For the past few days, I’ve been hard at work creating a personal website for myself. It’s sort of like a portfolio, but a little more flexible than just that. I wanted a place to tie together everything that I do online into one spot. So, in lieu of an “official” announcement, here is my new personal website. It’s still somewhat of a work in progress, but for about two days of work, I think it looks pretty good. Because I now have webspace, I will likely be moving this blog there, so you can likely expect some changes in the next few days.
Anyway, while creating the site, I was reminded of some of the strategies for accessibility that I learned a long time ago. Because not all individuals use regular browsers or interact with a mouse and keyboard, it’s important to make sure that one’s website is accessible to these people. In particular, I was looking up “skip navigation” links (which skip past repetitive links to help users using screen readers to get to the actual content of the site) and accesskeys (which help keyboard users quickly access common pages on the site). This got me thinking about how different it must be for someone to access websites only through sound, or only using a keyboard, etc. I realized that these people approach websites in fundamentally different ways than a sighted user without mobility issues using a mouse and keyboard does.
Now of course, I worked at Human Resources and Skills Development Canada for four months, and during that time my major project was to research the benefits and challenges that the Internet provides for people with disabilities. Based on what I found (through Statistics Canada surveys as well as other sources), many people with disabilities find the Internet to be an incredibly useful resource. Compared to the general population, they are more likely to say that the Internet has greatly improved their quality of life—and this is even more apparent among those with severe disabilities. However, as one might expect, severe disabilities make it difficult for people to access the Internet, and so this produces a group who stands to benefit greatly from this resource, yet statistically has one of the lowest rates of Internet use (both in Canada and the United States). There are other incredible stats that I found in my research, but I realized that I could do a bit of primary research myself. In some small way, I realized that I could participate and get a glimpse into the predicament facing thousands of people out there. So, I resolved to try to use only my keyboard for a couple of days to see what it was like.
You might not think it would be that hard to just use a keyboard. We use keyboards all the time, after all. But I found it incredibly challenging. It’s only been two days, but the problems I faced were immediately apparent and have been pretty consistent so far. So I’d like to say a few things about my experiences. Of course, I must note a couple things. First, there are some challenges that might only appear over a longer time period. Also, keep in mind that the challenges that people face obviously differ based on the type and severity of the disability. Not all people with disabilities use keyboards exclusively, or even at all, so what I say is only relevant to a small subsection of individuals. But I still think some of it can be generalized to paint a broader picture. So let me share a few things that I’ve learned over these past two days.
1. Navigating without a mouse is really hard.
Seriously, it’s difficult. You don’t realize how much you rely on the mouse until you try to go without it. It really changes how you approach a website or a program. When I, a mouse user, look at a website, I will scan the content, using my scroll wheel to browse through it. When I see a link I am interested in, I just need to make a small hand movement and click the link. Or consider navigating through my files on Windows Explorer: I scroll through the folders on the left, then click the one I want to expand, then find the correct file and double-click on it. Easy peasy.
This all changes with keyboard navigation. I can still scan through the content using the arrow keys (at least on Google Chrome, anyway), but if I want to select a link, I have to press the Tab key about a million times to go through each individual link until I get to the one I want. On large sites, this gets tedious. In addition, most sites are not designed for people with disabilities. There were some sites where there was no indication that a certain link was selected; I had to rely on the status bar at the bottom to see if the URL seemed to match up with the link I thought was selected. All this served to make web browsing slow. I’m sure to some extent it gets easier with practice, but it’s still much slower to navigate without a mouse.
Similarly, with other programs like Windows Explorer, the process takes much longer. If I want to open a certain file, I have to use the Tab key to cycle through the different window panes and get to the one on the left, then use the arrow keys to find the right folder, then hit the ‘+’ key to expand it, then hit the Tab key to cycle through the panes to the list of files (in the right pane), then use the arrow keys again, then hit Enter on the one I want. Again, I’m sure it gets easier with practice, but the more complex the program, the more difficult it is to use it without a mouse.
2. Consistency is key.
Almost immediately after I started the experiment, I had to look up keyboard shortcuts because I had to ask myself, “Okay, I have this task I want to do…now how do I do it?” I had to learn shortcuts for Google Chrome to navigate through tabs, to select the address bar, to go Back or Forward, to navigate through elements in websites, etc. After figuring that out somewhat, I would have something else I needed to do, and had to look up Windows shortcuts. Then, as I was setting up my website, I had to learn shortcuts for Textpad and FlashFXP. Each program I opened had its own set of keyboard shortcuts, which is fine, except I didn’t know any of them. So here, consistency is key. If Tab has a similar function in every program, then it makes the learning process much easier. If Alt+F4 always closes the current window, it makes it much simpler.
But then I had Gmail to tackle. Gmail has its own set of keyboard shortcuts which were not at all intuitive to me (‘e’ to Archive something? What?). It was very confusing, and until I had figured out how to do the simple tasks, I had to change it to the “basic HTML” setting so I could tab through each item individually. If it had been somewhat consistent with other programs and websites, it would have been much easier, I think.
3. Anything “Web 2.0” is very difficult.
I hate this term, but “Web 2.0” essentially includes anything made after about the year 2000. Anything to do with social networking, blogs, wikis, etc. These were all very difficult to use. It’s possible that there are shortcuts I just didn’t come across, but I think most of the difficulty is due to the fact that these sites simply aren’t designed with people with disabilities in mind. At all.
