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A day in the life of a screen reader user

Minh Tam Ha, 8 minute read

Many people understand at a high level that accessibility is important — that it is a more equitable way of doing business, or at the very least, necessary to be compliant with current laws and policies. But for someone with a permanent disability, like myself, accessibility is not simply a mindset or choice to approach business and development. It is a daily, lived experience that affects whether I can use services or take part in online activities.  

Having been totally blind most of my life, I rely solely on a screen reader when browsing the web or interacting with mobile and desktop applications. Screen readers are software that convert text to speech output for blind and low-vision users, so they can access digital content. When using a screen reader, I can only use my keyboard and various shortcuts to navigate pages (screen readers view things in a linear way.) Forget about moving the mouse to a particular area on the screen and clicking; I must navigate to the section in question with my screen reader before I can act on the element. Fortunately, screen readers are extremely robust software with their own set of keyboard shortcuts, which make navigating web pages and programs much faster and more efficient.    

However, screen readers can only work effectively when web applications are built accessibly to support their use. Unfortunately, web page applications often introduce challenges that make it hard for screen readers to function correctly, and as a result, for screen reader users to complete basic tasks. To illustrate this, let me walk you through a real-life example of when I tried to book a flight online, highlighting the challenges the website posed on the way:

Too much clutter 

As COVID-19 restrictions are lifting, one of the things I am most excited to do is travel to different parts of the country to visit friends with my guide dog. To book a flight, the first thing I did was search for plane tickets. With my screen reader of choice, JAWS, loaded, I opened a web browser and made my way to an aggregate website, where I could look for tickets from various airlines at once. I knew from experience that this website is quite cluttered. When a website is full of links, images, menus, and tabs, it’s harder to get to where I need to go. I must skip past these before I can enter details and play around with dates.  

Viva with back to camera, looking over her left shoulder, harness and pink bandana on lush green grass.

Dramatic layout changes 

When I tried to begin my task, I noticed that the site had changed its layout and elements since my last visit. The JAWS-specific quick keys that I was using to jump to the first edit field were no longer working. This happens often, as websites and applications are updated. But sometimes, the changes are so dramatic that it takes time and effort for a screen reader user to learn the new layout again.  
Consistency is crucial for a screen reader user, because we don’t have the ability to visually scan a website for exactly what we need. We depend on our memory of a webpage layout and where certain fields and buttons are located so we can jump directly to an element, bypassing the extraneous information that we don’t need. In this scenario, it took me a few minutes to get acclimated to the new style and elements included in this form. 

Inaccessible fields 

Once I figured out the new layout of the page, it was easy for me to enter JAWS’ forms mode (a specific mode within screen readers that recognizes text input) and fill out the originating airport, destination, number of travelers, and the dates of my trip. Here, I encountered another snag in the form: the calendar for selecting dates did not have a field for me to type in the exact date that I wanted. It also did not provide a calendar table with proper column headers, which made it difficult for me to know what day of the week a specific date fell on. In this instance, I had to ask a virtual assistant to give me the date I was looking for. Only then was I able to complete the form and read the available flights and prices. 

Missed alerts and notifications 

Next, I made my way to my online banking and credit card portal to check my available funds and see if I could redeem existing points for some sweet travel perks. Before I exited the website, an alert popped up at the top of the page, letting me know that I was eligible for a credit line increase. This pop up was not read out by JAWS, however. The only reason I realized its presence was because I needed to arrow up through the page to find the log out button. If I was not alerted of the pop up by JAWS, I could have missed out on applying for a credit increase.  

In other contexts, such as in a patient portal, alerts that notify a patient to refill their prescription or schedule an important visit with their medical provider are important. If they fail to be read out by a screen reader, it could do legitimate harm to screen reader users, or at the very least, frustrate these patients for not receiving important, needed information. 

Why we care about accessibility — and so should you  

As you can see from very brief snapshots of my day, when websites and applications fail to make their products accessible, even with seemingly minor issues, such as inaccurately structured tables and calendar pickers, basic tasks become complicated. Moreover, the minutes it takes me to find workarounds for these issues add up – in this instance, it took me much longer than expected to complete my booking. 

People with disabilities are generally resilient, determined, and creative when it comes to devising our own accessibility hacks. But when most facets of our lives are now splashed across mobile and computer screens, experiencing daily accessibility challenges has a compounding effect on our ability to interact with online content independently and enjoyably.  

Pega strives to make our software accessible to all users. Cosmos React, the latest implementation of the Pega Cosmos design system, prioritizes accessibility out-of-the-box – particularly compatibility with screen readers, well-labeled controls, and information hierarchy. Cosmos is continually evolving and prioritizing accessibility in enterprise software. As an accessibility tester at Pega myself, my role is to ensure that applications in development are compatible with screen readers and perform as expected for all users. This way, we take accessibility seriously. We know that it means the difference between someone being able to accomplish a task on their own or not at all – and we encourage you to do the same as you are building your applications.   

Recommended resources:

Explore the following articles to learn more about accessibility in UX design:

And take the Pega Cosmos Designer Mission on Pega Academy.

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About the Author

Minh Tam Ha is an accessibility tester at Pegasystems 

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