Five tips to make the web work better in your language

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Monday, 20 July 2015 15:46pm

In late May, Dr Scott Hollier travelled to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, to teach a web accessibility course to 22 students. As part of the assignment work, the students learnt how to use the basic functionality of screen readers and other Assistive Technology (AT). While the work went well, it quickly became apparent that there were a number of issues relating to the way in which Arabic was supported by the tools, and how those tools interacted with the web.

Translate button on a keyboard amidst keys labelled with multiple languages

There are several reasons why the web becomes more complicated for non-English speaking users, and it’s a combination of a number of factors:

  1. The languages supported by the assistive technology: While screen readers such as NVDA and VoiceOver support many different languages, the number of languages supported and the quality of the support vary wildly between different AT products. As such, it is often difficult to determine if the fault lies with the AT itself or whether it’s another issue.
  2. Language of the operating system: One of the issues Dr Hollier discovered in the class was that the operating system was often in English, but the screen reader was set to Arabic which resulted in some interesting interactions with the operating environment. While it may make logical sense to ensure that appropriate language packs are installed in popular operating systems such as Windows to match up with the language of the screen reader, for a variety of reasons this may not be possible, as noted in the next points.
  3. HTML tags are largely English based: Even if the OS and the AT are both set to the same language, people building websites still need some knowledge of English to create webpages, and as such it’s easy for English to creep into other areas.
  4. People often forget to put the bit of code into a webpage that tells the AT what language it is: To make sure the AT reads out in the correct language, web pages need to be ‘set’ to that language, otherwise the AT will try to pronounce the webpage as whatever language is in its default setting. Dr Hollier noted that it was interesting listening to an Arabic screen reader tyring to read English as Arabic with bizarre results.

For everyday users of AT the last two points are likely to be out of your control, but there are things you can do to try and resolve your issues:

  1. Confirm if your favourite AT product supports your language. For example, VoiceOver on an Apple Mac running OS X supports over 30 languages and NVDA supports more than 43 other languages.
  2. If possible, change the language in your operating system to match the language of your AT. While this is unlikely to change the effectiveness of your AT in a web browser, it will help to provide you with a more consistent experience on your mobile computer or connected device.
  3. Some devices may not come with your language by default. While Android 4.2+ devices, for example, can support many different text-to-speech languages, the Google engine may not be on your device automatically.  Downloading the relevant text-to-speech apps and then accessing the language options may help to get your device up and running in your preferred spoken language.
  4. Contact your local disability service provider to see if there are any specific issues with the AT in your language. For example, MADA in Qatar helped rectify an error with Siri that was affecting several languages, so feeding your experiences to such organisations may both help you to be aware of potential issues and provide feedback for the issues to be addressed.
  5. Contact the webmaster of your favourite website if your AT does strange things. If your AT works well on most websites but pronounces things strangely on a particular website, there’s a good chance the developers of that site haven’t declared the language properly. In this instance it’s worth getting in touch and asking them to add the LANG declaration in their webpage code to fix the problem.

While the web can be challenging in its ability to support different languages, it remains a powerful global medium for supporting people with disabilities and this will only get better in time.

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