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JAWS Petition: Mea Culpa

September 01, 2003

Now the thing about having people you respect tell you when you’re wrong is that it really sinks in. The recent JAWS petition has drawn criticism. Many have gone on record denouncing it, some more vociferously than others.

While the points against it have been made, you should not feel bad for signing it. Why? Because your hearts were in the right place, God bless you all.

The resulting dialogue has come up with this: Freedom Scientific, the creators of JAWS, offer a completely free demo version of the product that lasts for 40 minutes before requiring a system reboot. Wisdom of the moment says you have no need for a free or mostly so developer’s edition because this demo version exists. It’s good enough for you. (The question is begged: since Freedom Scientific makes zero profit either way, the effective difference is what? One way is ‘legitimate’, the other is not. Let’s not get too tangled up in this, because both arguments have holes.)

We’re all on the same side, and quibbles notwithstanding, we want the same thing. So in my journey of discovery over this past week, I continued re-phrasing the same question until I got an answer I was satisfied with. Kynn Bartlett provided me with what I needed to read, and I commend you all to give it your well-deserved attention.

Points made:

  • JAWS is a specialized application; if you do not commit to a solid week of running it without a monitor to fall-back on you can’t expect to use it to test effectively. So even using the demo version isn’t going to get you very far.
  • There are other screenreaders on the market; you shouldn’t be catering to software, although it can’t hurt to later run your work by someone who actually has a screenreader.
  • If you code to WCAG, you are creating accessible sites, software quirks aside.

Read Kynn’s tutorial and be aware of the issues. But instead of spending a bit of time fooling around with an application you have little hope of being able to use properly, instead spend that time familiarizing yourself with WCAG, and brush up with the plethora of information that’s available for free already.

update: also consult the JuicyStudio Assistive Device Chart for information on screen reader behaviour.

Reader Comments

September 01, 02h

i’d still say that, instead of any free versions, there is a need for some authoritive documentation from freedomscientific about JAWS’ behaviour, how it handles things like @imported stylesheets etc…

Bardas says:
September 01, 11h

Found a good little article on meeting 508(a) requirements here:

Matthew Farrand says:
September 02, 01h

Juicy Studio has produced a chart giving details of how various screen readers behave at

September 02, 02h

“There are other screenreaders on the market… If you code to WCAG, you are creating accessible sites, software quirks aside.”

Come on. Would you really consider coding to the HTML and CSS specifications as an adequate substitute for testing in Internet Explorer? Does it matter that there are other visual browsers on the market?

“there is a need for some authoritive documentation from freedomscientific about JAWS behaviour”

Agreed 100%.

Jai says:
September 02, 05h

Hrmph… I feel slightly duped. I signed that pettition under the impression that there was nothing available to developers aside from the behemoth $895 (or whatever) JAWS product. I didn’t realize there was a “40 minute then you gotta reboot” free testing product. That seems more than fair for a software company to do, and pretty adequate to do a simple accessability test. If you code to the WACG before firing up the 40 minute JAWS “demo”, then those 40 minutes should be 40 minutes of sheer confirmation that you did it right- and if you missed something, fix it and reboot. It’s a small inconvinience, but it’s adequate. Maybe a better solution would be an 80 minute before reboot testing product for cheap- like $200 - just a thought.

September 02, 08h

the problem i have with the demo solution is that it moves in the gray area of legality, if i’m not mistaken. the demo is provided as an evaluation of the product in the light of a possible purchase. consciously using the demo “instead” of the full product goes against the idea of demo (and probably some clause in the demo’s EULA as well)…

September 07, 06h


The EULA is probably about 100 pages, and nobody’s ever read it, but I’m sure it involves not using the product consistently for testing purposes.

This is why, though I understand those who think this is all the company should do, the demo is not a solution to the problem. It is a questionable hack at best.

Dave, it’s good that this has given you food for thought, but I am disturbed that you are so willing to sell yourself and all web developers short - of course, we will never be able to know what it is truly like to _need_ a screen reader, but I reject the argument that we are making things worse by trying to test our sites with a reader. Give us all a little more credit.

Ron Howerton says:
November 19, 01h

We use a product called InFocus to determine 508 compatibility. It allegedly reads screens the way JAWS does but produces text output, so it’s not necessary to run JAWS itself. In addition, it addresses a host of other 508 compatibility and usability issues, and will change HTML automatically (if so directed) which can save a lot of time fixing code, too, assuming your HTML is not the result of ASP, Cold Fusion, or some other HTML generator.

May 12, 07h

I’ve been in contact with JAWS (and several other screenreader/talking browser) companies over the past couple of years and I’ve found many to be very unhelpful which I personally find rather disconcerting.

I too worry about the legality of using what is essentially trial software constantly, I’m sure Macromedia and Adobe would have something to say about it if I downloaded their 30 day evals then reformatted my machine every 30 days… It’s illegal, that’s why I have licensed copies of Macromedia and Adobe software.

They are essential to what I do, and the cost of the software I use and it’s updates (moving from photoshop 7 to CS and so on) make up a substansial part of my companies budget for software each year. However a screen-reader simply doesn’t fall into this essential bracket, especially as many clients functional specs only cover testing on the latest crop of browsers that are all available freely over the internet.

I don’t beleive that we designers as a group should be building essentially ‘buggy’ code to fit the quirks of screen-readers, but I would at least like to be able to test the work I do out in one instead of relying on bobby, watchfire, WAI and lynx as benchmarks for testing a sites compliance to ‘AAA’ standards and section 508.

What annoys me about this whole affair is the seeming distain most of the companies that produce accessibility software have for the design community and further more it *really* irritates me that when you approach them constructively in the essence of making more online media accessible they simply brush your comments to one side and then refer you to the sales department.

When you come to the bottom line the fact is that many companies simply cannot warrant the expense of buying several screen-readers to test their products on while screen-readers remain so expensive, it simply doesn’t make financial sense to buy software that won’t pay for itself. End of story from our perspective but from the screen-reader companies perspective, surely it would make sense to cater for the design community so they can get valuable feedback on how they could improve their software (which is generally buggy and ill-thought-out) from a community of people who (on the whole) are simply striving to do the best job possible?

May 13, 06h

I should also add that it’s simply not the case that JAWS is free all over the world, for example in the UK JAWS is available through a UK distributor it would appear and even the demo costs £50.

Now as with many firms we have to justify our purchases to our accountants, and paying £50 for a piece of limited demonstration software would raise eyebrows in almost every accountants office.