Surfing the Internet with the JAWS Screen Reader

April, 2004

Boston-IA members experienced a rare look into the eyes of a blind computer user on April 12, at Bentley University, when Valerie Clare Haven demonstrated the JAWS screen reader and the frustrations that blind people experience when they surf the Internet.

Over the last several years, Web accessibility has become an important issue, thanks to the efforts of advocacy groups such as the World Wide Web Consortium's Web Accessibility Initiative (W3C WAI), and laws such as Section 508. While the guidelines for accessible Web design are a good starting point for ensuring a positive user experience for all, many sighted Internet professionals have limited or no first-hand knowledge about how blind users really experience the Web.

On Monday, April 12, 2004, Valerie Clare Haven tried to narrow this gap by giving a demonstration using the JAWS screen reader. Valerie is a Program Development Specialist at the Institute for Community Inclusion at the University of Massachusetts at Boston, and she uses the JAWS screen reader every day. During the presentation, Valerie browsed the Internet while pointing out the qualities of accessible sites and the shortcomings of inaccessible ones. She also gave advice to the Web designers and developers in attendence about how they can help make accessibility a widespread reality for users like herself.

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Screen Reader Technology

Valerie began her presentation with a short overview of screen readers, and the technology that blind and low vision people use to surf the Internet. Screen readers are software programs that read the contents of a Web site and other software using synthetic speech.

Valerie shared some important facts about JAWS from her point of view:

  • Most people with visual impairments use PCs; few use Macintoshes.
  • Several popular screen readers include:

    from Freedom Scientific (popular on the East Coast of the United States).
    from GW-Micro (more widely used in the Midwest of the United States).
    Supernova and Hal:
    (popular outside the United States).
  • JAWS requires Internet Explorer, and, for some unknown reason, seems to work best with Dell computers.
  • JAWS is powerful, but it has a steep learning curve.
  • There is a free demo version of JAWS, which allows use of the program in 40-minute increments, or a 60-day evaluation version with no time limit, available for $39.95.
  • The full professional version costs about $1295, including the new software maintenance agreement implemented with version 5.0.

Valerie used JAWS to visit various Web sites and show examples of both inaccessible and accessible sites. She also mentioned tips and tricks that developers can use to improve the accessibility of their Web designs.

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Accessible Sites

Valerie demonstrated a few sites that she finds accessible or that meet her needs one way or another:

  • American Foundation for the Blind (

    Not only is this site well designed for screen readers, it also takes into account the needs of low vision users. The user can enlarge the font size and change colors for maxmimum contrast. For people who are colorblind, the ability to control background and foreground colors is key. (Go to the Change Colors page to experience these features for yourself.)

  • eBay (

    Although eBay has been notoriously hard to use in the past, the site has been recently improved. Valerie says that the eBay designers have done a good job with "combo" boxes and drop down lists. She says that the forms are now well designed for blind users.

  • GoDaddy (

    Although this site is not currently accessible, GoDaddy provides an invisible notice at the top of the page indicating that they are working to make their site more accessible, with a number to call for help. This is a reasonable accommodation for someone like Valerie while site improvements are under way.

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Inaccessible Sites

By contrast, Valerie demonstrated some Web sites that are very difficult to navigate with a screen reader and need improvement before they can be considered accessible:

  • Mighty Leaf Tea (

    This site is heavily graphical and provides very little information for blind users, even though Valerie loves their tea. Since the entire site is based on JavaScript and graphical text, it is impossible to use with a screen reader.

  • Amazon (

    Valerie says there is too much information on the site and it takes about an hour to listen to the home page with a screen reader. Blind users must rely on the Search function to navigate the site. Even though she looked, Valerie could not find a phone number to call for customer support. She finally had to call directory assistance.

  • Cranmore Mountain Lodge (

    This site, for an inn Valerie recently visited with friends, relies on graphical menu buttons with no alternative (Alt) text, preventing Valerie from navigating the site.

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Tips for Making Web Sites Accessible

Valerie's presentation emphasized several accessibility techniques Web developers and designers can use to make their designs more accessible:

  • On each page, try to vary the first letters of links and pay attention to link content— this makes it easier for people to use the links list feature of JAWS.
  • Use Alt text for all graphical buttons. This is a simple thing to do, yet many sites still do not do it!
  • Provide a skip-to-content link at the top of each page, so that people can skip the main navigation and get to page content right away.
  • Provide a Go button after a Search Edit field so that users know how to execute a search.
  • Provide Hot Keys (also called "Access Keys"), if possible, to allow quick access to important features on a page. However, doing so can be challenging, since there may be conflicts with hot keys used by Windows, JAWS, or Internet Explorer, and there are really no established standards. The Number Keys may be the best keys to use, since they are often not used elsewhere.
  • Hide additional information for blind users with links that are the same color as the background color of the page ("white-on-white links"). (View the source code at for an example of this technique.)
  • Use "D links" for descriptive information that is too long to include in Alt text. D links provide access to pages with more information. Although the LONGDESC attribute is designed for this purpose, there are virtually no tools that use it yet.
  • Use "You are Here" text to introduce each page as it is loaded. This gives blind users good feedback when they arrive on a new page.
  • Provide a "Top of Page" link at the bottom of each page so that users can jump back to the top of the page easily. WebAIM ( is a good example of a site using this technique.
  • Provide a phone number so that users can contact the site owners if there are problems.

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Universal Design

Valerie believes that accessible Web designs make the Web better for everyone. She used the analogy of curb cuts in sidewalks to bring home her point. Curb cuts were originally designed for wheelchairs. However, a survey showed that the people interviewed thought the curb cuts were there for them— mothers with strollers, delivery people, and even skateboarders. The same analogy can be used on the Web to give more opportunities to more users.

Valerie also mentioned another example of universal design, described at Talking Rx ( This technology allows pharmacists to record 30-second messages on prescription medicine bottles. Although originally designed for blind people, this capability has broader applications for many people, including non-English speakers and people with learning disabilities.

One of Valerie's main goals is to make people aware that accessibility and good design can go hand-in-hand. Valerie wants the Web design community to think of accessibility, not as limiting, but as a way to open more doors and broaden markets. She understands the point of view of designers who see Web design as works of art, and she wants this creativity to continue!

Web Resources

Valerie recommended two Web resources for help in developing accessible Web sites:

  • Paul Henrichsen's Home Page (

    This site includes links to "every Web site that blind people like to play in", including links to assistive technology companies, accessibility Web sites, and other resources, such as the Adobe Access Page.

  • WebAIM (

    This site includes many good resources for Web designers, besides being well-designed for screen reader access. It even has an excellent accessible chat tool.

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