Every 10 years we have to complete a census survey in the UK. I'm working in London this week, so don't have access to the full online survey, but from an initial check it seems screen reader users are unnecessarily targeted.

Author: Gez Lemon

UK Census

Since 1801, we have to fill out a census in the UK; the exception being 1941 during the Second World War. Failure to provide census information could result in a £1,000 fine, although only 38 people were fined for failure to return the 2001 census return. I'm working in London at the moment, so haven't received my internet access code to view the online version of the census, but I have looked at the first page.

Some Background Information

I have updated this article in response to some background information from one of the advisers. There was a problem with the auto-focus field, but no time to correct it, resulting in advice that screen reader users should close their browser if they make a mistake. This is a serious issue for all keyboard-only users, not just screen reader users, but I've talked more about that under correcting mistakes.

2011 Online Census Form

There are a few accessibility issues with the UK Online Census Login Page (the only page I can access without the code). For example, poor colour contrast of the currently selected tab, and alternative text that duplicates screen text. The form controls for the internet access code are labelled, so at least screen reader users can sign-in, providing they have the internet access code. The page states that the internet access code is on the printed questionnaire that is sent to every household in the UK. I don't have access to that letter, as I'm in London, but I assume it's also available in Braille (even though not all blind people read Braille) or some other accessible format?

Correcting Mistakes

If you're using a screen reader, you are advised to close the browser and start again if you make a mistake entering the internet access code.

<label class="hide" for="iac4">
Fifth block of your access code. If you make a mistake, 
please close your browser and start again.

It is difficult to correct a mistake when entering the personal information code, as the focus is moved to the next field as soon as there are enough characters in one of the edit boxes. This makes it extremely difficult for all keyboard users to correct mistakes, as navigating back and changing one of the characters automatically moves the cursor to the next field.

The reason this message is targeted at screen reader users, even though this behaviour is problematic for everyone, is that there was not enough time to fix the issue. This is a serious accessibility issue and would be trivial to fix, as they could just remove the auto-focus script. If they insisted on keeping the behaviour of the script, they could at least distinguish between adding new content and editing existing content. In other words, if there is content in an edit box when the user enters that field, do not move their focus while they are editing the content - allow them to use the keystrokes they already know to correct the issue and move to the next field. Again, that would be a very trivial fix.

Category: Accessibility.


  1. [uk-census-why-target-screen-reader-users.php#comment1]

    I am seeing an increase in similar usage of 'screen reader only' content. It is insulting and demeaning to assume blind users cannot perform such basic tasks. We recommend that off-screen text be used in great moderation - typically only in places where something makes sense visually, but where a brief, succinct cue for screen reader users might be necessary.

    Posted by Jared on

  2. [uk-census-why-target-screen-reader-users.php#comment3]

    I suppose the thinking behind the first paragraph is that the "more information available" heading appears further down the page than the "enter code" bit; so screen reader users might not "see" it before they enter their code in the way a sighted reader would. Still pretty naive about the practices of screen reader users in my (limited) experience.

    Is it still bad practice to open links in a new window? Too much of that on this page for my liking. The "Accessibility" link at the top of the screen opens in a pop-under window, which can't be a good idea - at least it does in IE6 (I'm at work - no choice), dunno about more sensible browsers.

    Posted by Chris Hunt on

  3. [uk-census-why-target-screen-reader-users.php#comment4]

    I received my copy of the census form yesterday. It does not appear to have any braille on it anywhere.

    It does have a line of text at the bottom of the cover saying, "help is available in large print and braille".

    The Census website suggests that a guide is available in braille, but implies that there's no braille version of the form:

    I guess the guide wouldn't include a version of the internet access code in braille.

    Posted by Richard Johnson on

  4. [uk-census-why-target-screen-reader-users.php#comment5]

    Excuse the brief reply - away from home with limited Internet access for the next few days.

    Thanks for the clarification on the letter, Richard; doesn't sound like the process has been well thought through.

    Posted by Gez on

  5. [uk-census-why-target-screen-reader-users.php#comment6]

    We may have some educating to do, but there comes a time when we have to ask ourselves if people are really listening? We can talk and educate all we want, but if our efforts fall on deaf ears, then they won't do us any good.

    Posted by Jess Smith on

  6. [uk-census-why-target-screen-reader-users.php#comment7]

    Messages like that are put on websites not out of the kindness of the governments heart, but out of reaction to complaints by blind people. A message like that may be the result of a blind person not being familiar with how to use their screen reader, and not able to navigate the page due to it. For many, their first reaction is to complain to anyone who will listen, even in some cases not realizing that the help is available. As I said though the government doesn't put information like that on a page unless there were registered complaints to provide said information.

    Posted by John Greer on

  7. [uk-census-why-target-screen-reader-users.php#comment8]

    Now sometimes for-screen-readers-only text is handy, like at Google when they first introduced the InstantSearch.

    But generally, this article shows yet another reason not to use AutoTab. I've implemented it myself (not willingly) and I find it confusing and unexpected on other forms. Combined with a character-counter in the Javascript, it's yet another reason I surf with scripts off.

    If people are so sure everyone loves autoTab, why not have a checkbox with "Enable autoTab?" so the rest of us can skip it. Aren't there heaps of usability studies showing autoTabbing makes forms less usable for anyone not using a mouse to go from input to input??

    Posted by Stomme poes on

  8. [uk-census-why-target-screen-reader-users.php#comment9]

    It's true that we still have a lot of educating to do regarding accessibility for people with disabilities. But I can't help but wonder if another part of this has to do with the fact that several people within the blindness "community" only add insult to injury by complaining ad nauseam about certain accessibility requirements. I could give numerous examples, but I will just give one. That is, visual-only CAPTCHA's. I recall reading a post on another blog a few years ago where the blog author stated that he had contacted the long-time President of the National Federation of the Blind here in the U.S. regarding their position on CAPTCHA, and the President never even responded.

    Posted by Jake Joehl on

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