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This article was originally printed in the April 2003 issue (Vol 9, No. 4)


About the Authors

Will Reed is the Adaptive Technology Librarian at Cleveland Public Library/Library for the Blind & Physically Handicapped. He can be reached at

Everyl Yankee, a senior member of STC, is a Usability Consultant who was team leader for Accessibility at ProQuest. Everyl can be reached at

Wendi Fornoff was the QA accessibility validator for ProQuest's version 5.1 text based interface. She currently is the Web Manager for the University of Michigan's Institute for Social Research. Wendi can be reached at

Deborah Murray is a consultant and user of access technology who works with the Ann Arbor (Michigan) Commission on Disability. She was a quality assurance consult for ProQuest 5.1. Deb can be reached at

STC Usability SIG Newsletter

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Usability Interface

Guidelines for Writing Accessible On line Help

By Will Reed, Everyl Yankee and Wendi Fornoff, with Deborah Murray

This article describes how to write effective on-line help for blind and low vision users of text based readers. The authors draw on their collective experience in both using text (screen) readers like JAWS to access web applications as well as preparing accessibility help for web pages and applications.

This article doesn't include specific information about building web interfaces or sites, use of controls for accessibility within web sites, Section 508 or WAI Standards and Guidelines, or specific information about hardware or software. We include JAWS instructions as an example because it is commonly used in the United States. Also, we don't include information about actual language used within an interface and how to write it to make the interface more accessible. We are only discussing how to write Help pertaining to the interface itself.

Even though we initially set out to make Accessible Help for people with low or no vision, many of the principles provided for preparing accessible help we discuss here also will help a wide range of people with print disabilities, who can't interact with a computer because they are not mouse-enabled. We encourage writers to also be aware of users who use alternative input devices such as switches, head tracking or eye gazing systems, or are solely restricted to using a keyboard to interact with a web site rather than a mouse for navigation.

The principles will also apply to low-vision, low-light, environmentally challenged and/or audio-based interfaces. (Think of those cell phones!)

While some might consider the need for "Accessibly Help" a defeatist approach to universal web design, we recognize that users comprise a broad spectrum of expertise and abilities and recognize that there are those who need assistance, regardless of site or application accessibility.

A word about labeling: "Accessible Help" versus "Help" -- our collective experience has demonstrated to us that blind users are more likely to read on-screen Help if it's prefaced with "Accessible", "Accessibility" or a similar adjective since there is "a chance", said one blind web app user we know, "that the help will be more applicable than most "Help" sections".

What makes Accessibility Help work?

Good, usable accessibility help describes without visual reference.

Think of a text-based interface as an audio interface with users relying solely on what they hear for all the information that reaches them. Good accessibility help augments this type of interface. It provides information, instructions and feedback and ensures that the following pieces of information are available to users:

Overview - provides a web site overview so that users will be able to build their own frame of reference, which is crucial for independence.

Orientation - provides overviews and broad descriptions of functionality or pages, using concrete language so that users can fill in the interface in their mind, continuing to build themselves a model or map of the site

Navigation Assistance - describes navigation without visual reference to assure way finding, providing clear indications of sequencing or branching so uses can proceed, branch, return, or exit.

Details - clarifies what are the choices or options, provides explanation, includes concrete examples and quantification (denotes numbers of options, numbers of steps in a task)

Some questions that users initially ask themselves, and expect Help to answer for them, may include the following:

  • Will this "Access Help" actually help me to access and use this web application or site?
  • What's going on here, within the web application or site?
  • What choices are available to me, and how many?
  • How do I get what I want - how do I start, how do I move around in this space?
  • How to undo actions I've initiated?
  • How to I save what I want?
  • Who can I contact for help if I get stuck?

The Help section lets users know, "How much effort will this take (is it worth it)?" Below, we provide guidelines and examples from our experience to demonstrate how we've attempted to answer many of these questions.


(Authors' Note: CPL denotes Cleveland Public Library version 01/03, PQ denotes ProQuest v. 5.1, quotes in italics are to emphasize our points.)

1. Begin by defining the audience to let users with text readers immediately determine whether the material is worth investigating.

