Accessibility by subscription? No thanks.


Accessibility shouldn't cost a lot of money if your website is built with accessibility in mind from the beginning.

I was recently asked to evaluate a product called BrowseAloud in the interest of improving a website's accessibility. This is a browser plugin which aims to help those people who have difficulty seeing the screen, maybe through old age or those with lower literacy or dyslexia who might find it helpful to hear rather than read the words on the page. It basically functions as a screen reader, but will only operate within the browser on websites who have subscribed to the BrowseAloud service.

My first reaction was to point out that many users who require this sort of accommodation would usually already have software installed on their computer to help them. Most operating systems have Text-to-Speech and screen-reading (available in Windows since XP by pressing the Windows Key + U), screen region enlargement and visual contrast functionality built into them and most web browsers have text resizing/zoom functionality available.

In addition to these tools already available, we invest a great deal of time and effort ensuring that the websites we build meet all mandatory (and many optional) accessibility guidelines and regulations, and take a long-term view to ensure that accessibility for all is maintained.

Having said that, I can see how this sort of technology would be useful. The main problem I have with this particular product is that it is something that actively must be downloaded and installed by the user in order to be available. Many people with text access issues are particularly unlikely to be able/willing to download and install anything additional to their computers. A competitor to this product, Talklets, seems like a slightly better solution as it does not require anything special to be installed apart from the Flash Plugin (which is almost as ubiquitous as the web browser itself.)

I'm personally also not a fan of BrowseAloud's business model. Their plugin requires no changes to be made to a website or software to be purchased or installed. Paying them an annual fee simply adds your website to a white-list of sites that their plugin will work with. There's no reason why BrowseAloud couldn't work with ALL websites, but they cripple the plugin until you pay them what could be an expensive annual cost. (Granted, I don't know exactly how much it costs, but from what I've read from others, it's not cheap.) I would probably prefer them to sell the un-crippled plugin to the public for a nominal fee, or at least offer that as an option. I guess it's easier for them to target enterprise organisations such as government and educational sites, mainly because traditionally they are the types to throw lots of money at a perceived problem.

The Opera browser, available free of charge, also has in-built speech capability which can assist with reading web page content. There are also free extensions to Firefox such as FireVox which adds web-page reading to the browser. While I'm not sure how effective these tools are in the real world, I would much prefer to use an accessibility page of a website to point users to these resources that will help them with ALL websites.

In summary, there are a lot of options for accessibility these days. Accessibility should mostly be built in to the website by following W3C standards for development and accessibility. Additional tools can be used to ensure that as many people as possible can access the content of the site, but I believe these users should get themselves a solution that works on ALL sites, not just on some that have been "enabled". Otherwise, all you're doing is setting up a nice walled garden for them, and as soon as you need to link out to an external site or whatever, you're leaving them stranded. "Give a man a fish...", etcetera.

6 comments on ‘Accessibility by subscription? No thanks.’

  1. I've evaluated Browsealoud in the past too; and I came to much the same conclusion as you have. You still have to make your site accessible and there are free alternatives to their product; and most other solutions will help with any website rather than just a whitelisted set of sites.

    I'm not saying Browsealoud wouldn't be helpful to some people, or anything like that. Vocalising content is definitely useful. I just think it's a better investment to spend the money on making the site natively accessible, for the more common assistive technology solutions.

  2. Thanks Ben. It was interesting to run a few of the sites BrowseAloud were using as examples in their marketing materials through the CynthiaSays WAI checker. There were a lot of "NO"s down the right-hand side of the reports. A shame really, because the owners of these websites probably believe they are now accessible and feeling proud of themselves.

  3. I remember thinking it could easily confuse non-experts into thinking they were all done just by paying a fee. I just hope people remember that if something seems too good to be true...... ;)

  4. Agreed Mikey. BrowseAloud will die. Accessibility options are only improving and it's in the interests of OS makers and browser makers to have better accessibility.

    I guess it's kind of a cool service, "click a button and it reads the content of the page", but I looked at some of the sites that use it and it isn't obvious how to use it at all. Big fail imo.

    Would be interested to know the pricing

  5. Luke: I agree the actual idea of "click to read" is pretty cool, but it should be tied in to something native. Probably back when Browsealoud started, it was a pretty good idea, but betting against technology, just like betting against Jean Claude Van Damme, is always a wrong bet.

  6. Hi Michael,

    I am the CTO at Texthelp, the company who own Browsealoud.

    This is not a commercial break - I just want to set out a couple of things as we see them :).

    Browsealoud is not meant to be accessibility by subscription.

    Website owners must make their websites accessible. W3C have created a good set of international standards that have been adopted nationally in many countries. Browsealoud will not turn an inaccessible site into a AAA site.

    Browsealoud is good quality AT for people who cannot afford it. It works best with fully accessible sites and we encourage accessible design.

    There are built in AT tools on Windows and Mac that will read text, but they are not too friendly to use, and do not get used for that reason.

    There also are totally free tools around to read the web, but they are not nearly as good as commercial text readers in terms of voice quality, or features. (this is why commercial AT exists)

    Browsealoud is free for the end user, and has the quality and features of an AT product that would normally cost the user a few hundred dollars.

    It is provided mainly for public service websites. It is designed for people who cannot afford to buy good quality AT.

    It will not alter your sites W3C accessibility rating - and we do not suggest that it does. It is simply commercial AT with a different business model.

Comments are closed

Comments on this post have been closed. If you would like to contact me about this post or for any reason, please get in touch.