letters. When I searched for “NFB” the first search result I received was for the “National Film Board of Canada,” and although the National Federation of the Blind was included in the list of results, there were several other National Film Board results as well. Not precisely what I had in mind.
Well, let’s try again… “National Federation of the Blind.” Follow that by Enter, and yes, there we are. The first page in this batch of web results was in fact for our “NFB.”
The lesson from this searching snafu is simple. Be prepared to reframe your search attempts. Using a search engine to find what you are looking for is very similar to using maps and compasses when travelling in the car. You will not get where you want to be unless you understand how to at least minimally use the tools on offer and know what you are looking for. I have been assured that there are eighty-eight locations in the United States that share the name of “Washington” (discounting roads, streets, and the like). Therefore, if you decide you want to go to Washington, you need to know which one you want in order to use your map and compass to get you there.
Admittedly, when you don’t know quite what you are after, you can take advantage of the search engine’s guidebook-like features and try out search suggestions. The way that you would do this is to start typing your search term in the “editable combo box” from earlier. After you have typed a few letters, you can press down arrow to browse the options offered, again choosing one with the Enter key. We will talk more about “combo boxes” in the next article, but since they are important to making the most out of your search engine experience, I want to at least briefly discuss them here. Incidentally, there are times that the box will not open with just the arrow key or will automatically go to the first thing on the list when you press the down arrow. If this happens, return to the box, (when necessary) and try opening it up with the key combination Alt-down arrow.
Our third option for finding things on the web is the equivalent to just jumping in the car, picking a direction, and driving. It’s a road trip. It’s an adventure, and more often than not, it’s going to take you to places you would have never seen before. (Whether this is a good thing or a bad thing depends entirely on how you are feeling, how long you have to spend in this endeavor, and just which links you decide to activate.)
Large portions of the internet are built to encourage random exploration. Shopping sites, news sites, social media, and everyone in between want to keep you on their websites for as long as possible. Whether they are hoping to get you to look at advertisements, buy something, or just learn why their organization/product/conspiracy theory/resource is the most interesting or relevant, the majority of sites are built with a large number of links to similar or related content in order to keep you clicking. Most web denizens have taken this bait, at least occasionally—I certainly have. In fact, I have found myself, more times than I would like to admit, shaking my head as I ask myself questions like: “How is it already 3 AM?” “What was I supposed to be doing again?” and “How did I find myself watching a YouTube video about the depiction of medieval farming practices in video games?” (I never did come up with an answer to that last question, by the way.)
Browsing the web for leisure can be a great way to become more comfortable with using your screen reader and browser together. Spending some time this way may also provide you with new interests, hobbies, and opportunities you never considered before. There are websites for just about any hobby, profession, or interest I can think of, so explore a little, and see what you can find. If you need a push in the right direction, you might try a few of the following resources:
It seems important to point out at this juncture that like television—and every other medium—you can’t trust everything you see or hear. Social media campaigns, advertising, hoaxes, and “fake news” all exist on the internet, so it is important to be savvy about what you accept as fact. I recently was involved in a conversation with a friend who announced, “Silvester Stallone just died.” A second friend asked, “Are you sure?” and the first person replied, “No, I just read it on the internet.” In this case, my friend was right to be skeptical, as apparently Sylvester and his family have been very vocal about the fact that the rumors of his demise were greatly exaggerated. Essentially the point of this section is to simply remind you to check your sources and that like with everything else in life, if it looks too good to be true, it probably is.
Websites can be… complicated. There is a lot on most pages, and finding the information you want, instead of the random bits of fluff you don’t, can be time consuming and occasionally frustrating, but there are lots of strategies you can employ to help you find what you are looking for more quickly and easily. Learning these basic techniques will greatly improve your experiences on the web. Although these tips will work best for well-maintained and accessible sites, they are often enough to make browsing the average so-so site relatively painless, and sometimes even the fairly inaccessible site possible, if not exactly… enjoyable.
Today we are going to cover just the basic tools in your glove box, but once you have these tools down, you will find browsing can be much faster, easier, and more pleasant than if you feel you have to read every word on a page or tab through every link.