"Navigational Guide for the Text-Only Version of the Library Catalog
The following Navigational Guide for the Text-only version of the Cleveland Public Library catalog has been provided on behalf of anyone using adaptive technology or anyone who may simply need assistance using the catalog. The guide describes how key pages are constructed and laid out, and identifies major elements located on pages, such as search boxes, drop down or combo boxes, navigational links, etc. This guide also provides strategies for navigating the catalog using a computer keyboard for those who may have difficulties using a mouse." (CPL)

"…ProQuest's text based version…. provides easier access if you are using a text reader or screen magnification." (PQ)

2. Establish quickly the purpose of the web site or what the web application does.

"ProQuest contains newspapers or periodical journals which you can search or browse… articles are copyright-cleared which means that you may copy, email, or print them. "(PQ)

CPL's example below starts by explaining how many ways the web application can be used (the purpose of the site is evident since it's a public, electronic library). It goes on to describe the three methods in detail, provides an overview of how to use them, and makes two good suggestions for those not sure of what to do next.

"Search Interface…

There are three search methods in The Library Catalog. Keyword searching looks for any instance of your search term(s) in the bibliographic record. Traditional searching requires that your search terms match the exact headings reading left to right (either author, title, or subject) in the bibliographic record. Numeric searching allows you to enter a numeric code to quickly find an exact title. Keyword searching is a good choice when you are not certain of the exact heading. This is usually the easiest type of search, however, it produces the most hits. You may find more precise results using traditional searching." (CPL)

3. When possible, provide technical or other pertinent information to improve accessibility. Think of this section as a "Read First" or "Read Me" for text readers! Discuss technical restrictions, glitches or other areas which might cause less than optimal use so that users will immediately know about shortcomings and how to deal with them. Note that is important to include throughout the entire Help section.

The authors understand that it is not always feasible but anything you can pull together for users will be very helpful.

(in this instance)"... it's important for screen reader users to enable their screen readers for forms mode. In JAWS, this involves activating Forms Mode (Control + Insert + Home, then hit the ENTER button), or for Window Eyes users to turn MSAA mode off (Control + Alt + Down, then hit the ENTER button)." (CPL)

"... The third section contains ... Note: JAWS screen reader users will have to activate forms mode again, while Window Eyes users will have disable MSAA mode." (CPL)

"Set the screen reader to read punctuation when reading "Help" because Help contains punctuation specific examples which will improve your searching." (PQ)

"If the screen reader locks up and also might say "Downloading a page", with Window Eyes, press the escape key to continue. " (PQ)

"If JAWS locks up, go back a page and then forward again to "unfreeze" it."(PQ)

"To use high contrast settings, some users prefer to turn off the style sheets."(PQ)

We do have one caveat: if information about specific text reader software is included, be sure to clearly note to which version you refer. Because of economic or other considerations, many people have older versions of the software and may be unaware of the often major changes between versions. Technology goes forward but more and more people are using older versions of this type of software.

4. Provide an overview of the Help section itself as well as specific important sections within it.

"The guide describes how key pages are constructed and laid out, and identifies major elements located on pages, such as search boxes, drop down or combo boxes, navigational links, etc." (CPL)

"The following section includes a description of how ProQuest pages are arranged and some technical information about accessibility settings on your system." (PQ)

5. Provide an overview of the web site or application as well as important sections within the site.

"A description of how ProQuest pages are set up follows…. You'll find the following items on almost every ProQuest page. (PQ)

"The navigational guide is broken up into the major elements of using the Library Catalog, including Searching, Results List, Checking Availability, and Placing a Request. These sections are then subdivided into an overview explaining their general construction and layout."(CPL)

6. Provide descriptions of the main pages. Be sure to inform the user what comprises the main elements (or controls) on the page so that your audience can best use keyboards and shortcuts.

"The following section includes a description of how ProQuest pages are arranged and some technical information about accessibility settings on your system……at the top of the page, you'll find the following six items (authors' note - these items are numbered)…….in the middle of the page……at the bottom of each page, you'll find…." (PQ)

"This is a description of some of the main elements you will encounter on the main pages so that you may use your keyboard accordingly." (CPL, source, to check)

"…you'll find the following items on almost every…page…"(PQ)

7. If there are many elements, quantify how many elements or groupings are listed on each page.

"1. Search Field. Upon entering this page, your cursor should be in the search field. You may type your search query here.
2. Radio buttons (check box) for articles, index or dictionary." (CPL)

