Testing Software with JAWS and ZoomText

November 2005

Maria Rueters, instructor at the Carroll Center for the Blind in Newton, Massachusetts, and outgoing president of VIBUG (Visually Impaired and Blind User Group), spoke at the Boston-IA meeting on November 17, 2005. She demonstrated the use of JAWS and ZoomText (two assistive technologies for visual impairments) for testing Web sites and software applications for accessibility.

Topic: "Testing Software with JAWS and ZoomText"

Date: November 17, 2005

Speaker: Maria Rueters

Location: Bentley University
Waltham, Massachusetts

On November 17, Maria Rueters demonstrated how testing with the tools designed for people who are blind or have low vision can help make Web sites and software applications more accessible for people with a wide variety of visual impairments.

Maria focused on the JAWS screen reader from Freedom Scientific (used by many blind people to listen to the text on the computer screen) and the ZoomText screen magnifier from Ai Squared (used by people with low vision to enlarge screen text).

Maria is an ideal presenter for this topic, for many reasons:

  • She experiences low vision herself, which means that she uses JAWS for performing certain activities such as reading web site content or e-mail, and she uses ZoomText to perform tasks such as editing documents.
  • She has extensive experience as an instructor, which includes teaching others to use assistive technology products.
  • The hardware and software she used for her demonstration is slightly older technology. This use of older software is typical of many people in the blind and low-vision user population, providing us with a real-world demonstration.
  • Prior to her work at the Carroll Center, Maria worked in the software industry as a quality assurance engineer for such companies as Allaire (Macromedia/Adobe) and Thomson Financial.

Blind and low-vision users gain a level of independence with technology and the use of assistive technology software. Like the general population, they range from unsophisticated to very sophisticated users. JAWS is a complex program. Even though she is an instructor of JAWS and has expertise in creating user scripts for JAWS, Maria admits there are features she seldom uses.

With special reading glasses and a large monitor, Maria can decipher information on the screen if she sits close to the monitor. She can see when something is happening on the screen, and she can detect color and icons, but she cannot see the mouse pointer. She prefers a standard-sized keyboard, even with her laptop. Although she often uses a mouse, she reminded us that most blind users rely entirely on the keyboard.

Maria ran her demo with older hardware and software: the Windows ME operating system, JAWS 5.0 (the latest version is 7.0), and ZoomText 8.0 (the latest version is 9.0). It is not uncommon for blind or low-vision users to be running older versions because of hardware and software costs, and the fact that many blind people are unemployed or do not have large incomes. On the other hand, many blind and low vision users keep up-to-date and run the very latest versions.

When screen reader software was first introduced, it supported DOS, which presented few challenges because it was completely text-based and there was always a cursor location. The introduction of graphical user interfaces, such as Windows and the Web, required that screen readers start all over again and deal with more complexity, images, and the frequent lack of cursor position.

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JAWS costs over $1000, mostly due to its small market. Most people need training to learn how to use JAWS. The Carroll Center for the Blind offers basic JAWS training for one week or two weeks to blind students as part of their residential program.

JAWS is customizable. Users can write their own scripts that can be associated with an application to make it more accessible. Sophisticated users can make inaccessible software more accessible using JAWS scripts.

Maria's demonstration of JAWS included the following:

  • Using Windows shortcuts to scroll through the desktop icons (using arrow keys or typing the starting letter of an icon's name).
  • Starting and stopping the screen reading using the Control key.
  • Moving word-by-word and character-by-character, and scrolling through a Word document.
  • Reading selected text.
  • Controlling the reading speed.
  • Customizing the reading voice (male or female, robotic or human-like, and a variety of dialects).

Maria opened some web pages and demonstrated the orientation and navigation features offered by JAWS, which include:

  • Indications of the number of links, headings, and frames on a page.
  • Navigation to the top or bottom of a page.
  • Search functions.
  • Customization of JAWS, such as a particular sound (a ding on Maria's computer) to indicate a link during the screen reading.
  • Navigation between links.
  • Lists of links, frames, or headings to allow selection from the list using the arrow keys or by entering a first letter.

Note that the Links list in JAWS is not particularly useful if the link text states "Learn More" or "Click here" rather than something more descriptive, especially when these phrases are used multiple times per page.

The screen reader depends upon the use of standard HTML tags (for example, for headings). The web developer must use good HTML. In addition, alternative text for graphics, skip navigation links, shortcuts, and other HTML coding makes web pages more accessible.

Maria feels that graphic images add little value for her, so she prefers short descriptions (using alt attributes) for images. She is mostly interested in the text, audio, and video.

Maria is not particularly bothered by links that open new browser windows, since the Windows shortcut Alt-Tab allows her to navigate between windows. Assigning descriptive web page titles, however, assists in this navigation.

JAWS has a forms mode, which Maria demonstrated, switching from forms to editing mode and back. In order for forms to be accessible, the web developer needs to associate labels with form fields. In addition, the developer should use real buttons and text rather than images for actions to submit information (such as pressing Enter or clicking Go).

Maria demonstrated the challenges of locating content quickly with two examples: getting to the text of an e-mail message in WebMail, and finding the recipe she wants on a web page. She showed us how she uses search techniques like looking for text likely to be nearby (such as "Add to Addressbook" in an e-mail header), or text likely to be part of the content she wants to read (such as an ingredient or measurement in a recipe).

JAWS can affect the performance of a computer, requiring occasional rebooting, which we even experienced during Maria's presentation.

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ZoomText is offered in two versions, Magnifier only or a Magnifier/Reader combination, with pricing ranging from approximately $400 to $600. Users with vision impairments can take keyboard instruction classes on ZoomText at the Carroll Center.

As Maria demonstrated ZoomText, she showed us the following features:

  • Screen magnification from 2 to 16 times the normal size.
  • Customization of the mouse pointer by changing the size of the pointer or by displaying a circle around the pointer when it is moving.
  • Customization of screen foreground and background colors.
  • Borders around individual words as you read.
  • Search function.
  • Configuration files that can be customized for different users and different applications.

ZoomText combines magnification and some screen reader functions, which helps people whose eyesight is getting worse over time.

Learning More

For people who want to test software applications or web sites themselves, evaluation copies are available:

  • ZoomText (from Ai Squared at www.aisquared.com): a 30-day evaluation version.
  • JAWS (from Freedom Scientific at www.freedomscientific.com): the evaluation copy does not expire, but a timeout requires the user to restart the computer every 40 minutes to continue using JAWS.

JAWS online Help supplies useful information for getting started.

Barbara Casaly is a member of Boston-IA and a senior member of STC. She is the manager of Member Profiles for the STC Boston Chapter and serves on the STC Internet Committee.

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