Here at Able Magazine, we’re celebrating Global Accessibil
15th May, 2014 is Global Accessibility Awareness Day (GAAD) , a daylong event dedicated to raising the profile of digital accessibility (web, software, mobile app/device etc.) and people with different disabilities to the broadest audience possible. There are currently over 11 million people living with a limiting long term illness, impairment or disability across Great Britain, in an age where daily routines revolve and depend predominantly around accessibility to technology. As technological change accelerates across all aspects of life, not enough is always done to recognises the communities of people who build, shape, fund and influence technology and its use by people with specific accessibility needs and disabilities.
Below is a brief Q & A with Ken Saunders, Ken is registered legally blind due to a congenital condition known as Ocular Albinism with Nystagmus; he is a Mozilla volunteer, which means he contributes his talents to the Mozilla project on an unpaid basis; and he is one of the key figures behind the design, development and usability of Web technology by users with accessibility needs.
A day in the life of Ken Saunders, co-owner and founder, Access Firefox
Ken Saunders is the co-owner and founder of AccessFirefox.org and one of the key figures behind the design, development and usability of Web technology by users with accessibility needs. Ken is a Mozilla volunteer, which means he contributes his talents to the Mozilla project on an unpaid basis. He comes from the Boston, Massachusetts in the US and is registered legally blind due to a congenital condition known as Ocular Albinism with Nystagmus.
We asked Ken ten questions about his volunteer role at Mozilla:
- How does the congential condition you have affect you in the work that you do and what tools do you use to facilitate your work?
I’m legally blind due to a congenital condition known as Ocular Albinism with Nystagmus. My visual acuity is documented at 20/200 right eye, 20/400 left which means I do have trouble seeing objects both near and far. My visual acuity can’t ever be accurately determined because of Nystagmus, which is an involuntary eye movement that causes my eyes to move rapidly in a horizontal direction: side-to-side. That’s the more difficult issue since it means I can only stay focused on objects for a few seconds before my eyes start to move.
In terms of tools I use, I get a lot done using many of the Firefox add-ons I helped develop like Big Buttons, Page Zoom and Font & Theme Size Changer. Firefox itself is great because it is so customizable, meaning I can make it fit my needs so it is as comfortable for me to work with as possible.
There are a lot of free accessibility tools and default accessibility options I rely on like text-to-speech and magnifier applications. There are other more advanced tools out there but when you start to look beyond default accessibility features and free software, your options start to get very costly. I’ve never really understood why and I would love to see more affordable or free tools out there. We are doing what we can to make this happen.
- When and how did you start coding?
- How did you hear about Mozilla and when did you get involved?
Back in 2005, I downloaded Firefox and clicked on the ‘Get Involved’ button, which was included as a default bookmark within Firefox at the time. I soon started volunteering for Spread Firefox and eventually became an administrator on that site. Since 2011 when we retired that website, I’ve become involved in testing as part of Mozilla’s quality assurance community (QMO), where I’ve handled testing for Firefox across all platforms (Windows, Mac, Linux and Android).
I’ve tried to help out wherever I can by testing and providing feedback for new projects too. One example is the early beginnings of the Mozilla WebMaker project (known as‘Mozilla Drumbeat’ at the time). Webmaker is a fresh approach to teaching technology and digital literacy, the goal being to create a new generation of digital creators and webmakers, building a more web literate world together.
I also spent some time as an Accessibility Steward, which saw me taking on the role of guiding and directing new and potential volunteers interested in contributing to Mozilla’s A11y goals. I’ll be picking this responsibility up again soon as I start to help test Firefox OS devices and provide feedback from the perspective of a person with visual impairments.
- There are other A11y initiatives out there. Why did you choose Mozilla and Firefox specifically?
I love Mozilla! I believe in, and support, Mozilla’s mission and goals. I like that Mozilla fights for the rights of Internet users, especially the right to privacy on the Web and User Sovereignty; the idea that any data relating to an individual belongs to the individual.
What amazed me and really hit home when I first started volunteering was the sheer volume of like-minded people from all over the World who were coming together to work towards Mozilla’s mission and goals; to keep the Web open and accessible to all. The community is very diverse; anyone can contribute, regardless of ability, income, education or background.