"At the bottom of each page, you'll find a navigation bar which contains the following items:…
1. A line which tells you which …collection you are searching…
3. A hyperlink to site map…"(CPL) (authors' note - these items are numbered)…….
"at the top of the page, you'll find the following six items"(PQ)

8. Note the function of each element, instructions for using the element and any choices for using the element (such as optional versus required).\

"Users can narrow their search from the following options: By material type - All Materials (Default), Books Only, Magazines and Journals, Videos and DVDs, Music CDs, cassettes, and LPs, Computer Software, Audiobooks on cassette and CD, Sheet music, scores, etc., Maps
However, users can also use the TAB key to move the cursor into additional drop down or combo box fields that allows users to choose from an already provided set options for narrowing their search." (CPL)

"To refine or narrow your search, here are all of the options available….
A Publication Types combo box.
Choose one of these publication options:
All types
Periodicals" (PQ)

9. Be sure to describe the outcome of using the element, especially if the action is unusual. This helps the user decide whether they wish to use the element or whether they'll go on to another element.

"From the check availability section: Users will not see a list of available copies until they have selected a library system. The libraries to choose from are listed in a combo box, so screen reader users will have to enable Forms mode...
Use the UP and DOWN ARROW keys to select a library, and then hit the TAB button once to move the cursor to the "Check Availability" button, and hit ENTER. The page will refresh and the copy status of the item should now be displayed on the page. The availability of the item at a library is presented in a table format, in the following order...(CPL)

"Removing Image Results in ProQuest:
… checkbox option allows you first to remove any image results before you start searching or browsing. These results may be difficult or impossible to read with a text reader because they are not accessible with a text reader. (PQ)

10. If possible, discuss variations in page design so users are aware of it.

"Two other types of ProQuest pages are set up in a slightly different way. When you are on a page which lets you print an article, that page provides numbered instructions on how to print without all the other ProQuest links." (PQ)

11. Provide a numbered task list. (We have found that many users prefer to tape the task list and memorize it.)

"Sample Keyword Search for Screen Reader Users
1.Go to the Text Only Version of the Library Catalog.
2. Activate Forms Mode on your Screen Reader
3. Type in a search: 'Color Purple'
4. Hit the ENTER key on the keyboard." (CPL)

"…four numbered steps, describing how to turn off style sheets in Internet Explorer 5.50.
1. Go to the menu bar.
2. Under the Tools menu, select "Internet Options."
3. Under the "General" tab, select the "Accessibility" button.
4. Under "Formatting," make sure that all check boxes are checked."(PQ)

12. If there is additional page-specific information that would be useful, provide that.

"While on the page containing your selected article:
The article may have links scattered throughout to more information within the encyclopedia about related topics
There may be related internet links below each article. These links will be labeled with the name of the internet site."(CPL)

13. Always have an out - provide clear instructions on how to undo, go back, print or save data. (We know you have plenty of examples in your own work for this one!)

14. Be sure to have the usual contact information easily available.

"For additional questions about using adaptive technology to access the Cleveland Public Library's online services, please contact the Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped".: (Authors' Note: snail mail address & phone numbers also provided on the web site itself) (CPL)

"….For more detailed explanations of the various types of searching, please activate the Library Catalog Help link."(CPL)

15. Make sure that the Accessibility Help section itself is easily navigable! One way to do this is to provide a Table of Contents, the elements of which link to the actual contents. Use a clear, logical structure of information, with html headings used appropriately (H1 for page title, H2 for section headings, H3 for subheadings within the section, etc.)

"Basic Search Fields include the following:
Date (Numeric)
Subject Terms
Article Title
(Authors' note; long listing…)
Product Name and
Publication Name.
(Authors' note; links below examples:)

Use to find articles written by an author or reviewer.
Valid Forms:
AUTHOR(Gertrude Enders Huntington)
AU(Michael Kinsley)
Return to top of list
Date (Numeric)

The publication date in numeric format. For example, December 12, 1999. Converts to 12/12/1999.

Valid Form:


JAWS is available from Freedom Scientific:
Window Eyes is available from
Cleveland Public Library is found at
Canadian National Library for the Blind is found at
Information about Section 508 is available at
The Web Accessibility Initiative can be explored at

Examples from ProQuest used with permission of ProQuest Information & Learning.

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