Microsoft Edge 2 years in: Where are we at for accessibility?

NV Access is committed to ensuring that blind or vision impaired people are able to independently and efficiently access the Windows Operating System and its applications, no matter their location, language or economic status. This means much of our work involves keeping up with changes in the Windows Operating System, and ensuring that NVDA can work with the latest technologies available; Blind and vision impaired people must not be left behind. With the release of Windows 10, Microsoft replaced Internet Explorer with its new and modern Edge web browser, setting it as the default browser in the process. Therefore, it is extremely important that NVDA provides support for Edge which is equivalent to other browsers such as Firefox, Chrome, or indeed Internet Explorer.

Due to the extremely fast release of Microsoft Edge and the fact that its accessibility model makes it incompatible with other existing web browsers, no 3rd party assistive technologies were able to provide any meaningful access to Microsoft Edge at the time of its release.

NV Access first heard about Microsoft Edge in early 2015 (back then known as Project Spartan). We were initially hopeful that it would offer roughly the same means of accessibility as Internet Explorer; i.e. a simplified view of the document via Microsoft Active Accessibility, an implementation of UI Automation for complex controls such as edit fields, and most importantly, direct access to the entire browser document object model (DOM) via COM. It is this final feature that NVDA (and other prominent assistive technology) relies on entirely for access to Internet Explorer.

The early preview builds of Project Spartan did provide much of what we needed to support it in NVDA using existing code for Internet Explorer. Thus, it only took a little bit of tweaking to have NVDA working fairly well with Spartan. However, there were some general statements made in various Microsoft technical articles warning that although there may currently be some compatibilities with Internet Explorer, assistive technologies should not rely on them as they may no longer exist in the future. Rather, assistive technologies should instead access the browser entirely via UI Automation. But while it ain’t broke… don’t fix it, as the saying goes. If the compatibilities were to be removed at a later date, we’d deal with it at that point.

In around April 2015 (only 3 months out from the release of Windows 10), we not only found out that those compatibilities had now been removed, but also Microsoft Edge (as it was now called) was going to be the default web browser in Windows 10 right from initial release. This meant that not only was Microsoft Edge completely inaccessible (due to there simply not being enough time for assistive technologies to implement entirely new browser support), but blind users of Windows 10 were not going to be able to use the default browser. Yes, Internet Explorer was still there, and you could also install a 3rd party browser such as Firefox or Chrome, but for the average user, this may have been beyond their knowledge. No matter what other advantages there were for users to upgrade to Windows 10, NV Access could not in good conscience recommend the upgrade at that stage.

It has to be said that right from the beginning of Microsoft Edge development, accessibility was not technically ignored. Edge exposed a rather rich accessibility tree via the UI Automation API right from the start, as one of Microsoft’s goals with Edge was to try to simplify and standardise accessibility support across the entire Operating System, thus decreasing the need for assistive technologies to maintain custom code or rely on application-specific APIs. See the blog post: Accessibility: Towards a more inclusive web with Microsoft Edge and Windows 10 for further details. Tests on also showed early on that Edge actually surpassed other browsers by scoring 100% in its html5 compatibility for accessibility. However, At the time, due to extreme performance issues, serious deficiencies in the API which were hindering useful text navigation, and the fact that no assistive technology had yet entirely relied on UI Automation to access a browser, this point really had no practical meaning. See the blog post: Serotek’s Position on Microsoft Edge for a background of how assistive technologies provided efficient access to browsers in the past.

Although there were definitely glaring limitations and bugs in Edge, NV Access decided to take some time to prototype support for Microsoft Edge, not necessarily because we thought we could provide a great experience straight away, but so that we, and the rest of the industry, could clearly understand what was possible and what was impossible for Edge support in assistive technology. You don’t know until you try!

Our prototyping greatly aided the discussion and work between Microsoft, NV Access and other assistive technology vendors in understanding and prioritising the issues. And at the same time, NVDA users could also slowly watch support for Edge evolve over time.

Roughly 2 years on, thanks to the collaboration between Microsoft, NV Access and other assistive technology friends, Microsoft Edge has certainly become much more usable, not only with NVDA, but also with other assistive technologies such as Microsoft’s own narrator.

For the best experience today with Microsoft Edge using NVDA, you will need to be running both the latest version of NVDA (2017.2 released at the end of May) and Windows 10 Creaters Update, which started rolling out to users in mid April. With this combination of screen reader and browser, it is certainly possible for a blind user to navigate a great deal of pages, including reading news, filling in forms and searching the web. All NVDA browse mode features users have come to expect in other browsers are now available in Edge, such as finding text; table navigation; automatic language switching; quick navigation by heading, table, button, etc.; and much more.

There are still a few major limitations which require work by both Microsoft and NV Access, including no support for same-page links, inaccessible or confusing composite controls (E.g. audio, video and file upload controls) and a lack of support for ARIA live regions. This final point currently makes Edge insufficient for quite a few modern services such as Google Docs and even some of Microsoft’s own online collaboration products. It is also true that performance when navigating around a page is still significantly slower than with other browsers. However, thanks to recent work between NV Access and Microsoft, it is now more than three times faster than what it was in earlier versions of Edge. These performance improvements were due to a lot of under-the-hood changes in Edge’s UI Automation text implementation, in which NV Access played a major consultative role over the last year. You can read further technical detail from Microsoft in their Accessibility improvements in EdgeHTML 15 blog post. Although there are still more performance improvements needed, we do urge NVDA users on Windows 10 to give Microsoft Edge a go and provide feedback so that we can improve the user experience. It is extremely evident from the collaboration between Microsoft, NV Access and other assistive technology vendors in the past year or so that Microsoft is today very committed to ensuring a great accessibility story on Windows. The Windows Insider program is ensuring early feedback from users. Annual face-to-face meetings between Microsoft and assistive technology vendors are facilitating fruitful and friendly discussions, and weekly progress calls between Microsoft and its assistive technology partners are ensuring issues are flagged as early as possible. We still have some way to go before NV Access could say that Microsoft Edge can provide an equivalent or better experience than other browsers, but with the progress we have made in the last year, we are confident that further improvements are certainly possible. Around 34% of NVDA users are now on Windows 10. We hope that more NVDA users will choose to upgrade and experience the advancements that Windows 10 offers in the near future.