[uf-discuss] Request for help from screen reader users from the BBC

Alasdair King alasdairking at gmail.com
Wed May 28 05:41:25 PDT 2008

Hi Michael,

I'm sorry, I didn't mean to imply any mendacity on your part. I'm
fully appreciative and admiring of the BBC's long-term support for
accessibility, including BETSIE, informal support for my BBC-using
programs, and use of accessibility features like skiplinks. That said,
I recognise the difficult legal, political and regulatory environment
you're in: otherwise I'd be writing "Don't use microformats: publish a
podcast of your programmes with DRM-free video and audio content with
audio descriptions at the other end instead" and that wouldn't be
helpful to you, right? Smile.

I'm arguing the following:

1 You have a large potential base of non-technical, vision-impaired
users. They really are not technical. They often don't understand the
Windows Start menu, how Windows Explorer works, the difference between
an executable and a shortcut on the desktop, the difference between
HTML as opposed to text format email. They have a set of heuristic
techniques and processes they have been shown by volunteers or nephews
and follow them to perform the task they want to do. Some have JAWS,
lots more have NVDA or Thunder, few know how to change their
preferences or what that means. They turn on the computer and press
the keys they have learned to press to do what they want, and that's
it. If what they get out isn't what they expect, they'll try the keys
again or restart the computer. It's incredibly time-consuming, but
it's independent activity.

2 There was a recent discussion on the British Computer Association of
the Blind mailing list about how hard blind users found the iPlayer
pages: well-constructed, fully-accessible web pages, with accessible
Flash embedded. Good, accessible design from the BBC as always, but
still people having problems. Why? Because it's really difficult to
use a screenreader, relative to a sighted person. The cost profile is
higher and different, in formal usability terms. The solution (I
believe) is to provide tools (programs) that let vision-impaired users
do the things they want to do easily. For example, I have a
well-regarded (free) Accessible BBC Listen Again program that scrapes
your BBC Listen Again pages and presents the contents as an
alphabetically-ordered list. Menus control the station. Hit Return to
Play, Escape to Stop. Volume resets when you close the program in case
the user accidentally turns it off and can't get any subsequent sound.
The point is not to provide every feature of your Listen Again pages,
like the links to the station websites, but to make it really really
easy to do the core function: listen to the radio with just a few

I'd like to do this with your television stations, and with your old
archived output when it's available. If you end up with a bunch of web
pages I'll write a scraper/crawler, but if you use microformats it'll
make it much easier and more reliable for me to produce a putative
"Accessible BBC Archive" program. And if microformats spread from you
to other sites, then more data will become machine readable and more
simple tools or scripts for vision-impaired users will be possible.
Hence my support.

3 Working in web accessibility leads one to mix with highly-technical
professional screenreader users. They should not, I argue, be your
target audience. A highly-technical JAWS user will write a script to
get round ABBR problems and distribute it to other users, or just use
the webpages for sighted people, or turn off ABBR again. If
microformats take off then Freedom Scientific will make sure that
script ships with JAWS anyway, and all the vendors will follow suit. I
am, therefore, as a professional working in software for
vision-impaired people, not worried about the impact on screenreader
users of the ABBR tag, since I think the temporary and minor
disbenefits are outweighed by the major benefits.

Finally, on people with cognitive problems: a significant proportion
of the UK population has cognitive, literacy, and learning
difficulties. How much time do you spend on their needs in web design?
A far smaller proportion are screenreader users: how much time do you
spend on their needs in web design - like now? There is a strong
argument that the needs of people with cognitive problems are not
properly addressed. I don't have any answers for that one, I must
stress, but it does seem to me that the needs of screenreader users
have historically been politically more important in web design -
possibly because people with cognitive problems have more alternative
technologies and sources of content, where for blind people the
Internet is unique as a source of news, entertainment, communication
and independence.

All the best,
Dr. Alasdair King

On Tue, May 27, 2008 at 9:47 AM, Michael Smethurst
<Michael.Smethurst at bbc.co.uk> wrote:
> On 22/5/08 19:04, "Alasdair King" <alasdairking at gmail.com> wrote:
>> Michael Smethurst wrote:
>> "Of 4 users 2 had abbreviation expansion turned on."
>> Ah, but what was your sample group? Were they, by any chance,
>> highly-able professionals, probably with a business interest in web
>> design and accessibility? Or were they little old ladies using Thunder
>> or NVDA because those screenreaders are free?
> The honest answer is I don't know. But I'm not sure why highly-able
> professionals shouldn't be able to find out what's on telly tonight.
>> Apparently JAWS has ABBR support off but ACRONYM on by default, which
>> surprised me. Anyway, I have one user whose screenreader doesn't
>> support ABBR (Thunder), and one who uses JAWS and leaves it off so
>> far. I'll mail you details privately.
> Thanks, any data appreciated
> Abbreviation expansion is not our only problem. Screenreaders can also be
> set up to read *all* title attributes - read tool tips and expand
> abbreviations settings are orthogonal. With tool tips reading turned on
> users get the full datetime read out when they float their mouse over the
> abbreviation. Anecdotally this seems to be a far more common configuration
> for partially sited users.
>> Interestingly, I think your "what about people with cognitive problems
>> getting confused?" point might be of more real-world importance, but
>> since people cognitive problems are not as powerful politically they
>> probably aren't a problem for you.
> Don't want to sound prickly here but our intentions are strictly honourable.
> We're not doing this to pick holes with microformats or tick bbc boxes or
> avoid being sued. We're just a bunch of developers trying to do 'the right
> thing'. Whether people with cognitive problems are politically powerful or
> not if they can't use our site we're doing something wrong.
> http://www.bbc.co.uk/
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Alasdair King

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