Web Browser Usage by Screen Reader Users
Web browsers provide the primary interface by which we access the Internet, and the choice of which browser to use can be very personal and can significantly change your online experience for better or worse. Historically, screen reader users have been slower to adopt new web browsers. The reasons for this are numerous, but can include:
- Early versions of newer web browsers generally provide less support for accessibility than their more developed alternatives.
- Assistive technology vendors have not yet updated their applications to be compatible with new browsers.
- Information and resources on using new browsers with assistive technologies may be limited or unavailable
- The learning curve associated with the move to a new browser can be steep, especially when factoring in assistive technology like a screen reader or voice recognition software.
The impact of these barriers to the adoption of modern web browsers is evident when you examine web browser usage among screen reader users. Web Accessibility in Mind (webAIM), a non-profit based out of Utah State University’s Center for Persons with Disabilities, conducts a bi-annual survey of screen reader users and their use of assistive technologies, web browsers, and the Internet. When WebAIM first conducted this survey in 2008, they found that screen reader users used browsers at the following rates:
- Internet Explorer (IE)6: 33%
- IE7: 68%
- IE8: 2%
- Firefox: 39%
- Safari: 6%
(Source: “Survey of Preferences of Screen Readers Users,” WebAIM, October 2009, https://webaim.org/projects/screenreadersurvey/)
The most recent WebAIM Screen Reader survey, which was conducted in October 2017, found the following:
- Firefox: 41.0%
- Internet Explorer: 23.3%
- Chrome: 15.5%
- Safari: 10.5%
- Internet Explorer 6, 7, or 8: 4.1%
- Internet Explorer 9 or 10: 4.0%
- Microsoft Edge: 0.5%
(Source: “Screen Reader User Survey #7 Results,” WebAIM, October 2017, https://webaim.org/projects/screenreadersurvey7/)
This was the first time a non-Internet Explorer browser was found to have the highest usage among screen reader users. However, whereas the general population had moved to Chrome, screen reader users had largely migrated to Firefox. Compare the usage of various web browsers among screen reader users to the browser usage trends of the general population, as tracked by W3 Counter:
- Internet Explorer & Edge: 58.9%
- Firefox: 33.4%
- Safari: 2.8%
- Opera: 2.1%
- Chrome: 0.3%
(Source: “W3 Counter Global Web Stats,” W3 Counter, September 2008, https://www.w3counter.com/globalstats.php?year=2008&month=9)
- Chrome: 58.4%
- Safari: 15.3%
- Firefox: 9.1%
- Internet Explorer & Edge: 7.8%
- Opera: 3.9%
(Source: “W3 Counter Global Web Stats,” W3 Counter, January 2018, https://www.w3counter.com/globalstats.php?year=2018&month=1)
These statistics show that Google Chrome adoption has been slow among screen reader users. There are likely a few reasons for this, and they reflect some of the barriers to new browser adoption mentioned earlier:
- Chrome was initially less accessible than the other alternatives. While this is largely no longer the case, there are still areas of Chrome which are less accessible than Firefox or Internet Explorer, most notably Chrome’s developer tools and browser inspector.
- Also, assistive technology vendors were slow to adopt support for Chrome. For example, the first version of JAWS which references any support for Chrome in its release notes was JAWS 13 (select “JAWS 13” in drop-down menu), released in 2011, three years after the first version of Chrome was released. Significant improvements in JAWS support for Chrome didn’t come until JAWS 16 (select “JAWS 16” in drop-down menu) was released in October 2014
- Finally, Chrome has a significantly different menu structure from Internet Explorer, making the switch more difficult for users used to working with IE’s traditional menus and dialogs. This change also meant that many keyboard shortcuts these users were familiar with, such as Alt+A to open Favorites in IE or Alt+B to open Bookmarks in Firefox, no longer worked in Chrome.
While these issues no longer apply to modern versions of Chrome and most screen readers (except for the different menu structure of Chrome), screen reader users have generally remained slow in making the switch to Google Chrome. This may change, however, with the discontinuation of Internet Explorer and the fallout from Firefox Quantum.
As stated above, the most recent survey of screen reader users, conducted in October 2017, found that Firefox had surpassed Internet Explorer as the most widely used browser by screen reader users. Unfortunately, this survey was conducted a month before Firefox released Firefox v57 “Quantum,” which was a significant redesign of the Firefox browser, and which greatly diminished the accessibility of Firefox. For a significant period after Firefox 57 was released, screen reader users of Firefox were encouraged to use the extended support release (ESR) version of Firefox, which was based off Firefox 52.
As the survey results above show, while the general population moved from Internet Explorer to Google Chrome, screen reader users more gradually made the switch from Internet Explorer to Mozilla Firefox. As of 2017, 58% of non-screen reader users were found to be using Google Chrome, compared to only 15% of screen reader users. Screen reader users were much more likely to use Firefox (41%) than non-screen reader users (9.1%), although that was before the accessibility of Firefox was diminished by the Firefox 57 update.
Will screen reader users finally make the transition to Chrome, or will they return to familiar territory by switching back to Internet Explorer? How many users will stick it out through Firefox’s changes, waiting for the previous level of accessibility to be restored? If they stick to their past schedule, WebAIM should be conducting another screen reader user survey later this year. I, for one, look forward to seeing the results!