Surf a GB with Glenda’s Thumb

Young Glenda sitting on thhe grass, surrounded by Collie puppies

The internet has opened the world to me in truly countless ways. However, that isn’t to say I don’t face numerous obstacles along the way. To understand the obstacles I face while using the web, a snapshot of my disability might be beneficial.

When I was born, I did not breathe for six minutes. As a result I sustained a brain injury and was eventually diagnosed with “cerebral palsy athetoid quadriplegia”. My physical movements are jerky and involuntary; one body part or another is in constant motion. My left hand has some function and I type with only my left thumb. Most of the time my right hand is in a tightly clenched fist. I am not able to walk without support, my head control is tenuous, and swallowing takes conscious effort. My speech is also significantly impaired.

However, this does not prevent me from accomplishing wickedly awesome things, thanks to a large part to computer technology (and to my parents who raised me without the word “can’t” in my vocabulary). To further understand how I surf the web and what obstacles I face, I would like to show you how I access my computer. For this reason, please let me take you on a quick tour of my home office.

Glenda's corner office

With windows facing south and west, light floods in on sunny days. On gray, rainy days, the lime green walls keep the space alive and cheery.

Glenda's desk

In addition to my 6-core processor with 4G of RAM –- a surprise gift from my geek of a husband – I use the following hardware:

  1. A sturdy Traxsys joystick makes controlling the cursor easier than by using a mouse, considering my jerky hand movements. An added bonus? Using the joystick doesn’t cause the same hand pain as a mouse.
  2. A spill-proof silicone keyboard is a must for this workaholic who eats at her desk. No more gummed up keys! Also notice my keyboard does not have extra function keys or any buttons across the top – that’s where I glide my hand when I am typing. Sadly for me, keyboards without the extra row of keys are becoming increasingly difficult to find.
  3. My wrist pad is placed on the topside of my keyboard (rather than the bottom), to support my hand when I slide along it while typing with my left thumb. Because it places my hand in a slightly different position than it would be without a pad, it reduces strain and, therefore, pain.

Here are some of my favourite pieces of software:

  • Sticky Keys: This feature in Microsoft Windows’ Ease of Use Center enables me to perform multiple-key commands – like SHIFT + M – one key at a time. On a PC, hitting the Shift key five times enables Sticky Keys; a similar feature is also available on the Mac.
  • WordQ: For word prediction and completion, it saves me keystrokes. As I type, a floating box dynamically suggests numbered words from which to choose. To complete a word, I type the corresponding number as the word appears. WordQ has replaced my beloved E Z Keys software, which was sadly rendered ineffective by an undeterminable new web technology that interfered with it. Sometimes assistive technology does not keep up with changes in web technology.
  • TextAloud: I use this text-to-speech tool and the voice of Kate to create audio files for presentations, to give interviews, and to narrate videos.
  • FreeMind: The open-source mind-mapping tool is completely keyboard operable. I use it for keeping track of everything I have on the go and everything I need to do.
  • SnagIt: I use this handy screen capture and graphics program almost daily.
  • DisplayLink: The most recent app I’ve added to my toolbox. It allows me to use my iPad as a second computer screen. I like to drag my word prediction box over to the iPad screen and place the device on my lap, keeping it within the same sightline as my keyboard. Some professionals might say this is ergonomically compromising; but, hey, apparently so is the way I type with my left thumb and I have been doing for forty years with minimal ill effects. I can also drag the document I am working on over to the iPad, which allows me to view everything at once and saves me from having to look up toward my computer screen at all.

Technology is good, but it is how we are able to adapt the technologies specifically toward our unique needs that really counts.

These and various other technologies, mashed together in a variety of combinations, further levels the playing field and increases my capabilities. Here’s a great example: A few years ago, I would have never envisioned myself hosting a realtime, fast-paced text chat.

Glenda's coomputer screen while hosting a tweetchat

Thanks to the mashing of the social media tool SocialOomph, with my preferred Twitter application Hootsuite, and my word prediction software WordQ, I am easily able to host a tweetchat – another checkmark in my “I can do” list.

As the number of possible mash ups is nearly endless, so are my expanded capabilities, thanks to technology. However, all of this technology and capability does not eliminate the obstacles I encounter when I am working online, which is a majority of my work day.

My top 7 countdown of common obstacles I struggle with or try to avoid:

#7: Homepages with endless links

Homepages with a mess of links and information are frustrating and overwhelming. For example, when I land on the Americans with Disabilities Act homepage, my eyes glaze over. Immediately I am overwhelmed by the number of links on the page that is 10 screens long. I don’t know where to even place my joystick to get started. Or, if my hand is functioning poorly in that moment, navigating the 203 links with my keyboard is energy draining, time consuming and mind numbing.

