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Some time ago, I raised a question on Stack Overflow asking for text-based browser support. In the comment section, user Shane triggered a small, nonetheless important discussion, and I quote:

It should also be noted that making a site usable in textmode non-js browsers also tends to improve the usability of the sites for blind users. And trust me, there's a lot of those folks out there, and they all surf the web. [Ref. here]

Paraphrasing Cássio Renan's response: Stack Exchange is trying to welcome minorities and the blind and visually impaired are for sure a minority.

As I am fortunate to be not visually impaired, I cannot judge the accessibility of the Stack Exchange for those who are. However, I do see the fundamental importance of it. Therefore, I would like to use this opportunity to start a discussion on this topic by the following question:

How difficult is it to access the content of the Stack Exchange network for the blind and visually impaired and what can be done to improve it?


Related questions:

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    There are a couple of feature requests that ask for improvements in this area. I bountied one yesterday. Apart from software features there is at least one aspect where we as a community and creators of the content should pay attention to: enter an image description when you use an image. It is not just a matter of prodding SE to do the right thing.
    – rene
    Dec 19, 2020 at 19:28
  • Apparently there is the WAVE Web Accessibility evaluation tool which helps authors make their web content more accessible to individuals with disabilities. This might be useful as a start?
    – kvantour
    Dec 20, 2020 at 13:00
  • @Spencer is the status deferred based on this answer only, or are there any new updates about your future plans? Mar 23 at 14:50
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    @ShadowWizardSaysNoMoreWar Yeah, this is based on Ben's answer that you referenced. The accessibility project is in motion, and we will be sharing updates with the community once the project is fleshed out a bit more, but there are no meaningful updates.
    – SpencerG StaffMod
    Mar 23 at 18:23

4 Answers 4

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+500

I use a screen reader and visit Stack Overflow mostly. So, I can chime in for how things stand now (early 2022).

For consuming information, the site is minimalistic and quite a trial to navigate. The main issue seems to be the lack of HTML based on semantic structure. Since I fall into advanced screen reader users, I can overcome some of the usability issues, but it is still a serious time sink to develop these tactics. I would love to skip links and "copy" functions for code. Also, a way to navigate major contribution entries (like each answer). I personally have not used the up/down voting feature as context is too hard to determine if I got the correct controls.

As for contributing, I am finding some huge issues. I am new to this facet so I may be missing something, but this just highlights that things just aren't obvious. For me, it is the SE editor. In my experiences so far, it is unusable. I edit my text outside and cut and paste into the editor and pray.

---

I have turned on keyboard shortcuts in preferences as well as the alpha editor. And now I am editing.

Thus far, the shortcut keys for "navigation" of the page is not working, and I have found another person providing even further details on this. I believe there has been some improvements since the linked post, but the bulk remains true. See this post: Stack Exchange's keyboard shortcuts are not accessible to visually impaired users.

My attempt to use the editor to improve this answer illustrated the focus conflicts in impressive detail. When I had an unchanged buffer, I could use standard navigation (line and word movements) and even text selection. But as soon as a single change happened, the experience went wild and became unpredictable, and I fled to an outside editor to get this editing done. Perhaps someone can point me to a sandbox-like way to testing the contribution features without confusing the community with a "stunt" question/post?

In summary, the editor jumps out of editing mode if I use any cursor navigation. If I did manage to keep it from disengaging the screen reader, then it is super simple to "navigate" out of the editor section and jump out of editing mode again. So, you spend tons of time just trying to fix a typo due to all the state jumps happening from the screen reader trying to figure something out in the madness.

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    There are two SE editors - "The public Stack Overflow allows for opting-in the alpha test of the new editor at the preferences page.". Which one? Mar 5 at 12:23
  • Re "...a way to navigate major contribution entries (like each answer)": There is keyboard navigation (Vim inspired - J to go to the next post and K to go to the previous post. For voting, it is V + D and V + U). Doesn't it work in combination with a screen reader (not a rhetorical question)? (Workarounds exist for making it work reliably.) Mar 5 at 12:55
  • I reported on some accessibility problems with the editor. I can see why it would be confusing: you need to know what the keyboard shortcuts are or how to format in markdown with no instructions. And if the keyboard shortcuts conflict with the shortcuts you use for the screen reader, you don't really have any options. (Feel free to correct me if I'm wrong on anything.)
    – Laurel
    Mar 5 at 18:43
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    I’ve never changed my editor preference so I guess the default. I’ll try changing it but realize SE is quite a challenge to use with a screen reader. Re: j/k, etc. I’ve using my interpretation with no luck. Windows 10, chrom, NVDA and K is a navigation key for NVDA in browse mode. When switched into forced input mode, nothing appears to happen via SR.
    – Dan Miner
    Mar 6 at 16:17
  • Did you try some of the workarounds? I had to implement them in my macro keyboard to make it work reliably (I have single dedicated macro keys without any modifier keys for upvote and downvote)? Even then it sometimes fails to work. Mar 14 at 15:18
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    Turned on shortcuts keys in preferences, still no luck. In general I see a lot of conflict with focus handling on the site and a screen reader. Haven't found any docs (told to press so no idea what to press). So, using outside editor to contribute and lots of tedious HTML stream nabigation.
    – Dan Miner
    Mar 15 at 19:06
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    You can use the sandbox for experimentation (good luck navigating all the craziness in there).
    – Laurel
    Mar 16 at 3:18
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To chime in with some updates, we hear you and agree that we can and should do better.

