Screen-reader access to SharePoint
by Jeffrey Stark
May 29th, 2010
As many screen reader users have found out the hard way; Microsoft’s SharePoint service is not very screen reader friendly. It can be navigated, but is clearly not understandable for your average user. Microsoft’s apparent lack of interest in adhering to w3c standards further complicates the situation. Despite this, many of us have to use SharePoint in our daily work. So with that said, I am writing this article to share with other screen reader users some tricks, tips and general information I’ve gathered over time while working on the “SharePoint issue”. I have primarily been working with the 2003 and 2007 editions of SharePoint, but most of these items hold true with 2010.
1. Fix the site itself
Before I show you some of the work-arounds, I want to quickly talk about SharePoint deployment. A company that just installs SharePoint on a server and leaves it with all the default settings and out of the box configuration is deploying an extremely less than accessible SharePoint site. Microsoft themselves point to the Accessibility Kit for SharePoint (AKS) – http://is.gd/cupBU which is a free set of templates and other items to make SharePoint more accessible. There is also the Unofficial Accessibility Kit for SharePoint (UKS) http://is.gd/cupXF which attempts to improve the accessibility shortcomings of the AKS. Neither of these fixes come with SharePoint or are installed by default so this is something that will need to be done by your SharePoint Administrator and may constitute a fair bit of work if they have already deployed SharePoint, developed their own templates or customized it at all. However, these SharePoint improvements go a long way towards making SharePoint more usable.
2. The SharePoint “more accessible mode”
SharePoint has implemented a setting that users can turn on to make the interface “more accessible”. A user changes their preferences for their own profile under SharePoint and turns this on, see the following article to learn more and get instructions on how to turn the “More Accessible Mode” feature on: http://is.gd/cuqhG .
Rather than do things right the first time in the main interface, Microsoft has elected to build this kludgy secondary interface for SharePoint. If you have customized your SharePoint interface or added any of the third party add-ons or items to your SharePoint server, this mode is often broken, non-functional or these add-ons are completely unusable.
3. Mobile Device Mode
Many screen reader users have highlighted that because the mobile mode for SharePoint is more simplified and contains fewer controls, items and elements on the screen that the mobile mode is far easier to learn and use than the default SharePoint interface. The “mobile” mode was designed for cell phones and other mobile devices to access SharePoint on their smaller screens. Be aware though that it still has a number of shortcomings and removes some functionality you may need to access in the main interface.
The “mobile interface” is a feature that needs to be enabled on the server by the administrator of your SharePoint site. See this link for instructions on how to Configure SharePoint Server for Mobile Device Access http://is.gd/cur83
Once this is enabled, you can use the mobile experience on a desktop web browser. To do this, go to the address bar, hit end to get to the end of the URL for the current page of a SharePoint site and paste the following text: ?mobile=1 at the end of your url. This can be done for a document, home page, web part page, wiki page, list view page, list item details/edit/new form page, or Search center page. This does not work for all pages/lists/documents but can be a convenient workaround for an overly complex page.
4. Accessing SharePoint with Windows Explorer
You can access using Windows explorer all the files and folder structure of a SharePoint’s file repository as if it were just another shared drive. While this is perhaps the most technical workaround, it is also the workaround that tends to work the best and provide the most screen reader friendly way of accessing and working with a SharePoint server that is being used as a document repository. You can use Windows Explorer to read, edit, delete or add files assuming you have the permissions on the SharePoint site to do so. This method of using SharePoint also does not have the full functionality of using the site natively and you may find that your area is using SharePoint for more than just a document library and that those additional items cannot be accessed through Windows explorer. However, with that said, it is far more efficient to navigate the document library with a screen reader from within Windows Explorer.
Figure 1 Screenshot of a sharepoint site opened in Internet Explorer
Figure 2 Screenshot of the same sharepoint site as displayed in Figure 1 but opened in Windows Explorer
There are two ways to get the URL for use within Windows Explorer for accessing a SharePoint document library. Both require you to first go to your SharePoint site in Internet Explorer and navigate to the library (page) you wish to access.
4.1 The Easy Way of Getting the URL for use within Windows Explorer
While on the page for the document library you wish to access within Windows explorer, find the Actions link and then find the Open in Windows Explorer link. Hit alt-d to get to the address bar and copy the URL you find there. With this address or URL, you can return to the site at any time by just loading Windows Explorer and pasting this URL.
4.2 The Manual Way of Getting the URL for use within Windows Explorer
Even though it’s a more manual process and requires more technical knowledge, I’m going to show you the 2nd way of getting the document library address to paste into Windows explorer because sometimes the previous method is not visible. So, alternately, you can get the address of the site from the address bar. For my example, the following URL was grabbed from the address bar of a SharePoint site I have to use occasionally.
Deconstruct the URL as follows:
- remove http:
- replace all slashes with backslashes
- remove the last few levels below the folder of the repository
- add \Documents to the end of the URL
You should have a URL that looks something like this:
Paste your new URL into Windows Explorer’s address bar to access the SharePoint document library.
4.3 Creating a drive mapping with the Windows Explorer URL
You can then add the Windows Explorer URL we grabbed in the previous sections from Windows explorer as a mapped drive letter by Choosing Tools, Map Network Drive, paste the path copied earlier into the “folder” field and tab to the drive selection field and select the drive letter you wish to use. Tab to and press enter on the OK button and you will now have a mapped drive to a document library that you can then access and use just like any other drive you use in Windows
5. Final Thoughts
As you can see above, none of the “work arounds” are ideal and none of them will work all the time for all situations. It is therefore recommended that you communicate the importance of accessibility to your IT area, that they communicate this as an important business requirement of your organization to Microsoft and urge them to fix the “out of box” experience for everyone by making their offering fully W3C and WCAG AAA compliant right from the out-of-box deployment. Until that day comes, I hope that you have found these work arounds and tricks to be useful and that you will share any additional tricks you have found for working with SharePoint with a screen reader in the comments below.
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