I am more likely to google the information than to go directly to the site to rummage through the links to find what I need.

The number of ways the ADA site fails on web accessibility is beyond ironic.

#6: Too-small-to-see skip links

Skip links that jump over or bypass blocks of repetitive content not only assist individuals who use screen readers, they also benefit those of us who mainly or only use the keyboard.

Tiny skip links on the ADA site

However, when the skip links are too small even to read – like those on the ADA Homepage – they are useless to me unless I drastically increase the page’s text size to see them. This added step disrupts my workflow and is annoyingly unnecessary.

One suggestion I have to remedy this is implementing small link text that increases upon receiving focus, like when I tab to it. This would go unnoticed by most users, therefore not interfering with the aesthetics of the site but would be sweet for people such as myself who use the tab function to navigate.

#5: Auto-start audio or video

I have to say, sites with video or audio that starts automatically cause me to jump right out of my skin. I’m not joking!

Unless I absolutely need the information on the site, I don’t hang around unless the stop button is front and center and I can quickly get to it.

Please allow your site visitors to control any multimedia features. The more control they have, the more accessible your site is.

#4: Tiny clickable areas

Are you kidding me?

Allow me to be candid. My fine motor control is tenuous. Sometimes it isn’t too bad; other times, forget it! And lots of people have age-related motor skills issues too — remember, boomers are aging — don’t wait till you age and lose some mobility to enjoy this lightbulb moment!

Here’s an example: it is tricky for me to accurately hit the tiny hash tag (#) character in order to Edit Comments in WordPress.

Tiny clickable area in WordPress

Besides, I can never remember that the number sign means “View post”. How is that even intuitive?

A text link “View post” would be much easier for me and many others to hit and none of us would have to remember this totally obscure reference.

I want to add that I find tapping on the tiny areas on my iPad even more dicey. I have accidentally deleted email that I was attempting to reply to, and I have unintentionally friended someone on Facebook.

Tiny tappable areas on the iPad

I’m hoping any future mis-taps won’t be more serious than this.

#3: Incorrectly coded forms

When form controls are poorly coded, it forces me to specifically click in the tiny check boxes or radio buttons to make my selections. Again, this can be difficult for me at times.

Incorectly coded checkbox

There exists a simple fix for this on the programming side: when the label element is associated with the input element, the target area becomes larger.

In this example of selecting pizza toppings, I can click the check box or anywhere along the text label “Mushrooms” to make my selection.

Correctly coded checkbox

With this simple adjustment, my hitting a target becomes so much easier.

#2: Dynamic elements

Elements that fly out, pop out or slide out are tricky for me to navigate before they vanish. Slide out menus are my enemies. I often click a link I didn’t intend to pursue, which causes me to backtrack before I proceed. This is frustrating!


Similarly, in my preferred Twitter application Hootsuite, when I am aiming for the “Refresh Stream” button, I frequently overshoot it with a jerky hand movement and the damn side panel flies out. I need to change course with my joystick for the unwanted part to disappear before I can proceed.

#1: CAPTCHAs. OMG! Rant alert!

In 2012, are CAPTCHAs truly the best we can do to differentiate humans from computers? Take this one example:


Are you kidding me?

With my once perfect vision which has only become impaired by my ripe old age of forty-five, I can no longer make out most of these garbled letters, even after I have tilted my head in a variety of directions.

Let’s recount an actual task I recently performed: setting up a Google group for a client.

I started by staring at the presented CAPTCHA for a few moments and, still having no clue what some of the characters were, I clicked on the wheelchair icon. What the wheelchair has to do with audio I know not, but I decided to give the audio CAPTCHA a shot. From previous experience I know audio versions are equally garbled, but I figured it couldn’t be more undecipherable than this image of garbled letters – or what I assumed were letters.

Much to my surprise, I was presented with:

A message below the Google CAPTCHA: “Sorry, we are unable to handle your request at this time, please try again later.”

What? Unable to handle my request at this time? What does that mean? All I requested was the audio CAPTCHA. I don’t want to try again later. I want to finish this task now. How is coming back later equal access?

I entered my best guess and was immediately presented with a second, equally distorted set of characters:


Again my middle-aged eyes could not decipher the letters. Again the audio CAPTCHA was not available. Again I submitted a guess. Again I was wrong.

Had this frustration been required for submitting a blog comment, submitting an information request or ordering a purchase, I would have muttered “Forget it!”, closed the browser tab and not returned. Ever!

But, this was legitimate work for a long-term client. I had to complete this task.

