Microsoft Ribbon is accessible

By Curtis Chong
Contributing Writer

A significant new feature of the latest version of JAWS for Windows is the Virtual Ribbon. According to JAWS’ developer, Freedom Scientific, the Ribbon is a new menu style that is available in many new applications, including Office 2007, which first unveiled the Ribbon.

Microsoft RibbonFreedom Scientific, however, states the “Ribbons create an accessibility challenge due to inconsistent navigation between various groups and items. For example, when you enter the Lower Ribbon and press the ARROW keys to move between items in a group, you can skip items and unexpectedly move into another group. Pressing TAB gives no indication that you have left one group and entered another. Using first letter navigation to find items can be difficult and frustrating. Finally, because of a group’s layout, you do not know if you should navigate up, down, left or right to select an item.

“The new Virtual Ribbon Menu provides predictable navigation, lets you see everything in the Ribbon, and offers consistency when navigating with ARROW keys. For example, the ARROW and TAB keys move focus from the Upper Ribbon tabs to the Lower Ribbon groups. Once in a group, the ARROW, TAB, and SHIFT+TAB keys move through all items in a group, move from one group to the next, and wrap to the beginning of the Ribbon. For submenus, SPACEBAR and ENTER expands menus, and ESCAPE collapses menus. The Virtual Ribbon Menu is off by default and can be switched on or off from within Settings Center or the JAWS Startup Wizard. When it is on, the Ribbon is navigated using a traditional menu and submenu format familiar to most JAWS users.”

I started using the Ribbon back in the spring of 2009, about a year-and-a-half before the release of JAWS 12. Back at that time, I made a decision to switch to Office 2007, and I had to use the Ribbon in Microsoft Word or not use the program at all.  To help me get started, I listened to a free audio tutorial from the Access Technology Institute (http://www.blindtraining.com/free/ribbons/Ribbons(mp3).zip).  Then, I spent about three weeks familiarizing myself with the Ribbon and some of the new features of Office 2007.  Today, I use the Ribbon as naturally as I did the more familiar Microsoft menus, and now that I have started using Office 2010, I find the Ribbon in all of the Office applications I use–not just in Word. 

Stated more succinctly, I believe that I have grown accustomed to the Microsoft Ribbon. In fact, I am so comfortable with the Ribbon that I cannot agree with Freedom Scientific’s assertion that the Ribbon poses an “accessibility challenge” for the blind.  It is true that for people who are familiar with the Microsoft menus, the Ribbon will take some time to master.  You will need to learn where things are located in the Ribbon, and for those items which you don’t use very often, you might want to move them to the Quick Access Toolbar so that they will be easier to find later. However, the Ribbon is not so difficult as to merit a special Virtual Ribbon to be developed by a screen access software manufacturer.

To be fair, I did make a concerted effort to use the Virtual Ribbon in JAWS 12. I found that certain tasks required me to use more keystrokes with the Virtual Ribbon than without it. Compare the keystrokes needed to view a message in your Web browser while running Outlook 2010. Using the Microsoft Ribbon, you press these keys in sequence: ALT, H, A, V. Using the Virtual Ribbon, you would press Alt, M, A, O, then V.  Not only does this sequence require one additional keystroke, but it also will not work if JAWS is not running.

Another problem I experienced with the Virtual Ribbon was that JAWS would remember where I was the last time I used the Virtual Ribbon, which meant that a sequence of keystrokes used to, (for example) insert a picture into my document would not worked if used twice in a row. I personally found this to be more of a headache.

So, for me, the Virtual Ribbon in JAWS 12 has proven to be more confusing and time-consuming than the Office Ribbon.  With all due apology to Freedom Scientific, I believe its efforts would have been better spent in some other area.

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