This year we have engaged some external firms to help us identify and plan ways to rectify our current shortcomings around our goal to make our Stack Exchange sites as universally accessible as possible. We shared these thoughts with all of Product, Design, Engineering, and Community teams as well as plans for how we can not only address past mistakes, but make sure anything new we add will have accessibility in mind. Part of this presentation was actually showing the path a user would take to navigate questions and then post one of their own using a screen reader; it really put a spotlight on how difficult it can be currently.

Our focus is to be proactive going forward, but currently going through these findings and starting to correct current problems. We appreciate input from the community as we keep trying to be a more open and equitable platform to enable each other.

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    @ShadowWizardSaysNoMoreWar I actually decided to keep the accounts separate and will just be working under this account going forward. But, for the record, the process usually takes a few days from what I was told.
    – BMatt-Stack Staff
    Mar 23 at 18:05
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    @BMatt-Stack maybe you could edit the post with your staff account, so that fancy badge shows up at the bottom to make it look #official?
    – LShaver
    Mar 24 at 13:17
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    @LShaver Great idea, done. Thanks all!
    – BMatt-Stack Staff
    Mar 24 at 14:33
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    @BMatt-Stack: I believe we should also be able to reassociate the post with your Staff account as well. Give me a sec... How does that look? :)
    – V2Blast StaffMod
    Mar 24 at 15:42
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    @V2Blast abuse of power! ;)
    – Luuklag
    Mar 24 at 15:44
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    @V2Blast Looks great, you rock. Mar 25 at 5:09
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@rene contributed an excellent comment regarding copy-editing practices that I think is worth highlighting in the form of an answer:

Apart from software features there is at least one aspect where we as a community and creators of the content should pay attention to: enter an image description when you use an image. It is not just a matter of prodding SE to do the right thing.

I invite someone with specific expertise on this matter to elaborate further.

@AsteroidsWithWings commented the edit instructions contain the following sentence:

Be sure to include meaningful alt text for screen-reading software.

However, this seems like "a needle in a haystack", even if you notice it the importance may not be evident to many readers. Looking at the FAQ, there's one post that added a more elaborate note in 2017.

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    I've worked in an accessibility center in college, about ten or so years ago. Pictures add zero value to a block of text, and if they're not captioned appropriately, screen readers will just say "picture". Imagine then if you could only consume content by listening to it, and being told "picture" for every image that was on a screen. This is why image descriptions are important, and the W3 provides some examples through the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines for non-text content. Rule of thumb: descriptive, not elaborate.
    – Makoto
    Dec 23, 2020 at 20:50
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    For bonus points, I work in a university as a software team lead/architect. We are strictly beholden to accessibilty requirements for all software we roll out.
    – Makoto
    Dec 23, 2020 at 20:58
  • @Makoto I honestly think your comment is so good it should be converted to an answer. A lot of developers (and SE copy-editors) are completely unaware of the points you shared.
    – bad_coder
    Dec 23, 2020 at 21:21
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    It's something that is worthy of more highlight, sure @bad_coder, but it's not an answer to the question. The question being asked is what the company is doing to help with this, not what a copy editor needs to know. Maybe this should be copied over to the FAQ instead and polished up a bit.
    – Makoto
    Dec 23, 2020 at 21:25
  • @Makoto yes I think this should be part of the FAQ, but I don't really have the weight in the SE community to raise the issue.
    – bad_coder
    Dec 23, 2020 at 21:27
  • Almost everybody ignores this instruction in the SE editor. It's very frustrating. They just don't care. Dec 23, 2020 at 22:36
  • @AsteroidsWithWings I just checked the instructions you refer and it reads: "Be sure to include meaningful alt text for screen-reading software". Even if I read it with this phrasing I wouldn't have been reminded of the strong reasons we are discussing.
    – bad_coder
    Dec 23, 2020 at 23:11
  • @bad_coder When you insert an image, the source of your question literally says "enter image description here". Next to nobody does. It's a pretty basic instruction. Are you suggesting that most people "forget" to care about the visually impaired and that this is a valid excuse for not following a simple instruction? If so, that's sad :( Dec 23, 2020 at 23:32
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How difficult is it to access the content of the Stack Exchange network for the visually impaired[?]

I'm not an expert by any stretch of the imagination, but... the current situation on SE isn't great. I've made multiple reports here on Meta.SE complaining about the lack of accessibility in certain areas; for instance, in the keyboard accessibility of the site (there were a lot of things that couldn't be accessed without the mouse) and repeatedly including images without alt text.

[W]hat can be done to improve it?

Fortunately, the SE team is often willing to address problems when they're reported (although there are multiple outstanding reports), including trying to make the design system accessible. So if you come across something that can be improved, make a report here on Meta.SE and include the tag, there's a decent chance it'll get fixed for a small issue.

(Larger requests, like the fact that chat is entirely inaccessible, or suggestions to turn on keyboard shortcuts if people are tabbing around, have so far been met with radio silence.)

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