Accessibility Blog

Accessibility Issues with Firefox Quantum and screen readers

Popularity in browsers

Firefox popularity among screen reader users has been consistently increasing for the last few years.  In a 2015 WebAIM survey, 34.9% of participants answered “Internet Explorer 10” to a question “When using your primary screen reader, which browser do you use most often?”, whereas 31% answered “Firefox”. However, in a 2017 survey, the most frequently used browser was Firefox (41%) followed by Internet Explorer 10 (23.3%).

The 2017 survey was conducted in October, one month before Firefox 57 Quantum was released. Firefox was considered a fairly accessible, blind user-friendly browser, and a good replacement for an outdated Internet Explorer. Chrome was not considered as friendly as Firefox, and in 2017 it was used by only 15.5% of the survey participants.

The 2017 results are the latest ones that directly refer to screen reader users. One cannot say how the situation changed after November 2017. However, in September 2018,  WebAIM conducted a survey of users with low vision. Browsers used to fill in the survey were detected automatically. The results are:

  • Chrome – 37.5%
  • Safari – 21.8%
  • Firefox – 21.0%
  • Internet Explorer – 15.3%
  • Edge – 3.2%.

Screen reader users and low vision users are not necessarily the same group of users, but in the most recent survey 45.2% of low vision users declared that they use a screen reader, one may draw a general conclusion that Chrome’s popularity among people with visual impairment has increased. Unfortunately, the previous survey of low vision users was conducted in 2013, which is too far back in time for any meaningful conclusions. Then, the most popular browser was Internet Explorer (52.2%), followed by Firefox (16.1%), then Chrome (14.6%).

What happened?

In November 2017, Mozilla released a completely rebuilt Firefox 57 Quantum. The aim was to increase the browser’s performance. Evidently, accessibility was not the priority, because screen reader users encountered so many problems with using the new Firefox that it was basically inaccessible to them.

The situation was so bad that both Freedom Scientific (developer and vendor of JAWS) and NV Access (developer of NVDA) advised users of their screen readers either to switch to Firefox Extended Support Release (ESR) (which back then still was not the Quantum version) or to use Chrome.

Firefox ESR had the advantage that it was still based on a pre-Quantum version of Firefox, but at the same time it continued receiving security fixes, so using it did not increase the user’s security risk. This was not the case if one simply refrained from updating Firefox 56.

In the meantime, screen reader developers collaborated with Mozilla to make Firefox Quantum more accessible for assistive technologies. There were some minor improvements, but then, in September 2018 Firefox 52 ESR was replaced by Firefox 62.0 Quantum ESR and even the ESR version became inaccessible. Users who cannot upgrade their screen reader (this may be difficult for organizational or financial reasons) or who find that Firefox Quantum does not meet their needs as far as accessibility and usability is concerned, have one choice: switching to Chrome.

Jonathan Mosen from Freedom Scientific wrote in his blog post: “This Firefox situation is just one example of how quickly the world of technology can change.” I would put it more strongly: this Firefox situation is an example how quickly and suddenly blind people may lose a tool they use for work.

I suppose that almost every blind person who works in a team with sighted people experiences stress whenever her or his company changes a tool. Certainly some organizations may ask screen reader users to test tools in advance, which happens here at AccessibilityOz, but I can’t imagine this occurring in very many organizations. As a result, you never know if the tool — e.g., a CMS or bug tracking software — will be accessible for a screen reader or to what degree it will be accessible. These are crucial matters for blind employees. An inaccessible tool means, in the best situation, your position changing within the company. A poorly accessible tool means your poor performance. There were cases of decreased accessibility of certain tools, but to the best of my knowledge this was the first time that a whole browser suddenly became inaccessible. An unimaginable situation became reality and it must have influenced many people for whom switching to another browser was just a partial solution.

Why screen reader users sometimes cannot simply switch to another browser?

The problem is that each screen reader supports each browser to varying degrees. Things which work fine on one browser may not work as well on another browser, though the same screen reader is used. This could be anything, e.g. some tables which are well recognized on Firefox and not so well recognized on Chrome, or selecting elements with keyboard which works smoothly on one browser and doesn’t work at all on another. This is one reason why we test with a multitude of screen readers, browsers, operating systems and devices when conducting our annual video player testing or social media testing.

It is also worth mentioning that screen readers’ support for Firefox was always (at least for the last few years) a bit better than for Chrome, which made Firefox even more user friendly. In other words, for blind people, changing a browser is not just about changing a browser. When you use professional web tools and your default browser suddenly becomes inaccessible, you may find yourself in big trouble.

Situation now

Both NV Access and Freedom Scientific declare that NVDA (starting from version 2018.2) and JAWS (starting from version 2018) respectively are compatible with Firefox Quantum. Compatibility may be understood broadly. Yes, Firefox is again usable with screen readers, but it is still not as smooth as it was before Firefox 57.

Certain things which worked well in non-Quantum Firefox do not work on the Quantum version when used with screen readers. A good example is Harvest, an online time tracking tool, or Trello. In Harvest on Firefox, it is no longer possible to select projects when using a keyboard. On Trello, using tick boxes to mark work already done is no longer accessible.

Low performance is still a frequent problem, though it is clearly getting better. At the moment I wouldn’t call Firefox Quantum a reliable, screen reader user friendly browser. You never know if the issue you encounter is related to page inaccessibility or to Firefox Quantum’s poor collaboration with screen readers. You don’t always have time to compare browsers, especially if the performance of one is poor and you need to wait for the browser and screen reader reaction. This situation makes accessibility tests on Firefox really troublesome.

I would be interested to know what experiences people reliant on screen readers, as well as other assistive technologies have had with the release of Firefox Quantum.

By Rafal Charlampowicz