WEB-WISE:
Getting More Out of the World Wide Web
by Jenine Stanley

It's nearly impossible today to have a conversation that does not include some reference to the Internet, e-mail or some other form of electronic communication. In an effort to implement some of the provisions of resolution 2005-15, which is designed to address the digital divide, the board of publications provides this column. One of the aspects of computer use that can stop someone from accessing vital information and services is a simple lack of knowledge. This lack of knowledge can make tasks such as on-line shopping very intimidating. We're ACB and we're here to help!

In this first column we'll look at how to move around a web page. Remember, it's the little, seemingly stupid questions that can stop someone from accessing life.

Have you ever loaded a web page and thought to yourself, "Is my screen reader ever going to shut up?" or "How much stuff can they cram onto one screen? My magnifier can't possibly handle all that."

Web pages are much like any documents out there. They have certain formatting features that help to divide information, identify controls, etc. Just as paragraphs are denoted in a book by indentation or blank lines between, web pages have a number of design elements that can help you navigate them quickly.

The very first thing we need to address is the difference between inaccessibility and poor design. Inaccessible web sites have features that simply do not work with any current screen reader or screen enlargement technology. Most sites have some accessible features. But many web sites are very poorly designed, for everyone, not just people with vision difficulties. There is often too much information crammed onto screens to be easily located. In this column we will deal with accessible features of web sites, things that meet specific guidelines and can be read by all of the screen readers out there today.

So, how do we move around a web site? We can load a web page and simply allow our screen reader to read the entire page from top to bottom. Screen readers take the information on web pages and rearrange it into a linear format for reading. The screen may appear to have several vertical columns or horizontal blocks of text, sometimes long columns down one side with headers and footers. Each screen reader handles web site layouts slightly differently, but generally, they all offer ways to find things without having to simply listen until you reach the item.

The easiest way to navigate a web site is to move your down-arrow key through the site. Your screen reader will identify elements of the site such as links, buttons, graphics, etc. This is a good way to get familiar with a new site, especially an e-commerce site.

Most web sites use a variety of style elements to divide parts of the page. Screen readers have developed shortcut keystrokes to move to each of the elements listed below so that you can skip parts of pages.

Text: This is exactly what it sounds like, straight text on the page, read much as text in a word processor.

Headings: These work much as they do in a document. The text in a heading is usually a different size, color, font or style from the rest of the text.

Tables: Web designers use tables to display columns of related information, like a bus schedule or time table. Tables may also divide sections of the page that do not need headings.

Lists: Lists are just what they sound like, groups of information. In some designs they are interchangeable with tables, while in others they provide a linear list of things.

Now let's have some action! Controls on a web site refer to those ways you can make the site do things, like change to another page, select an item or choice, etc. In future columns we'll talk about using these controls in practical settings like filling out forms or taking surveys. For now, we're just exposing you to their functions.

Links and "on-clicks": Links form the basic structure of the web, allowing you to move from page to page or to specific areas on a page. "On-clicks" function the same way. In order for a link to be of value to you, it must have something called an alt tag, which turns the long string of text identifying its location into plain language.

Edit box: This is an area in which you can type text, usually, or enter data of some sort. Sighted users click the mouse pointer once inside the box to enter data. How these areas are handled differs between screen readers but most versions will require you to go into a special mode to enter the data. You must remember to exit the special mode without hitting enter to remain on the current screen.

Check boxes and radio buttons: These controls allow you to select a choice or choices in a group of things, like a survey. Most web pages will allow you to hit the space bar once on the check box or radio button to select or unselect it.

Buttons: Buttons are devices that function much like links. Hitting enter on a button will take you to another screen, often after having made some choices or having entered information. The buttons you will see most often include "Go" and "Buy" or "Check out.

Combo box: This is a box that only displays one choice until you enter it. Combo boxes can sometimes be coded so that moving within one can automatically change the screen. Here's a hard and fast rule about accessing a combo box. First, hit enter to access the contents of the box. Then hold down the alt key and hit the down arrow to enter the list, using only the arrow keys to move through the contents. To exit the combo box once you've found your choice, use your screen reader's command to exit an edit or text box. This will keep you on the same screen. If you hit enter, you will most likely move to the screen for that choice in the box.

The most powerful tool available to you when it comes to finding information on a web page is your screen reader's "find command." Using this command you can locate strings of text on a page, such as a specific link or button, provided the elements are coded properly with alt tags that display text.

For more information about your screen reader's specific commands to access the controls and elements listed above, please consult the manual or help section. We hope this information has been helpful. Let us know what you'd like to read about in future issues of Web-Wise.


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