1999 Conference Proceedings

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Crista Earl
American Foundation for the Blind
11 Penn Plaza Suite 300
New York, NY 10001
(212) 502-7605

Description of problem

For visually impaired computer users who use Windows-based screen readers, database access lags access to other core types of applications such as word processors, spreadsheets, browsers, and e-mail packages. Few users express complete inability to use a word processor or e-mail package (see AFB's survey of Windows screen reader users) and many users are freely able to change from an inaccessible word processor to one which suits them better. Databases, however, are selected on the basis of the type and amount of data to be stored and the types and levels of access to be allowed. Once a database program is chosen, one user within the group of potential users cannot usually opt to access the data through another program. Therefore, if the interface used by all employees within the company or patrons of the library or visitors to the web site does not allow the use of a screen reader, blind users are excluded.

Database interfaces are far more inaccessible to blind users in Windows than they were in DOS, relative to other core types of applications. For this reason, many visually impaired users are continuing to use DOS-based database programs when they have a choice.

The ability to use database applications is essential to employment as has been shown by AFB's survey of Windows screen reader users and by a review of help-wanted advertisements in on-line newspapers.

In the process of enhancing screen-reading software to give access to a wider range of Windows-based software and to enhance the efficiency with which skilled screen reader users are able to work, screen reader manufacturers have incorporated features to make accessible the most essential word processing and browsing features. However, little has been done by screen reader manufacturers, mainstream software manufacturers, or computer accessibility advocates to improve the database situation.


One reason development has been slow is that not all users need the same level of access or access to the same features of the database. Any user of a word processor needs to be able to type words and characters, delete, insert, and most need to run a spell-checker. Most need to be able to determine where text will appear on the printed page. People who use browsers all need to be able to read pages and fill out forms. In the case of the database, however, users fall into three broad categories:

  1. those who design and create databases. These users need to add and remove fields, create the relationships between database elements, and design and lay out the user interface.
  2. data entry: these users need to be able to enter and edit data, but may not find it necessary to add or delete fields. They must be sure which field they are working with and what special instructions might be available
  3. Viewing data: a broad base of users may be able to query the database and view information in a controlled manner, but may have no control over the content of it or its storage.

When a user says, "Does this screen reader work with Microsoft Access?" what is he/she really asking? When a user says, "I'm using Paradox and it works just fine," from what point of view is this user reporting accessibility?

We have evaluated the databases in this study from these three points of view:

Often the broadest base of users of a particular database application are given limited access through a user-interface created with a third-party tool. Do these allow for adequate screen reader access? Do they improve access to the most unfriendly databases?

Assessment of specific database programs

Databases fall into four general categories:
  1. home/light duty
  2. medium-duty, medium features
  3. full-featured, high volume
  4. Special-use databases (contact tracking, library card catalog, etc.)


Testers first attempted to create simple name-and-address database structures in each of those products that have such capability. Several popular screen readers were used in order to determine the range of users to which the product would be accessible. Where visually impaired testers were unable to create these databases, sighted users created them for the next phase. Since some special-use database programs do not allow users to create structures but come with predefined sets, these predefined structures were used for the remainder of the test.

In the second phase of testing for each product, testers entered data into the structures created in the first phase. Inaccurate information was entered and later corrected by the testers. Notes were made on special tricks and work-arounds that needed to be employed in order to accomplish these tasks. As in phase one, several screen readers were tested with the databases.

In the third phase, several simple and at least one (where possible) more complex queries were set up and users were asked to read the results using Windows-based screen readers. As always, several screen readers were used in the tests.

In the fourth phase, third-party products were used to design and test data-entry and query screens to access the structures created in phase one. Since not all products tested in phase one allow such access by available third-party interfaces, not all were used in the tests. Recommendations The presentation focuses on the answers to the following questions:

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