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User Agents and Accessibility

Jul 23, 2019

User agents are software applications that interact with the internet on your behalf. They do things so you don't have to. For example, a web browser is a user agent, in that it displays web content in a way that people find easy to use.

Netscape, the first widely-used web browser and the precursor of today's Chrome, Edge, and Firefox, was a user agent in the 1990s that rendered graphics and displayed formatted text. No longer were internet users limited to reading blocky glowing text on a dark screen background. Using Netscape, they could see pictures, view web pages laid out like print documents, and even click links.

User agents are more diverse and sophisticated now. They include browser plugins and extensions, media players, and text readers, all of which can make the internet more accessible to people with disabilities. People who are blind or have low vision, for example, can use a screen reader to turn text on a web page into speech that can be heard. People who are deaf or hard of hearing can use closed-captioning in a media player to turn spoken words and other audio into text that can be read.

The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) has issued guidelines that help software developers create more-accessible user agents. These guidelines, the User Agent Accessibility Guidelines (UAAG), ensure that people with visual, auditory, physical, and other disabilities can experience all that the web has to offer.

How do the UAAG do this? Mainly by helping software developers observe five guiding principles, making sure that the user agent is:

  1. Perceivable. Users can see, hear, or even feel the web content being conveyed.
  2. Operable. They can interact with it to do what they want to do.
  3. Understandable. They know how to use it, or can easily figure that out.
  4. Configurable. They can adjust it to fit their preferences and needs.
  5. Compliant. It complies with the W3C’s Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, as well as standard Windows/Mac/Linux interface conventions.

Using the Google Chrome browser as an example of a disability-friendly user agent, it includes several features recommended by the UAAG, such as giving users the ability to change the default font size. By making the text bigger on every web page visited, or even rendered in an easily-read font, this feature helps people with visual impairments.

Google also provides disability-friendly extensions to the Chrome browser, such as Read Aloud, which reads text on web pages to the user. In accordance with the UAAG, the extension features a simple interface that allows users to configure it in different ways. For instance, a user could elect to have English text translated and read to them in different languages, or have it read to them at a faster or slower speed.

By observing the W3C’s User Agent Accessibility Guidelines, software developers are making web content more accessible to more people.

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