Let’s take Facebook for starters. For each entry on my news feed, there are about four or five links. With about 30 items in my news feed, that gets incredibly difficult to navigate using only the Tab key. Then, of course, there are buttons that lead to drop-down menus, content that gets overlaid over other content, and other complex features. And to top it off, when there were comments that were shortened with a simple text link to “see more”, I couldn’t select the link using the Tab key. It would simply skip right over it. That was incredibly frustrating.
Twitter was equally difficult. The new Twitter just recently released looks amazing, and is so easy to use—when you have a mouse. For example, when you click on a certain tweet, there is a tray that opens up on the right-hand side with more information about it. However, there doesn’t seem to be any way to use that with just a keyboard. I also was unable to use the buttons under each tweet to reply to or retweet it, and the tabs at the top of the page don’t have any visible signs that they are selected, nor do they give any meaningful information in the status bar.
To sum up, these sites are simply not created with people with disabilities in mind. And that’s disappointing. Social networking offers a vast opportunity for community and sharing of one’s personal story, but people with disabilities are essentially excluded from this, or at best, are relegated to a dark corner of the room.
4. Some things don’t work properly without a mouse.
Even in the short time that I was doing this experiment, I found several things that either didn’t work how they were supposed to, or seemed to be impossible to do.
This was immediately apparent with the large majority of websites, which were not made accessible. Most did not offer any “skip navigation” links to avoid having to tab through the sidebar every single time. Most offered no keyboard shortcuts (or at least if they did, they were not advertised). And many made it difficult to see if links were selected, because they had changed the links to make them more aesthetically pleasing.
One other thing that did not work properly was Google Chrome’s interaction with the Tab key. I came across this when trying to use the “skip navigation” links that were present on some sites. I would select the link, press enter, and it would take me to the content. However, when I pressed Tab to go to the first link within the content, it would take me back to the sidebar again. In other words, the viewport changed position, but the focus of the tabbed links stayed on the “skip navigation” link. This completely defeats the purpose of this sort of link. I thought it was just a problem with how the websites had set it up, until I realized that it worked properly in Firefox. I had to hunt online for a while to even find a mention of this problem with Chrome. Although as a mouse user, I love Chrome, if I had to use the keyboard permanently, this problem alone would cause me to choose another browser. It would simply be so aggravating that I wouldn’t be able to stand it.
5. Some things just can’t be done without a mouse.
There were also things that didn’t seem to be possible at all without a mouse.1 One of these was the simple inability to re-order tabs in Chrome. I do this all the time normally—click and hold the tab, drag it somewhere else, then let go. Being unable to do this was frustrating for me. Similarly, I do’t think there is a way to rearrange icons on the desktop. Perhaps there is, but in the documentation of Windows keyboard shortcuts, I found no mention of it. I often rearrange my icons to create groups that help me find the one I want. Not being able to do this made things difficult.
One other strange quirk was that I couldn’t seem to find any quick way to get to my Spam folder in Gmail. Every other folder (Inbox, Sent Mail, All Mail, etc.) had a key assigned to it so that you could get to it quickly. Not so with the Spam folder. Now, normally this isn’t too much of a problem, but when you think you are supposed to have an email and you don’t, where’s the first place you check? The Spam folder, of course. It was these simple little things that ended up making life difficult. Everything took ten steps to do, or else it didn’t seem possible to do it at all.
With these things in mind, let me just stress how much of an advantage we abled people have. You don’t even realize it until you take just a small step to see what it’s like. I mean, I’m not holding up my experience as some amazing thing—I still know nothing about what it’s like to live with a disability. But I at least caught a glimpse of it, and of the advantages that I enjoy. Doing this for just two days made me frustrated enough to try to avoid using the Internet as much as I could. With it so difficult to browse Facebook and Twitter, it made me hesitant to contribute, because it would be an ordeal just to do so. And that’s just taking away the mouse. I can’t imagine what it must be like to navigate the Internet using a screen reader that reads everything off to you, or use a magnifier program to blow everything up to four or five times the size, or use a special browser that turns off all stylistic elements and makes everything high contrast just so you can see it properly. These are all things that some people have to use just to check their email, or do online banking, or access important services. I can’t imagine what that must be like—but I can try to help remove the barriers where I can. As a web designer, I can design my website in a way that makes it accessible to all. As a citizen, I can lobby for better regulations regarding the accessibility of websites. As a decent human being, I can try to understand the issues and share in the joys and struggles of fellow human beings.
Computers and the Internet hold great benefit for all of us. They hold special benefit for those who have mobility issues or mental impairments that can limit their connection to the real-life, outside world. The Internet can allow these people to share their own experience with others in ways they never could before. But without abled people recognizing the issues and rectifying them (since, let’s face it, the vast majority of websites are built by people who do not have disabilities), we stand to lose out on a wealth of insight.
In summary, I’d recommend trying this experiment for a day or two yourself. It is too easy for many of us to completely ignore the plight of those with disabilities, simply because many of us don’t interact with them on a daily basis. This experiment was a small way of increasing my understanding, and I’d encourage others to do the same. I suppose there are likely better ways to understand disability, but this is easy enough for anyone to do. Perhaps it might spark your interest to dive in further.
- Note: Some of these may in fact be possible, but I could not find any documentation on how to do it. [↩]