WebAnywhere: free “on-the-go” screen reader

While going through a large donation from a faculty member, I came across some recent issues of Technology Review. In the Sept./Oct. 2009 feature on young innovators, there happened to be a profile of Jeffrey Bigham, who, “as a graduate student at the University of Washington, created WebAnywhere, a free screen reader that can be used with practically any operating system – no special software required.” Serendipitous discovery, given my recent resurgence of interest in researching assistive technologies and web accessibility.

For a while I have been meaning to go to the public library and experiment with browsing the Web using JAWS (it’s installed on all THEIR public computers), but now I can do it from the comfort of my desk! I’ve already tried searching my library catalog and navigating our website using WebAnywhere. It works…mostly? I just did basic stuff, and I haven’t attempted any databases yet. One issue that might be significant is that our OPAC times-out after a rather small amount of time. It took me so long to “read” through the page and the list of search results that by the time I picked one to look at a more detailed record, my session had expired and I had to re-do my search. Anyways, I’m really excited that there’s a more “lightweight” tool for navigating the web via screen reader. Instead of just following accessibility guidelines when designing websites, now I can actually see what my pages sound like. (edit: I didn’t know about the accessibility validation tool Cynthia Says before today either). I wonder if a lot of people who are blind or have visual impairments are using WebAnywhere. And I wonder how it compares to JAWS or other screen reading software.

Here are some basics from the WebAnywhere site, and (for you multimedia cravers) – a video. I would love to hear about it if anyone is inspired to go access some websites – especially your favorite library catalogs and databases? – and comment on how navigable they are with a screen reader. I’ll probably be posting more about this in the future since I am just so curious about it.

WebAnywhere is a web-based screen reader for the web. It requires no special software to be installed on the client machine and, therefore, enables blind people to access the web from any computer they happen to have access to that has a sound card. Visit wa.cs.washington.edu to access WebAnywhere directly. And, it’s completely FREE to use!

WebAnywhere will run on any machine, even heavily locked-down public terminals, regardless of what operating system it is running and regardless of what browsers are installed. WebAnywhere does not seek to replace existing screen readers – it has some big limitations, namely that it will not provide access to desktop applications like word processors or spreadsheets.

Further reading:

W3C introduction to web accessibility

How People with Disabilities Access the Web from the Web Design & Development course created by the University of Washington.

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