RIAs like Ajax often have an accessibility weak spot since they need to work with JavaScript off to meet the basic accessibility guidelines.

Rumour has it that the next version of the popular screen reader Jaws may be able to handle Ajax interfaces. 

Accessify’s Ian Lloyd recently made reference on his blog to rumours regarding screen reader Jaws 9.0 possibly having support for Ajax. According to Ian’s source, the release notes for Jaws 8.0 made reference to support for Ajax functionality, however all references were removed prior to launch.

It would be an interesting development if Jaws 9.0 were to support Ajax. Ajax and other similar technologies such as Flex have revolutionised the way in which we interact with the web and have enhanced the user experience significantly. If this increase in usability was available to blind or partially sighted users then their entire experience of the web could be different.

Presumably the new version of Jaws will be using the small data transfers that occur in AJAX as triggers for the screen reading interactions, rather than full page refreshes which is currently used. Still, careful standards-compliant coding of the page will no doubt be necessary.

Screen reader software manufacturers have been notoriously slow to react to Internet trends. Any indication that they are starting to move with the times is welcome. The other factor in the interia is the relatively high cost of Jaws and other assistive technologies that can deter many users from upgrading to the latest versions.

Perhaps more significant is the presumption that where one leads the others must follow. Freedom Scientific’s competitors would surely require to provide similar functionality in their own software.

Only when Jaws 9.0 is released will we finally discover whether it supports Ajax and if so, exactly how it will go about reading pages designed this way. Until then, we wait with anticipation.

For those interested in the world of AJAX and the impacton accessibility a couple other useful areas to check out are the IBM Ajax Accessibility page by Becky Gibson, and the W3C’s ARIA framework.

Chris Rourke is the managing director of User Vision.