“Should we detect screen readers?” is the wrong question
The recent release of WebAIM’s 5th Screen Reader User Survey has heated up a recently simmering debate regarding whether or not it should be possible to detect screen readers. Currently there are no reliable means of determining whether a user with disabilities is visiting your site and, specific to screen readers, this is because that information isn’t available as part of the standard information that is used in tracking users, such as user-agent strings. Modern development best practice has shied away from klunky user-agent detection and instead toward feature detection. The thought then, is that it should be possible to detect whether or not a visitor is using a screen reader. This has drawn sharply negative reactions from the accessibility community, including those who I’d have thought would have been in favor of the approach. In all cases, people seem to be ignoring a more obvious shortcoming of this idea: Accessibility isn’t just about blind people. Accessibility is about all people.
Getting data at a sufficient level of granularity is a bit difficult, but the conventional wisdom around disability statistics is:
- There are more people who are low-vision than who are blind
- There are more people who are hard of hearing than who are visually impaired
- There are more people who are motor impaired than who are hard of hearing
- There are more people who are cognitively impaired than all of the above
In fact, depending on age group this can vary. The Census Bureau data does validate the claim that across all age groups the percentage of people who are visually impaired is consistently the smallest of all disability types. In other words, if your approach to accessibility has anything to do with detecting screenreaders, you’ve clearly misunderstood accessibility.
But let’s skip that for a moment. Let’s assume you could detect a screen reader as easily as including Modernizr on your site. Now what? What do you do differently? Well, no matter what you do, your approach “solves” accessibility issues for less than 2% of the working-age population. Put another way, whatever money or time you’ve spent on detecting and adapting to screen reader users, you only gotten yourself 1/5 of the way toward being “accessible”. Instead of asking whether it should be possible to detect screen readers, the question should be “how do we make our site more usable for all users?”.