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There is increasing buzz in web designer circles about a petition to Freedom Scientific to produce a free version of their JAWS screen reader so that web designers can test their own web pages. JAWS is the leading screen reader on the market by a wide margin, and as interest in web accessibility has skyrocketed, so to has interest in JAWS. However, this petition is a bad idea, for several reasons:

  • Web designers should not start out coding to the quirks of specific accessibility tools, for the same reasons they should not start out coding to the quirks of specific visual browsers. The W3C has recently updated their Web Content Accessibility Guidelines which provide clear and concise guidelines for making web sites that are accessible to a wide range of users, platforms, and disabilities. Start there and understand the issues first.
  • There are free tutorials available, such as Dive Into Accessibility, which explain individual guidelines and explain how specific examples affect different users in different situations, using different tools. JAWS is one of the tools specifically covered in the tutorial.
  • There are Free Software tools, such as the text-only browser Lynx, which do a better job of providing a baseline of accessible behavior. If your site is usable in Lynx, it’s going to be accessible to virtually everyone. Lynx is available for every platform on Earth.
  • For the remaining 1% of cases where quirks in JAWS cause specific problems on your site and require specific workarounds, Freedom Scientific offers a free, fully functional demo version of the latest version of JAWS (currently 4.5.1). The demo will run for 40 minutes, then stop running until you reboot. But you can reboot and re-run it as often as you like; there is no upper limit on usage. The JAWS petition that is currently circulating incorrectly states that “since the free download for JAWS is time limited, it is of no use to the designer after expiration date.” This is false; you may use it as long as you like, 40 minutes at a time.
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