A raft of new internet accessibility work by Microsoft will make the web user-experience for people with disabilities far smoother and more sophisticated. AbilityNet has a long-standing relationship with Microsoft, including user-testing its products for more than a decade. It's clear the company is striving to become market-leaders in web accessibility and there is much to be excited about, not least in their innovative approach to using APIs.
Microsoft Edge: accessibility will leap forward
One of the most significant developments is their work on Microsoft Edge, the new Windows 10 web browser. In particular they're developing an API (Application Programme Interface) for assistive technology to plug into, which could be a real game changer.
In her blog earlier this month, Jenny Lay-Flurrie, chief accessibility officer for Microsoft explained: “We’re working hard on our new browser, Microsoft Edge.
"By the end of 2016, the browser will have improved browsing and reading experiences, not just for those using our built-in assistive technologies, such as Narrator and Magnifier, but also for people who use other commercial assistive technology”.
Having looked at their thinking I'd say that APIs are a smart way to go.
Is this goodbye to slow screenreading for blind people?
At the moment, screenreaders (often used by those with a visual impairment) have to look at the source code of a web page and then recreate the content in a more readable way. Without such translation a blind user wouldn't know what was a button or a link, and the speech would read across multiple columns, making text meaningless.
This approach involves a lot of continual development work on the part of third-party screenreader manufacturers to keep up with each new browser version and new web technology. And, it can be a little hit and miss in terms of results for the user.
The big shift is that Microsoft's new API will do the translation more quickly and smoothly so that screens can be read more easily and efficiently.
Moreover, separating the process from the ‘front end’ of the browser will mean that changes in the User Interface (UI ) won’t necessarily affect what is delivered through the API.
Every second counts...
For me, as a blind person, the internet can be a bit of a nightmare. That's why I'm looking forward to these improvements, especially in speed gains.
It currently takes up to a minute after clicking a link for the browser to download every byte of source code, images and CSS. Only then can my screenreader build the virtual version and finally begin to read a page.
With this new approach I'll get web pages read to me more quickly and reliably, rather than the haphazard way third-party interpretation I sometimes get at the moment.
Many screenreader manufacturers have large teams of developers and do an excellent, if often frustratingly slow job. Others have fewer resources and the result is less consistent. But with the resource that Microsoft’s Accessibility Team has at their disposal, I have a lot of confidence in what can be achieved.
Prof Stephen Hawking and switch access scanning
The API won’t just benefit screenreader users, though. It will work for any assistive technology, including voice recognition, switch access - which is used by Prof Stephen Hawking - magnification software, and of course the good old keyboard.
Tabbing through a typical web page on a keyboard it's easy to lose focus or struggle to access a drop-down menu. Having an API with the commitment and smarts of Microsoft behind it should give everyone better access to even the most complex of websites or web apps.
Dynamically changing content, fly out menus and embedded widgets should all now be seen in a new light and I for one, as a blind user, am truly excited.
Disabled user testing is vital
Alongside this shift in Microsoft's thinking it's hugely important to AbilityNet and our extensive community of users with a disability or impairment across the world, that technology companies publicly commit to the accessibility of their products. To achieve best practice, they must also employ a wide range of users to test their products and services, and they must listen to them as early in the design process as possible.
Microsoft is significantly stepping up the testing it is doing with users who have disabilities – and AbilityNet is extremely proud to be a part of that process. Watch our blog for future developments. We'll be sure to keep you posted.
(Pictured: Stephen Hawking)