Learning how to use assistive tech can be a real pain, especially when your tools are between mixed OSes. Here are a few quick tips on getting set up fast.
What you’ll need
First, let’s talk about the tooling you’ll need to test well across the most common assistive technologies and browsers. It’s important to cover the basics below, and test on every browser with each tool, as they all return slightly different results (whether the standard says so or not). And yes, Voiceover on Mac is different from Voiceover on iOS.
- Windows PC
- Mac OS
- An Android phone or Android emulator (like BlueStacks)
The assistive technologies
- VoiceOver (Mac & iOS. Free.)
- JAWS (Windows. Not free, but there is a 40-minute mode which may be of some use to you.)
- NVDA (Windows. Free.)
- Nuance’s Dragon (Windows. Cheapest is “Personal”, about 250 USD. There is no trial version…)
- Talkback (Android. Free.)
- Chrome (I recommend Ungoogled Chromium)
- Microsoft Edge (Chromium version – Preinstalled)
- Safari (Preinstalled)
For my needs, I run a Mac with a dual boot Windows on Bootcamp with an instance of BlueStacks. I only need my Mac laptop and iPhone to cover all my bases now. Oh, by the way, all browsers on iOS use the Safari engine, there is no need to test others.
Getting set up
It may be confusing that each traditional OS screen reader uses a special ‘key’ to perform certain actions. I recommend that for consistency anywhere you test, so if its a full keyboard or laptop, it works the same. The only consistent key you can set for all screen readers on any keyboard is the “Caps Lock” key. Some readers allow for both “Insert and Caps Lock” support, but JAWS for example defaults to “Insert”, nonexistent on laptop keyboards.
Setting JAWS to use “Caps Lock”
JAWS can be dicey from the forums on the internet. There are three solutions from what I can tell. If one of these doesn’t work, try another. Just make sure to quit & restart JAWS once the options are set.
- Click the tray icon and press “Basics…” then set “Use Keyboard Layout” to “Laptop”. Press OK.
- Click the tray icon and go to “Keyboard settings”. Then find the “default” entry on the left hand menu. Scroll to the “JAWSkey” option in the right region and set the key to “Caps Lock”. Press OK.
- Use one of my favorite tools like PowerToys to remap your “Caps Lock” key to press “Insert”.
Setting up NVDA to use “Caps Lock”
This one is pretty easy. Go to NVDA’s settings by clicking on its tray icon, then the “Keyboard” menu item and make sure “Caps Lock” is selected in the “Select NVDA Modifier Keys” options. Press OK and you’re done.
Setting up VoiceOver to use “Caps Lock”
To use “Caps Lock” in VoiceOver, you’ll need to head to the Mac’s “System preferences” app, then choose “Accessibility”. In the left-hand menu, select “VoiceOver” then “Open VoiceOver Utility…”. Within you’ll find an option called “Keys to use as the VoiceOver modifier”, and make sure an option that support “Caps Lock” is enabled.
Final quick tips
Here are a few last things that tripped me up when I started out, or didn’t know until later.
- NVDA supports plugins! I’ve found that the “Focus Highlight” plugin can be very helpful where focus styles were forgotten, and you need to do some research.
- Get the aXe extension for at least one browser (Chrome or Firefox). I find its results and help are some of the easiest and best automated testing results you can get.
- Safari handles tab stops oddly. Be sure to go to the Safari toolbar, go to “Preferences”, press “Advanced” and then select “Use Tab to highlight each item on a webpage”. This enables Safari to handle tab stops like other browsers.
- And one more thing for Macs. You’ll also need to make sure any browser can tab navigate as well. The A11y Project covers how to enable this as well, but essentially it’s another option in Mac’s global keyboard settings.
- It’s super easy to forget the most common key commands for each screen reader, so I like to keep my handy guide close.
Good luck on your journey, and hope my quick tips on getting set up fast are helpful.