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AJAX, Accessibility & Screen Readers

By Ian Lloyd | May 4th, 2006 | Filed in Accessibility

James Edwards presents his findings having looked at how AJAX interacts (or fails to) with various screen readers. The results aren’t exactly inspiring.

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There’s something of an oxymoron going on there in the heading. Can you spot it? The words ‘accessibility’ and ‘AJAX’. They really are not the best of bed fellows, as many people have discovered. However, although many of us web professionals just ‘kinda know’ that AJAX is bad for web accessibility, when pushed many would not be able to say exactly why or how certain screen readers cope with content that’s been changed using AJAX (or using DOM Scripting methods that don’t make use of AJAX at all). One man who can claim to know a bit about it is James Edwards (aka Brothercake):

Over the last few months (and earlier) I’ve been involved in researching how the leading screen readers and other assistive devices respond to JavaScript: what kinds of events they generate or respond to, and under what circumstances. The research is based at Access Matters , and coordinated by Bob Easton, Derek Featherstone, Mike Stenhouse and myself.

In addition to that, I did a great deal of primary research for my recently published book, The JavaScript Anthology . The research was designed to find out how assistive devices respond to scripts that update the DOM periodically or asynchronously, such as the items in a scrolling news-ticker, or responses to an XMLHttpRequest.

The above is an excerpt from an article that James has published on Sitepoint entitled AJAX and Screenreaders: When Can it Work? which I strongly advise all web professionals to read and absorb. Even if you’re not currently doing ‘cool’ things with AJAX, you should read it so that you are aware of the impact of any future development work, should you choose to go down that road. Top work, James.

Your Replies

#1 On May 4th, 2006 4:54 am Pig Pen - Web Standards Compliant Web Design Blog » Blog Archive » AJAX And Screenreaders replied:

[...] AJAX And Screenreaders – James Edwards reveals his findings on a study into the accessibility issues. (via Buzz) [...]

#2 On May 4th, 2006 5:40 am Louise Dade replied:

I’ve suspected the results of this research for a while and have been avoiding using AJAX because of it. Now I know I made the right decision for a couple of applications I’m developing – I would be using AJAX merely for the sake of using it and it would be shutting out potential users.

#3 On May 4th, 2006 5:52 am » AJAX i lectors de pantalla replied:

[...] Via m’arriba un article molt interesant sobre el funcionament dels lectors de pantalla davant dels elements AJAX i per tant sobre l’accessibilitat d’aquesta tecnologia. [...]

#4 On May 4th, 2006 7:52 am Joe Clark replied:

Oh, James, you scooper, you. I am still proofing the speaking notes and original test results from my Iceland presentation on the topic. Should be up today. Hint: All Jaws and VoiceOver users tested could use Basecamp, to my surprise. It was not, however, very convenient in most cases.

#5 On May 4th, 2006 2:25 pm Joe Clark replied:

OK, everything’s up now. Seems like a lot of data coming out all in the same week.

#6 On May 5th, 2006 3:43 am Britney replied:

It seems odd to me that someone who says they know nothing about it would be giving a speech about it Joe Clark. Even still i would have loved to have been in attendance at the Iceland confrence i know I will make next years.

Thanks for the tip Ian to absorb i was just flying thru it. In my opinon why waste the time trying when there are so many other viable web standards options out there.

#7 On May 5th, 2006 8:34 am Joe Clark replied:

I knew nothing about it so I did research.

#8 On May 10th, 2006 6:49 am Scared of the Dark? - The Web Standards Project replied:

[...] Just a ‘micro-posting’ from me on the topic of Ajax and Accessibility. With the recent research presented by fully-sighted gurus James Edwards and Joe Clark, many of us have been enlightened once more to the need for creating accessible web applications in the face of new techniques that update page content without a page refresh. This quote, from an article in Computerworld, really brought home the impact of not paying heed to to this and just how confusing some of the new web applications can be for blind users. Note that the person quoted is blind and emphasis added is mine: [...]

#9 On October 10th, 2006 12:16 pm Joe Dolson Accessible Web Design | Trying to Define Web Accessibility replied:

[...] Well, obviously, more user testing is always called for. What I’d love to see, although I’m not capable of putting it together myself, would be a full scale accessibility study of Flash and AJAX websites which have been specifically designed with accessibility in mind. User testing, limitations, the whole banana. Accessibility needs better awareness of using Flash. AJAX has received a fair amount of attention: articles from Standards-Schmandards, WebAIM,, and many others have given developers a fair shot at addressing the limitations and possibilities in AJAX accessibility. Flash has been almost entirely disregarded by the web standards and accessibility community. I’d like to see it given an equal chance. [...]

#10 On January 30th, 2007 4:37 am aubergine replied:

I would thought a reseach is aimed to improve things. Ajax is bringing web experience to new level, while screen readers (or shall I say html readers) remain in their “stone age” and have no intention to self reform over the past decade.

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