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Web Browsers Beef Up Accessibility Features

New aids to help you surf the web easier, faster and safer.

elderly woman using a laptop

— Helen King/Corbis

To help make the Internet more user-friendly for everyone — even those with vision problems, poor motor control and other physical challenges — the latest Web browsers include a wide range of accessibility features. The ability to easily zoom in on text or change the color or contrast of the browser — as well as keyboard shortcuts and mouse gestures — makes for easier Internet navigation.

They're not widely promoted, but these helpful tools are built into today's most popular browsers, including Microsoft's Internet Explorer, Google's Chrome, Mozilla's Firefox and Opera, though in some cases an optional free "plug-in" or "extension" is required to add extra functionality.

Following is an overview of the latest accessibility options available for surfing the Internet quickly and easily.

Internet Explorer

With Internet Explorer 8, the new "caret browsing" feature (turned on or off with F7) lets you navigate a Web page more easily because it puts a movable cursor on the screen so you can select and copy text with a single button on the keyboard rather than struggling with a mouse. It also works with images and tables.

Another helpful feature is the ability to highlight a word or phrase on the Web page and, with a right mouse click or keyboard shortcut, choose to immediately e-mail the text, map it or translate it without having to open a separate program.

"Accelerators" help you search for something faster with a pull-down menu right below the address bar that includes quick links to sites such as a search engine. You can also search for something right in the URL window, the place where you'd normally type in a specific "www" address.

"Web slices" can best be described as favorites (or bookmarks) that appear under the search window, but with up-to-date info pulled from sites you care about.

Of course, Internet Explorer also supports many of the conventional accessibility options, such as zoom, color and contrast adjustment, font style and more.

According to officials at Microsoft, Internet Explorer 9 (currently available in beta) will add even more features, such as using the computer's video card to speed up the Web browsing experience. This is the first time "hardware acceleration" has been used in a Web browser.

Michael Angiulo, Microsoft's corporate vice president for product planning and PC ecosystems, says that with IE9, performance on regular websites could be three to five times faster than with Internet Explorer 8 and other Web browsers. "We know computer users are spending the majority of their [computer] time on the Web … and we want the experience to feel like a native Windows experience," says Angiulo.

Another helpful feature built into IE9 is the ability to "pin" websites to the Windows taskbar, at the bottom of the screen, just as if it were an oft-used program, such as iTunes or Word. This gives users one-click access to favorite websites without having to open the browser first.

Google Chrome

Users of Google's Chrome browser can take advantage of 14 different accessibility extensions that help them surf the Web more comfortably.

"Accessibility features are important in Chrome because they make getting around the Web easier for people with disabilities," says T.V. Raman, a research scientist (who is also blind) at Google. "Also, Chrome's accessibility features can be enjoyed by many users, not just those with disabilities, because they add additional functionality."

For example, Google's ChromeV helps users with poor vision magnify text and change the color so they can see the words on the screen more clearly. You can select an "anchored lens," which is always at the top of the window, or a "floating lens," which magnifies selected text via your mouse.

Other extensions — or plug-ins — such as "Smooth Gestures" and "gleeBox" help you navigate the Web quickly and easily with mouse strokes (by holding down the right mouse button and performing a gesture) or with keyboard shortcuts that replace actions typically performed by a mouse (such as clicking, scrolling and selecting text).

Firefox

Mozilla's Firefox offers many accessibility features that are either built into the Web browser itself or available as an optional add-on (similar to Chrome's extensions).

According to David Bolter, who works on platform accessibility at Mozilla, "Firefox has full-page zoom, which provides a very quick way to adjust the size of text and images on a Web page. Firefox also works well with high-contrast themes, and uses many of the options and preferences already specified in the user's operating system," adds Bolter. "Theming" support helps the visually impaired by making it easier to read text against contrasting backgrounds; high contrast can be paired with large-font configuration to provide easy readability.

Audio aids are also available. Firefox provides support for dictation software, which uses speech recognition in place of the keyboard; plus, Bolter says, the browser offers support for software that assists people with physical disabilities. "Firefox automatically provides critical information to products for people who are blind, such as screen readers and Braille displays," he explains. In other words, Firefox supplies information to the computer’s operating system, so when the user wants to use an accessibility feature, Firefox kicks into gear based on the request. It’s automatic  because there is no extra configuration or preference settings required by the user.