I tried again. Again I was presented with a garbled mess.


The third time I hit the jackpot. The group was verified, finally.

This process should not be more challenging than winning in Vegas!

These damn things might be stopping most bots from proceeding, but how many humans are also blocked? There has to be another way to treat humans humanely while keeping out spammy bots!

And yes, reCAPTCHA have been offered as a “more accessible” solution.

But have you ever tried deciphering one of their audio CAPTCHAs? Have a listen to this one (audio without a transcript).

Did you get that?

But seriously, if a frivolous photo app garners $1 billion, imagine what a non-irritating solution for distinguishing humans from computers would fetch. That is my challenge to you. In the meanwhile, consider CAPTCHAs and the necessity of them heavily. They may well be lowering participation and use of your websites.

By sharing my seven most frustrating obstacles I encounter online, I hope I have demonstrated that web accessibility is about more than screen readers, and far more in the developer’s hands than not.

Accessible websites benefit more than only individuals who are blind or have a visual impairment. Accessible sites also benefit people such as myself – those of us with mobility impairments and fine motor skill difficulties, as well as people with hearing impairments, cognitive impairments or who have seizures. And, yes, those who are aging and losing their 20/20 vision.

Testing for Mobility Accessibility

When testing the accessibility of your websites, be sure to test beyond screen readers. For example, when testing for mobility accessibility, consider these three tests:

  1. Unplug your mouse. Navigate your site. Can you operate every feature using only your keyboard?
  2. Look at your site. Can you easily determine where you are and what has focus? Are links identified visually?
  3. Simulate the act of clicking on a small link with a mobility impairment by using your non-dominant hand to hit your target with your mouse. Try a pull down menu or a check box. How difficult is this action?
4 Responses to Surf a GB with Glenda’s Thumb
  1. Jacqui
    September 15, 2012 | 8:04 am

    Good article! I can never get the captcha to work, hate slide out menu screens and have friended/unfriended/blocked/reported someone as spam accidentally….and I have full use of all 10 digits! Keep fighting the good fight my friend!

  2. Burt Henry
    September 17, 2012 | 11:41 am

    Excellent post as always. I{ve of course experienced most of the problems you ref as a blind man who is wholely dependent on screenreaders and other accessibility tools/enhancements to use computers and the internet. Some problems can be worked around with tools like OCR and especially important for me browser extensionsñ but this should not be needed. I{m a firefox fan for a few reasons, but am often restricted to this browser because of the webvisum captcha solving function, and other extensions certainly make things easier on’line.
    AS you so often teach, propper coding of web’sites can make all the difference for folks with sensorial or mobility limitations. Much needs to be done to inform web’designers of the importance of good access for the widest posible audience-readership. I{m no Apple fan, but not only aplaud them for inclusion of a usable screenreader in their most popular products, but am glad to see that their work has added to their bottom line since a disproportionate number of blind people use i’phones, and posibly other Apple products as well.
    One request-sugestion for future postsÑ I want to learn how to create good web pages, good for all, i.e. accessible for my fellow screenreader users, and atractive for those who have the good fortune to see well. Perhaps I could access the images of correctly and incorrectly coded radio buttons using OCR, but for now we have no OCR feature in the Orca screenreader for Linux. I have rebooted in to Windows to try NVDA{s OCR, but it is not always successful. Some have Cobra or Jaws{s latest release and have a bit better OCR, but why not have a link to an page where we could read good and bad html code in a normal font? OK, I’m not the average reader perhaps, but it is posible that there are other people who could benefit from this. A blogg on accessibility should of course be completely accessible…Smiles…
    Keep up the good work, and thanks again for sharing from a personal perspective.

  3. Lori Emmons
    September 17, 2012 | 11:13 pm

    OMG on the audio captcha! I have tremors in my hands from MS & I use a keyboard from With the 96 whole key guard. The mouse functions are right in the keyboard with the sticky keys function available. I was able to check out the keyboard at my local Easter Seals facility. It only allows you to punch one key at a time and the key guard allows you to slide your hand across the keyboard without entering a key. Maybe you’ve already checked it out but if not it’s worth a try. Keep on doing the great work that you do!
    With sincere admiration,Lori

  4. グッチ 長財布
    September 18, 2012 | 4:07 am

    Hiya! Quick question that’s entirely off topic. Do you know how to make your site mobile friendly? My weblog looks weird when browsing from my apple iphone. I’m trying to
    find a template or plugin that might be able to correct this issue.

    If you have any recommendations, please share. Thank you!

Leave a Reply

Wanting to leave an <em>phasis on your comment?

Trackback URL