New Mozilla Firefox Release Includes Powerful Accessibility Features

December 12, 2022

Mozilla Firefox, the world’s fourth-most popular web browser, is prioritizing digital accessibility. 

In a recent blog post, Jamie Teh, Mozilla’s tech lead for accessibility, provided an overview of two new features that are intended to improve browsing experiences for users with disabilities. Before joining Mozilla, Teh co-founded NVDA (NonVisual Desktop Access), the world’s second-most popular screen reader.

Screen readers are software that converts text to audio or braille. Teh, who is blind, says that his team works every day to help screen readers and other assistive technologies (AT) work well with Mozilla’s flagship product.

“I’ve been totally blind since birth, so working on accessibility is very personal for me,” Teh writes. “But it’s also a space where I can have a direct impact on people’s lives.” 

Mozilla is working on a revamped accessibility engine

Screen readers rely on web browsers to present the internet to users in a way that makes sense. Many web pages use WAI-ARIA (Web Accessibility Initiative - Accessible Rich Internet Applications, also known simply as ARIA), which provides definitions for elements that aren’t available in native HTML. 

If the browser doesn’t deliver ARIA information in an understandable way, the AT can’t present that data to the user. On complex websites, ARIA and HTML can take time to render, depending on the accessibility engine used by the web browser.

That’s why screen reader output changes when you switch between Firefox, Chrome, Safari, and other web browsers (and it’s one of the reasons that screen reader testing should be handled by professionals). 

Mozilla’s accessibility team is revamping their accessibility engine via their Cache the World project, which intends to improve browser speeds for AT users. Currently, the new accessibility engine is only available in Firefox Nightly (the in-development version of the browser that receives daily updates). Eventually, Mozilla hopes to roll out the new engine to all users.

“Using a screen reader is like looking at the screen through a straw,” Teh explains. “You’re constantly moving the straw around to see different bits of the screen, one little thing at a time.  Firefox has been great with screen readers, but it’s not as fast as it could be.”

By completely rewriting Firefox’s accessibility architecture, Teh hopes to reduce crashes, hangs, and “sometimes catastrophic performance issues.” 

According to Mozilla, the changes have received positive reviews from people who use AT. Firefox users can learn how to enable the feature by visiting Mozilla’s blog post about the new accessibility engine.

Related: Introduction to ARIA for Web Accessibility

On MacOS, Firefox includes text recognition for images of text

As we've discussed on this blog, pre-rendered images of text aren’t great for accessibility. However, they’re common throughout the internet — and Mozilla hopes that artificial intelligence (AI) may help to address the problem.

A new Firefox feature will allow users to right-click an image and copy its text. Currently, the feature is only supported on macOS 10.15 (Catalina) or higher. 

“Text recognition on Firefox is compatible with VoiceOver, the built-in screen reader for macOS,” Teh writes. “A person with low vision who can’t read small text in an image can also use the feature to extract the copy and enlarge it on a text document so that it’s easier to read.”

It’s important to remember that artificial intelligence isn’t perfect. Certain fonts may be difficult to analyze, and text recognition works best on high-quality images. If Firefox fails to recognize text, it will present users with an error message.

In other words, organizations should still provide accurate alternative text that includes all of the text from the image (and wherever possible, it’s a good idea to avoid using images of text entirely). 

Related: Alternative Text: What and Why

Don’t wait for web browsers to fix your website’s accessibility issues

By embracing accessibility, Mozilla is providing robust tools for people with disabilities. However, no web browser can perfectly render a website with major accessibility barriers — content creators have a moral and legal responsibility to accommodate AT users. 

Organizations must adopt the best practices of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) to ensure that their content is useful for people with disabilities. Fortunately, the best practices of accessibility are aligned with the best practices of web development: When companies follow WCAG, their digital products work better for everyone.

To learn more, test your website against WCAG 2.1 Level A/AA requirements with our free, confidential website analysis.

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