December 26 2023

Screen Readers are the Wheelchairs of the Web

When you think of a person in a wheelchair, you may initially think that a wheelchair could make daily life more difficult, might hamper a person’s ability to get around, or how stairs would be an obstacle. However, a wheelchair is actually a helpful tool that can increase someone’s mobility. For physically disabled people, a wheelchair allows them to move around independently for much longer than they could without it. The sitting position of a wheelchair allows someone to carry something on their lap, even if the user needs their hands to move the chair. An electric wheelchair can even be controlled with a small joystick, or a variety of other input devices, so people with very little mobility to be mobile independently.

Screen readers are a key online, assistive technology

Similarly, screen readers are an online tool that help someone with limited abilities to more effectively navigate the internet. For many users, the screen reader allows them to use the web if they otherwise couldn’t, or for a longer period of time. The fact that a screen reader does what it says, “reads your screen,” means it can be used by reading learners to understand content that’s above their reading level, users that have trouble with comprehension of written text, or by those with certain visual impairments. By using headings and links, a screen reader user can quickly move around the page to find the information they need, sometimes even quicker than other users.

Developing websites for screen readers

When you think of the building blocks of, well, a building, you might think of floors. Wheelchairs are incredibly efficient at getting around flat floors. When we start adding changes in elevation to a building, that’s when wheelchairs can run into problems. Extra floors and stairs can make it challenging for a wheelchair to traverse in areas that otherwise wouldn’t have been an issue.

The web’s most basic element is text, something a screen reader was built to interpret - like a wheelchair was designed for level ground. It’s when we start adding multimedia like images, videos, or complex page structures – the “floors and stairs” – that the screen reader starts to need extra help to “get around” a website. Animated GIFs can cause unnecessary difficult “terrain” for screen readers and even “normal” users. To prevent this, we now have guidelines for how we build things in both the real world and the web (e.g., adding pause/play buttons) to make it easy for everyone to get around. The physical world has Accessible Design, and likewise, the web has the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG).

Comparing online and physical structure accessibility
Variations in floor height aren’t the only ways we can make buildings difficult to traverse for our proverbial wheelchairs. Accessibility online and in physical structures can sometimes be hard to recognize, and there are many subtle accommodations that you might not even notice at first.

  • Buildings require ramps or elevators to allow wheelchairs to go up and down to access the right floor. Similarly, websites should have sitemaps, intuitive navigation paths, and search functions to allow users to easily get to the page they’re looking for.

  • Doorways and hallways need to have a minimum size to allow wheelchairs to be maneuvered easily. Similarly, websites need to be built to be responsive and adjust to any screen size or device to ensure a positive user experience for all visitors.

  • Signs need to have braille so that someone with a visual impairment can interpret them. On the web, images need alternative text to be read by a screen reader by those with similar limitations.

Website ADA specialists

Buildings use architects who ensure the design is accessible against current ADA guidelines. For the web, an ADA specialist is like that architect. A specialist ensures that your images are properly labeled with alt text. They check to ensure that the page layout of your site can be maneuvered around on various devices and screen sizes, and especially by a screen reader. A specialist ensures that tables and headings are properly labeled and marked up so screen reader users can access information. When you build a building without wheelchairs in mind, or a website without considering screen readers, you could end up making issues for all people.

ZAG’s ADA specialists are involved in the website structure, design, development, and ongoing maintenance to ensure the web’s version of a person in a wheelchair can effortlessly glide where they want to go, without encountering obstacles. Whether you need a new accessible site or to evaluate your current site’s accessibility, ZAG has certified specialists that can help, so contact us. Learn more about our website accessibility services and access our accessibility FAQs.

  • Website Compliance

posted by
Brian Talbot
Brian Talbot
QA & Certified Accessibility Analyst

ZAG Interactive is a full-service digital agency in Glastonbury, CT, offering website design, development, marketing and digital strategy to clients nationwide. See current job openings.