Witnessing Screen Reader Usage First-Hand

This evening saw the 2nd meeting of Manchester Digital’s Accessibility Working Group, based at the National Library for the Blind in Bredbury, Stockport (UK).


Although, I’d seen a little bit of screen readers in the wild (I downloaded a trial of JAWS a while ago but, didn’t get very far) and studied their potential application, I’d still not really had any interaction with them.


Screen readers are beyond annoying. JAWS seems to come with one accent: American (there are however, new players on the scene with a wide variety of accents but, JAWS holds 80% of the English-speaking market) and they repeat everything constantly. No wonder users speed up the talking on them!

I also learn that the way textpattern deals with form errors and comment previews are a good thing. Textpattern places a form and the preview content and/or its error messages at the top of the page and gives it focus, which helps screen reader users no end.

Separating Content from Presentation = good

Well this was pretty obvious, I presumed, but not to all it transpired. In a room of about 20-30 people, most of whom were web designers, about half had never heard of CSS Zen Garden, that, to me, was shocking.

Lots of links = bad

It was my impression that littering a page with lots of links, many to the same page was a good thing… I was wrong. This is apparently a pet hate of the visually impaired.

Other learnings

Everyone has different preferences e.g.:

  • Some people prefer text-only versions of websites
  • Some people despise text-only versions and are positively offended by them

I got JJB’s new website tested and it pronounced some problems – mainly the JavaScript menu and for how the page looks odd when text is resized which, to be honest, I expected.

New ideas

One idea that was suggested was for internal links e.g. a link to a website’s content page should link straight to the content of that page e.g.

<a href="/contact/#content" mce_href="/contact/#content">contact</a>

This idea is a good one but may not work in every circumstance. An internal page navigation hidden from sight of the sighted may be another solution allowing screen reader users to move to the navigation, or footer or content easily.


This was a very interesting experience and one that will change the way I design websites in the future.

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