Thoughts on screen reader detection

The subject of screen reader detection has been under discussion lately. It isn’t something I’m comfortable with, so I’d like to share the reasons why.

I don’t want to share personal information with websites I visit

My disability is personal to me, and I share that information at my discretion. Proponents of screen reader detection say it would be discretionary, but that’s like choosing between plague and pestilence. Choosing between privacy and accessibility is no choice at all.

I don’t want to be relegated to a ghetto

We’ve spent years encouraging people to move away from text-only websites, and with good reason. If there is one thing that history should have taught us by now, it’s that social segregation is a bad idea.

I don’t want design decisions to be based on the wrong thing

The best screen reader detection can hope for, is to tell whether a screen reader is present or not. People use screen readers for different reasons – because they’re blind, partially sighted, Dyslexic or on the Autistic spectrum for example. Even this may be overly optimistic. Unless screen reader vendors agree to share some kind of UA string, the detection mechanism is likely to be access to the browser’s accessibility layer. In that case it may only be possible to detect an assistive technology in the most general sense, whether it be a screen reader, screen magnifier, speech recognition tool or something else entirely.

I don’t want old mistakes to be repeated

We’ve spent time turning to web standards and feature detection, instead of browser sniffing and excluding the ones we didn’t care to support (guilty as charged). Screen reader detection leaves us vulnerable to the same exclusion allover again, only this time feature detection won’t come to the rescue. The relationship between screen readers and browsers is symbiotic, and in terms of traditionally detectable features, screen readers derive most of their capability from the browser.

I don’t want things to be hard work

Most things that make a website usable with a screen reader are achieved by conforming to web standards, and the rest require relatively little modification. In these days of responsive design, including a media feature for screen readers would automatically double the work involved. You’d need to serve up a screen reader alternative for every break point version of your website.

I do want much more conversation about screen reader detection

Hence this blog post. But as the conversation continues, please bear in mind that this isn’t really about screen reader detection, or even assistive technology detection, at all. What is really being discussed is disability detection, and that is a very different thing altogether.

7 comments on “Thoughts on screen reader detection”

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  1. Comment by PG

    How do you feel about detecting support for ARIA features? I’ve run into situations where I could make something basically work without ARIA or work well with it, but trying to support both at once created something completely unusable.

  2. Comment by lucy greco

    the most in portent thing you said is that its not hard to do access write its just following best practices. giving people an out by letting them code differently for screen readers just means they are not following best practices! just use good clean accessible code and it works. if you make things that are not accessible most people can’t use it any way.

  3. Comment by Michiel Bijl

    “Most things that make a website usable with a screen reader are achieved by conforming to web standards”

    Hear hear!

  4. Comment by Lynn Holdsworth

    As a screen reader user, I don’t want to be offered a “special “experience If a special accessible version is made to work with my screen reader, what about people using Braille displays (are these registered as screen readers on Apple devices?) Or alternative input devices? And will magnification work as expected? Blindness isn’t the only disability.

  5. Comment by Tom Widerøe

    This article takes for granted that screen reader detection is only wanted for redirecting the users to an “accessible version” of the content. In my case I want to use for web analytics. Just like I want to know how mobile users are using my site compared to users with big screens, I also want to know how it works for users with screen readers and other assistive technologies.

    I have written a blog post about it here:

    1. Comment by Léonie Watson

      Wanting to improve UX is a good thing, but it shouldn’t require the user to reveal personal information at the point of delivery. Knowing someone uses a tablet reveals nothing about them as an individual, but knowing they use a screen reader reveals that they most likely have a disability.

      Experience also suggests that people will use the information to redirect screen reader users to alternative sites. If you remember the era of text only sites, you’ll know what I mean. If you think that’s an anachronism, then consider the case of this UK supermarket that recently replaced its accessible delivery booking form with a new inaccessible one and an accessible alternative.

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