Nearly every road includes some signs you can use to find your way. Location information, navigational guideposts, mile markers, and even billboards provide drivers with useful and sometimes crucial information for safely and effectively reaching their destination. In the same way, different elements on a webpage can be used to help you quickly and efficiently cruise to the portion of a webpage you want to read and interact with. Although the commands differ, each of the major screen readers we have discussed so far in these articles offer keystrokes for moving by most of these different element types, so let’s discuss a few and see how you can make the most of them.
Note: NVDA, JAWS, and VoiceOver each allow for single key navigation to the next and previous instance of most of the common elements outlined below. In order for this to work, VoiceOver needs to have “Quick Access” enabled, NVDA needs to be in “browse mode,” and JAWS needs to be using the “Virtual Cursor.” To move forward by each element type in all three screen readers, you would just press the required keystroke. To go back by the same element, use Shift in combination with that letter. As we discussed earlier, I am unable to outline each keystroke for each screen reader, so I will demonstrate with NVDA. If you are using VoiceOver or JAWS, please consult your documentation. If you wish to follow along, I’ll be using a few different websites to demonstrate how each of these browsing tricks work. Some content may change, but I expect the general structure of the sites are going to be fairly consistent.
Let’s start with a relatively new item you will find on websites. Landmarks or Regions (terminology on these is determined by your screen reader and browser combination) are large overarching buckets of content on a page. If the page is coded well, the number of these will be relatively limited—usually no more than five or six to a page. If it is not, sometimes you will find considerably more, but either way, it helps to divide up the space.
If your webpage were an apartment, think of landmarks as being each of the different rooms. “Top Navigation” might be like your entryway, “Main content” might be the living room, and “footer” might be like the back bedroom where you store all the extra junk you don’t know what to do with.
Landmarks are generally meant for screen-reader users and others using access technology only. They are almost always invisible to sighted visitors to a site, so asking a visual user what is under the “Main content” landmark is going to be an unproductive and confusing exercise for you both. Landmarks/regions are intended to help you quickly move past the parts of the page you aren’t interested in and straight to the parts you do care about. They perform a similar function as “headings” which we will discuss shortly, except at a higher level of organization.
Remember, unless otherwise stated, all practical examples are provided using the base of NVDA and Chrome. Please consult documentation for your preferred tools if necessary.
JAWS users looking for information on how to complete this exercise will want to be aware that most JAWS documentation refers to landmarks as “regions” so you will want to search out “region” in the help system instead of “Landmark.”
Heading elements act just like the headings in a book or article. Visually, they are usually bigger and bolder than other text with the intent that they will attract attention and aid the user in skimming the content on the page for what most interests them. They perform the same function for screen-reader users, but they perform it a bit differently. Headings are coded with a special tag which tells our system “Hey, this text is a heading! It’s important!” When these tags exist, our screen reader can jump directly to them. Headings on the web are available from levels one through six, and ideally they will be in a hierarchical structure. To illustrate:
Occasionally a site will be coded so text will look like headings, without the special tag in the background which tells the screen reader that it is a heading, but this is fairly uncommon. Many sites don’t follow the hierarchical structure outlined above, but even so, you can usually get a good overview of what’s available by perusing the headings on any given page.
During this exercise, you may have noticed something interesting. Each heading was also another element. For instance, “Search Results” was a landmark, and each search result heading was also a link. Many elements will do some form of double duty, and it can be useful to keep track of these methods of structuring a page. To illustrate, you may be able to use the fact that every search result is both a link and a heading, but not every link on the page is a heading. So you can choose to move by headings even if you are looking for links if there are less of them on the page.
As mentioned above, links are the interconnecting elements on the internet that move you from one page to another. A page may contain just one or two, or literally hundreds. They can be named something descriptive like “Expedia’s commitment to accessibility” or something less useful, like “click here,” or “read more.” In a very real sense, links are the glue that hold the web together. Without links, we wouldn’t have the “web” we know today. They are the threads that connect one page to the next, or the interconnecting roads that make it possible for us to “drive” from Google to the NFB homepage, to the booking site for the convention hotel.
In fact, links have become such a part of modern computing that you will find them everywhere. They exist in electronic books, emails, Word documents, and a number of other file types I’m probably forgetting right now. Although they may take you to other resources on your computer, the vast majority of links you find anywhere will bring you back to the browser and a page on the internet.