- How did Access Firefox come into being?
I co-founded AccessFirefox.org with Otto de Voogd when we were new to Firefox and the various accessibility options that came with it. At the time, the majority of information about these tools and features was spread across several websites, so we wanted to bring them under one roof. So we set about creating the project and the specific accessibility add-ons that come with it.
Over the years there have been several different contributors to Access Firefox from the Mozilla community. Some have written and/or contributed to the site’s coding, some have created accessibility related add-ons, and many others have supported the site through advocacy.
- What are your favourite Firefox Accessibility add-ons?
Access Firefox accessibility add-ons are slightly different to standard Firefox add-ons. I briefly mentioned my favourites that I use earlier, but I’ll go into a little more detail here. I’m very proud of these and contributed to the development of all three of these:
- Theme Font & Size Changer: a simple browser tool that lets people change the font size and type in Firefox. It is an especially valuable tool for visually impaired people and wide-screen users. It is different from add-ons that enlarge and reduce font size and type on Web pages because it does so in all windows, menus, toolbars within Firefox itself. All font size and font family changes are instantly applied, saved permanently and maintained through sessions.
- Page Zoom Button: gives A11y users control of all three page-zoom functions in Firefox from a single button. Users can click on or roll the mouse wheel over the button to zoom in, zoom out and reset a Web page back to its default view. Users can also zoom in and out of local offline files such as photos, graphics, and various documents.
- Big Buttons: I am the main developer on this add-on and I am working to update this for the latest version of Firefox. We decided to build it because the default size of the navigation toolbar buttons in Firefox is (about) 16x16px – too small for many A11y users. Big Buttons provides large and extra-large Firefox navigation toolbar buttons.
A full list of Access Firefox accessibility add-ons can be found here.
- What are the best screen reader tools available for Firefox today?
There are a number of screen reader options for users who need one depending on which platform they are using:
- Windows: NVDA (NonVisual Desktop Access) is a free and open source screen reader for the Microsoft Windows operating system that provides feedback via synthetic speech and Braille.
- Linux: Orca is a free open source, flexible, and extensible screen reader provides access to graphical desktop environments via user-customisable combinations of speech, braille, and magnification.
- Mac: VoiceOver includes ground-breaking new features such as gesture support, braille display mirroring, Web spots, and spoken hints. It also provides frequently requested features including auto speaking Web pages, “read all,” Web page summary, Web table support, user-created labels, customizable verbosity, and more.
- How would you recommend A11y users get started with Firefox?
As with anything, take your time to get familiar with Firefox. I’d recommend starting by taking a look at the features that Firefox offers its users and then download the browser. However, for more detailed information on accessibility add-ons we recommend you take a look at Access Firefox’s beginners’ guide. This covers many of the basics including how to get Firefox, Firefox terminology, an explanation of what add-ons are and what some of them do and more.
Then take your time getting familiar with what’s possible. Once you’ve done that, invest some time in customising Firefox so that it is as comfortable to use as you need it to be.
- What do you see as the biggest current barriers to accessibility on the Web today and how do you tackle them?
Despite the ability of Flash to create (at least marginally) accessible content, as a sighted individual with a visual impairment who is registered blind who uses it (not just for rendering videos) it can cause roadblocks. These roadblocks are well documented publicly here.
Luckily, there are modern alternatives such as those provided by HTML5 technologies such as ARIA for example. I’m very proud of the fact that on Windows, Firefox has the best HTML5 accessibility support score of any browser with a score of 88.5% (Chrome 47%; Internet Explorer 37%).
- Can you tell us about your future accessibility plans?
My colleague and AccessFirefox.org co-owner, Otto de Voogd plays a pivotal role in driving the project forward. Together with him and our small team of contributors, we plan to redesign the site so that it highlights the new features available in Firefox 29.
On a personal note, I hope to resume my role as a Mozilla Accessibility Steward soon so that I can contribute to increasing awareness and participation in Mozilla Accessibility. I also hope to create new add-ons.
Outside of volunteering for Mozilla and designing add-ons for Access Firefox, I also maintain several websites and love both consuming and creating new media art so I’ll continue to do that too. I’ll spend any offline time I get hoping to make the people around me smile and getting my hands dirty in my garden.