[Athen] Email products

Sean Keegan skeegan at htctu.net
Thu Feb 7 11:02:16 PST 2008

Hi Gerry,

> Has your campus gone to a product like Google apps or something

equivalent? If you have, what?

> The more important question is are there concerns with accessibility of

these products?

This came up several months ago on another list and I am re-posting some of
the comments I made there. My comments specifically address the Google
interface (Gmail) as I have not had a chance to really dive into other
products (see John Foliot's message for others). I focused my comments at
the time on JAWS (as that is what the original question asked), but have
found similar experiences with all the screen-readers out there (e.g.,
Window-Eyes, Supernova, etc.). Each one has different advantages and
customizations to improve the user experience, but the real issue is how the
page is delivered so that AT can interact with the content.

So, the short answer: Yes, there are issues. That being said, there are
some workarounds that a student can use in order to improve the
functionality between G-Mail and a screen-reader but it is not going to be
"the same experience" a student not using a screen-reader.

First, have the student enable "Basic HTML" after logging into the G-mail
interface (this is a hyperlink at the bottom of the page). You can
generally find this through the screen-reader's list of hyperlinks. While
this does remove some of the "interactive" functionality, it does improve
the user experience by adding headings to various menu items such that the
user can jump around through the interface.

There is also some hidden text a screen-reader will speak when first logging
into G-mail that suggests if using a screen-reader to enable the basic HTML

When using the basic HTML option, the message titles are hyperlinks and
these can be browsed by using the list of hyperlinks.

You can also "Tab" through the basic HTML interface as well. If tabbing
around the interface, when you get to the messages you will hear information
about a checkbox and the sender first, followed by the message title. This
can generally be customized a bit by a screen-reader user (I have seen an
elegant example of this with Supernova) to give you the same information in
a different order.

When viewing a message (in basic HTML mode), the subject will be a heading
level 2 and the name of the sender will be a heading level 3, which means
that you will then have to navigate through the To: and From: information,
but at least you will not have to listen to the entire interface.

What you can also do when viewing a message is to jump to the "Show
Original" hyperlink - do not choose the "Activate Link" option in a
screen-reader, rather just use the "Move to Link" option (each screen-reader
calls this something a bit different). Suffice to say, all you want to do
is navigate the virtual focus to this hyperlink, not activate it. This will
jump you past the message To: and From: information and allow you to proceed
directly into the message reply.

When writing a message, make sure to enter forms mode in the text area to
reply to a message. The text area is not very well labeled, but is just
after the button marked "More Reply Options".

This should get you started. There have been improvements in the G-mail
interface, but (IMO) there could still be additional improvements to really
enhance the usability when using a screen-reader or other AT. There is a
group working on accessibility now at Google, but they are just starting to
get their wheels rolling so it may still be a bit of time before we see any
major developments. I know there is going to be a presence at CSUN, so it
may be beneficial (if you are there) to comment about the need for
accessible apps in the higher educational space.

The accessibility team at Google is aware of several of the issues.
However, I think it is *very* important to communicate these concerns to the
Google representative your institution is working with. I have had
conversations with a few that indicated they were not aware of how much an
issue accessibility was at the higher ed level and how much of an effect it
could have on product adoption (they may have heard of 508, but not all were
aware of how it impacts a public higher-ed institution). If multiple people
are clamoring for changes to improve accessibility, then that does have an
impact when considering development priorities.

The last consideration was to look at the option of IMAP support. There are
some portable e-mail solutions (Thunderbird on USB drive) that may also be a
consideration where the user could use this method to interact with Gmail
(or any other IMAP solution).

Take care,

Sean Keegan
Web Accessibility Instructor
High Tech Center Training Unit of the California Community Colleges
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