Early in August, I sat beside someone who was trying to use FreeREG. He had no sight, so was using specialist technology to have the computer read the search page and results pages out to him. As an observer, this process was uncomfortable to watch. So much that was so obvious with sight became a hopelessly entangled muddle of odd words such as 'information' that meant nothing without the context of the box labelled 'First Name' that they were next to.
We were at The Shaw Trust having an audit of FreeREG so that we could know what work was needed to make the website easily accessible to all, and more compatible with assistive technology.
I was very surprised that despite the difficulties he encountered, the tester was enthusiastic about FreeREG - he saw accessible family history websites making it possible to take up a hobby that he could do without waiting for assistance from family and friends.
The experience of working with the Shaw Trust has made us think about things which were not in the original brief for the development of FreeREG, but which we know will make it better for everyone. We will be using what we learned to ensure that FreeCEN2, FreeBMD2, and this website are all just as accessible. The 'free' in our names doesn't just mean access should be free of payment, but also as free of other barriers as we can be.
For those with interest in the technical details: FreeREG is being evaluated against and brought in line with the W3C Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0. In the next few months, the site should be usable by recent versions of assistive technologies including JAWS (Job Access With Speech), NVDA (Non Visual Desktop Access), ZoomText, and Dragon Naturally Speaking. It should also be usable by screen magnifiers and speech recognition software found on your operating system.
Also, early findings from our External Communications Survey are showing that researchers would like to see us use different formats to get information across, which would also help to improve accessibility. We are now looking into creating 'How To' videos for each of our projects, and Audio Transcriptions of our web pages.