Links can move you to different places on the same page or can take you to different pages. Usually, though not always, a link that moves you on the same page will be announced as a “same page link” or something similar. Links can also be “visited,” meaning you have used that link in the past, or “unvisited” meaning that you haven’t used that link before, (or occasionally that your computer forgot that you used it). This can be useful because you can choose to quickly retrace your steps to an especially helpful page by moving directly to visited links, or you can skip to only those you have not used before.
We have barely scratched the surface when it comes to the different signposts or elements you can use when browsing the web. There are many more yet to explore: graphics, edit fields, checkboxes, buttons, lists, tables, and even plain non-interactive text. Your screen reader has commands for moving to most if not all of these item types. Experiment a bit with jumping by different item types on different pages, and see which ones give you the best results. Those we covered above are usually the ones that I try when first looking over a page because they are often used to convey structure, but if you are looking for the search box on a website or the first field in a form, you might find that using E for edit field or F for form element will produce better results. In future articles we will discuss several of these element types in more detail, so stay tuned.
Sometimes you just don’t care about everything on a webpage. In fact, as you continue to practice browsing, you will likely find that you don’t care about the majority of information on some pages. The techniques above will certainly help with cutting down on the clutter, but sometimes you need just a bit more when you are in a hurry or on a mission.
Sometimes it is helpful to get an overview of a site that is just a little more comprehensive than what you can collect by using your hotkeys for jumping from element to element. Sometimes you find yourself on a webpage with 400+ links, and about 200 of them are “read more.” Sometimes you are on a site you’ve visited dozens of times, and you know that the link you are looking for, “Candied Ginger” (don’t judge, I’m hungry,) is most of the way down the page. Are there any tools you can employ to shift into the fast lane and just get your project done?
Of course there are. I wouldn’t tease you like that if they didn’t exist. In each of our primary screen readers, you can find a command that will bring up lists of elements by type, which you can quickly navigate by first letter. In NVDA, the list is called the “Elements List” and it can be accessed with NVDA-F6. In the dialog that opens, you can switch between three tabs. One of these contains links, one contains headings, and the third contains landmarks. Navigate to the item you want in the list and you can then choose to activate it if it is a link, or navigate to that item on the page. JAWS users get the same sort of functionality in the “Links List” and “Headings List” (JAWS-F7 and JAWS-F6 respectively). VoiceOver handles its element lists a little differently and calls its function the “Item Chooser.” This can be enabled with VO-U, and you are able to arrow between different element types with the left and right arrow keys and to navigate any given list with up or down arrow. Pressing Enter will place you in that item’s location on the page. No matter what you call it, these lists can be powerful tools for moving quickly on busy webpages. I will note, however, that due to some changes in the way that new pages are being created and other factors these lists are not quite as reliable as they used to be, so you may still need to fall back to another method for browsing if this does not yield the results you seek.
Sometimes you come across an article or a long document that is in large part just not that relevant, but you suspect that there are a few nuggets of gold buried in that muddy morass of prose. (Yes, I am fully aware of the irony. Word has in fact informed me that I am on page eight of this article.)
Well, I have some good news for you—skim reading is powerful and easy. You can do this two different ways:
Sometimes even skimming is going to be a waste of your time. All you need is to find the contact phone number for the plumber… and you do not want to browse any longer than you have to. Or perhaps you are shopping, and the site is very cluttered. All you need to find is “Tide.” But there are over 300 links, and you just don’t care any longer. These are the times to invoke the “Find on Page” command. Each screen reader calls it something different and has a different way to invoke it, but the idea is the same across them all. Press your key command, (in my case, NVDA-Ctrl-F) type the word you are searching for, and press Enter. If the string of letters you searched for exists on the page, your screen reader will move to its location and read it out to you. Once you have been relocated, you can use any other browsing technique you like to gather the information you need surrounding that text.
Great to see you all again. I’ve signed the waiver for all of your learner’s permits. You are officially fledgling drivers on the information superhighway. Your homework is simple—go put some miles on your vehicle of choice. Find something new and interesting. Just try to avoid any drag racing please. I’m not bailing you out.
Next time we will focus on working with interactive elements and making our way through tables and forms.
(Students rush out of the room, and engines begin to roar!)