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When Screen Readers Meet Feed Readers

Blind users who want to RSS can expect some tsuris, or just plain old difficulty.

Keeping track of news and blog posts by subscribing to RSS feeds is the latest Big Thing on the Internet. But RSS readers, also known as aggregators, don't play well with screen readers, according to an analysis by the American Federation of the Blind (AFB).

AFB analyzed Bloglines, Feedster, NewsGator, FeedDemon and My Yahoo services for finding, subscribing and reading feeds by attempting to use them with a JAWS screen reader, a widely-used internal software speech synthesizer that can output to Braille displays. The screen reading software uses text-to-speech technology to translate words on a Web page to audio.

While AFB wasn't impressed with any of them, it found Bloglines and NewsGator to be the most screen reader-friendly.

Both interfaces seemed intuitive, and easy to understand, according to the report. Bloglines' "notifier" feature lets users get an audio alert when new content comes in. Executives from Bloglines and NewsGator weren't available for interviews.

But AFB found consistent problems across all the readers: inaccessible installation procedures, menu bars that were difficult to navigate and the inability to view the list of subscriptions.

Feedster provides search and directories of RSS feeds, but not a standalone reader. The screen reader worked well for accessing featured feeds of the day, but the testers were unable to subscribe using aggregators.

Feedster users can subscribe to feeds delivered to a third-party reader or via e-mail -- unless they're blind. In order to complete registration for e-mail alerts, users must decipher a captcha, the wiggly characters that users must retype to prove they're humans and not spambots.

Captchas make it impossible for blind computer users to sign up, because screen readers can't see them; many Websites offer a link or button users can click to hear an audio file instead. Executives at Feedster didn't respond to a request for comment.

Testers found the FeedDemon desktop RSS reader, which is owned by NewsGator, completely inaccessible: There were no keyboard alternatives for the menu bar, graphical links weren't labeled and the subscription list couldn't be deciphered.

My Yahoo had unlabeled buttons and icons, a preview feature that didn't work with the screen reader and undifferentiated categories. Once they build a subscription list, the testers wrote, "The page was extremely cluttered with material we had not selected. Our feeds were far down the page."

On the plus side, sections of the page were labeled with headings, making it easy to get past the clutter fairly quickly.

Yahoo has worked with the National Center for Accessible Media (NCAM) for more than a year, hiring Victor Tsaran as project manager for accessibility. "We have been methodically evaluating our products to determine how accessible they are and what steps are necessary to make them more accessible to disabled users which includes the blind," he said via e-mail.

Mary Watkins, a spokesperson for NCAM, said that Yahoo was one of the companies that are "trying to integrate accessibility into the DNA of their products from when they're first thought of."

The AFB said a few simple changes could make RSS readers accessible, such as properly labeling forms when building Web interfaces and providing descriptive alt text for graphics.

"My impression from talking to software developers and going to a lot of Web sites is that most are oblivious to the fact that there are blind users," said Crista Earl, AFB director of Web operations and one of the authors of the study, "as well as to the fact that there would be anything to be done, or that there's a right way and a wrong way to do things."

Because most of the RSS readers tested were Web-based, Earl said, "The principles of Web design still apply. [Web designers] can still follow the same guidelines from the W3C; they're well-established now."

AFB noted that Bloglines and NewsGator let user create accounts without encountering a captcha, an important feature for accessibility. In July, advocates for the reading-impaired complained that Google's use of captchas during registration for its popular non-search offerings, such as Blogger.com and Gmail, put up huge barriers to entry.

Since then, Google has placed an accessibility icon next to registration captchas for Google Accounts, which are used to open Gmail accounts and handle personalization; clicking the icon opens the captcha into a separate window, where, according to a spokeswoman, it can be read by a screen reader. The icon also has alt text.

" For other products that do not currently use the Google Accounts system, such as Blogger, we're continuing to explore solutions to address accessibility needs," the spokeswoman said.

The AFB didn't have time to evaluate Google's RSS reader, which went live October 7. However, the AFB gave Google search very high marks on usability for the blind.

AFB's Earl said, "It has a very excellent interface for search, without a lot of clutter. Search results are nicely organized; it's easy to tell what goes with what. Google [search] is lovely."