In addition to Firefox's many accessibility add-ons, Mozilla is involved with developing captioning on the Web.

Opera

"Accessibility means making sure anybody can use a browser," says Charles McCathieNevile, chief standards officer for Opera. "The problem with the Web is that there's a lot to look at and click on. If you're 15 and grew up in the video game generation, then all of these icons and links might make sense, but if you're 75 it can be overwhelming, especially for those with poor motor control or seeing or hearing disabilities," adds McCathieNevile.

When it comes to visual aids, McCathieNevile says most Web browsers only enlarge the website's text, but Opera's zoom feature magnifies both text and photos, as well as other media that might be on the website, such as animation or video. "Plus, there are some vision conditions, such as tunnel vision, where people have a problem with text spread out to the entire page, so our 'Fit to Width' option can change the way the text is laid out on the page, too," says McCathieNevile.

For those with poor motor control, Opera has mouse gestures built into all its desktop versions; users hold the right mouse button and slide to the left to go back a page or to the right to go forward.

On Opera's mobile browser for smartphones, a feature called "Intelligent Touching" puts a ring around what you want to touch, such as a link to another website, and gives you a moment before that command is executed in case you want to change your mind.

Many of Opera's accessibility options are listed at opera.com/browser/tips.

Google Chrome

Users of Google's Chrome web browser can take advantage of 14 different accessibility extensions that help them surf the web more comfortably.

"Accessibility features are important in Chrome because they make getting around the web easier for people with disabilities," says T.V. Raman, a research scientist (who is also blind) at Google. "Also, Chrome’s accessibility features can be enjoyed by many users, not just those with disabilities, because they add additional functionality."

For example, Google's ChromeVis helps users with low vision magnify text and change the color, to better see the words on the screen. You can select an "anchored lens," which is always at the top of the window or a "floating lens," which magnifies selected text via your mouse.

Other extensions – or plug-ins – such as Smooth Gestures and gleeBox help you navigate the web quickly and easily with mouse strokes (by holding down the right mouse button and performing a gesture) or with keyboard shortcuts that replace actions typically performed by a mouse (such as clicking, scrolling and selecting text).

Firefox

Mozilla's Firefox offers many accessibility features, built into the web browser itself or as an optional add-on (similar to Chrome's extensions).

According to David Bolter, who works on platform accessibility at Mozilla, "Firefox has full-page zoom, which provides a very quick way to adjust the size of text and images on a web page. Firefox also works well with high contrast themes, and uses many of the options and preferences already specified in the user's operating system," adds Bolter. “Theming” support helps the visually impaired by making it easier to read text against contrasting backgrounds; high contrast can be paired with large font configuration to provide easy readability.

Audio aids are also available. Firefox provides support for dictation software, which uses speech recognition in place of the keyboard, plus Bolter says the browser offers support for software that assists people with physical disabilities. "Firefox automatically provides critical information to products for people who are blind, such as screen readers and Braille displays," explains Bolter. This is done through it’s unique add-on application capability.

In addition to Firefox’s many accessibility add-ons, Mozilla is involved with developing captioning on the Web. 

Opera

"Accessibility means making sure anybody can use a browser," says Charles McCathieNevile, chief standards officer for Opera. "The problem with web is that there's a lot to look at and click on – if you're 15 and grew up in the video game generation then all of these icons and links might make sense, but if you're 75 it can be overwhelming, especially for those with poor motor control, seeing or hearing disabilities," adds McCathieNevile.

When it comes to visual aids, McCathieNevile says most web browsers only enlarge the website's text but Opera's zoom feature magnifies both text and photos, as well as other media that might be on the website, such as animation or video. "Plus, there are some vision conditions, such as tunnel vision, where people have a problem with text spread out to the entire page, so our 'Fit to Width' option can change the way the text is laid out on the page, too," says McCathieNevile.

For those with poor motor control, Opera has mouse gestures built into all the desktop versions of Opera, where users hold the right mouse button and slide to the left to go back a page or to the right to go forward.

On Opera's mobile browser for smartphones, a feature called "Intelligent Touching" puts a ring around what you want to touch, such as a link to another website, and gives you a moment before that command is executed in case you want to change your mind.

Many of Opera's accessibility options are listed on http://www.opera.com/browser/tips

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