My Feature Wish List for JAWS 2020
A little over a year ago I wrote a blog post explaining why I chose to add JAWS to my accessibility toolbox for my screen reading needs. I still use NVDA on a regular basis but I must say that I use JAWS as my primary screen reader. I will always continue to endorse NVDA as it is a very good screen reader and fills a very important need, providing a free screen reader supporting around 50 languages, ensuring that visually impaired people around the world have free access to a Windows computer. However, JAWS offers some tools and features which are not found in NVDA, some of which I mentioned in the previously referenced blog post. And if those features weren’t enough I have even more capabilities with the amazing third party Leasey software, available at a very reasonable price from Hartgen Consultancy.
With all of the capabilities being offered by JAWS as well as from Leasey there are still some features that I’d like to see added to JAWS. The 2020 version of JAWS is a bit of a milestone for Vispero as we are heading into the 25th anniversary for the JAWS screen reader. Very few software packages can boast that they’ve been available for such a long period of time, let alone specialized software such as screen readers. JAWS has consistently been available for nearly 25 years, constantly fixing bugs as well as adding new features and refining existing ones. I’d like to see Vispero add some special features to celebrate the 25th anniversary of what has become a fabulous and extremely capable and powerful screen reader.
I don’t necessarily feel that a ton of new features should be introduced all at once. In the past the company would introduce a new major update in September, bumping up the version number and adding lots of new features, with maintenance updates being released every few months after that to fix bugs and refine the newly added features. Starting with JAWS 2019 I’m noticing a slight shift in the way features are being introduced. Rather than releasing one major update with a boatload of new features the company seems to be adding features throughout the release cycle for that particular version, as they did when they added Picture Smart, the image recognition feature, around March of 2019. I highly approve of this approach and it’s one that I wish more companies would consider adopting. Releasing one massive update with a ton of new features potentially means more bugs that users will have to contend with, making more work for the development team. Introducing a few new features at a time means the opposite: less work for Vispero’s developers and a smoother experience for those of us who use the software and who depend on it to behave reliably. Microsoft does this with Office 365 but I wish they’d adopt this approach with Windows 10 and I sure wish Apple would do this with iOS.
Now that I have that preamble out of the way here is my personal wish list of features that I’d like to see added to JAWS 2020 and beyond.
A More Flexible Way to Copy Web Content to the Clipboard.
Fortunately, Leasey does address this issue rather nicely, for which I’m very grateful. However, for the benefit of those users who may not even know that Leasey exists let me explain the current situation. In addition to using standard selection commands to select and copy content from a Web page into the clipboard JAWS has another method for selecting text. However, the steps to do this must be followed just so in order for this feature to work. Here is how you must do it.
- Move the virtual cursor to the beginning of the block of text you’d like to copy. I usually do this at the beginning of the block of text but I believe that you can start at the end of the block.
- Press ctrl+Windows+K. This sets a temporary place marker at the location of the virtual cursor.
- Move the virtual cursor to the end of the block of text to be copied.
- Press the layered keystroke insert+space.
- Press the letter M (for mark.)
- Press ctrl+C to copy the block of text to the clipboard.
Admittedly, this set of steps is easier than holding down the shift key and using navigation commands. However, I’d like to see a little more flexibility. As an example, why not allow the user to place a mark at the beginning as well as at the end of the block of text using the same hotkey. Even better, could there be a way to place a mark at one end of the block of text and then, after moving to the other end of the block, have a hotkey which copies the text from the mark to the current cursor location into the clipboard?
Allow JAWS to Start in Safe Mode
There’s not much more that I could say beyond the above heading. I believe that Narrator can do this and, if memory serves, Window-Eyes also offered this capability. There are times when we may need to start our computers in safe mode to troubleshoot a problem and currently JAWS doesn’t function when in this mode.
Cursor Keys Feature From Window-Eyes
Users of the Window-Eyes screen reader, which is no longer available, will likely remember the cursor keys feature. For the benefit of those who may be unfamiliar with this feature I will explain how it works.
The Cursor Keys feature allowed you to assign functions to a cursor navigation feature without taking away the key’s original function. Here’s an example.
Suppose that I want the Home key to speak the character to the right of the cursor but I still want that key to move the cursor to the beginning of the line when I press it. This would mean that pressing the Home key moves the cursor to the beginning of the current line of text and then the screen reader would then speak the character at the cursor position. Window-Eyes allowed for this with a feature called Cursor Keys, which was also available in the Vocal-Eyes screen reader for DOS. You would first pick the cursor key you wanted to assign a function to, such as home, end, page-up, page-down, up arrow, down arrow, etc. You then had a list of functions which you could then assign to the cursor key you had chosen. You could actually select up to two separate functions for the cursor key but bear in mind that the cursor key would still do what it was intended to do. With JAWS, you can access the Keyboard Manager and assign a script to a cursor key but doing so will usually prevent that key from performing its original function. If you know the JAWS scripting language you could, of course, write a script and assign it to that key and you could then have that key perform any function or set of functions that you wanted it to do. The point is that Window-Eyes allowed you to do this without needing to worry about writing scripts. In my opinion, since Vispero made the decision to stop developing Window-Eyes they should consider adding features which were unique to that screen reader to JAWS so that JAWS users can continue to enjoy and benefit from those features.
Add Acapela Voices
It’s true that JAWS does ship with a fairly wide array of voices. In addition to Eloquence, which I still use and often prefer, we now have access to voices from Nuance, as well as being able to use Microsoft’s own set of voices. However, I’m quite a fan of Acapela’s voices and I’d like to see them included with JAWS, even as an optional download.
Allow Dialogs to be Navigated and Interacted With Using the Virtual Cursor
To some extent this is something that Narrator is beginning to do and I would absolutely love to see this capability added to JAWS. Currently, when a dialog appears you can navigate the dialog by pressing tab or shift+tab to move from one actionable item to the next. By actionable item I’m referring to items such as buttons, edit fields and combo boxes that you can not only access but which you can also interact with by pressing keys such as arrow keys to navigate within a combo box or the space key to press a button. This is fine but many dialog boxes contain textual information that you would otherwise miss if all you did was to navigate by pressing the tab key. You could use the JAWS cursor to navigate through a dialog box but this cursor may not always function in all dialog boxes. Also, you have to remember to press the slash key on the number pad to press a button. You could place the dialog in the virtual viewer by pressing insert+alt+W but all you can do in this mode is to read it. If you want to interact with the dialog you would have to press escape first to exit this mode. What I’m requesting is the equivalent of Narrator’s scan mode. While in a dialog pressing insert+Z would convert the current screen into the equivalent of a dynamic Web page. This would still allow you to navigate the dialog by pressing tab or shift+tab as you always have done in the past. However, you could also use standard cursor keys to navigate through the dialog just as you currently use them to navigate Web pages. Informational text would be instantly readable. Combo boxes, edit fields and list boxes would allow you to press enter while you’re focused on them which would then enter forms mode, allowing you to interact with them. Pressing enter or space on a button would press or activate that button. This capability would allow dialog boxes to be navigated with the same level of efficiency that we already have with Web page navigation.
Startup and Closing Sounds for JAWS
This is certainly not a major feature request and it might have very little impact on most users. However, it would be nice to have the ability to have a sound file played when JAWS first starts or when it closes, either during a Windows shutdown or when a user chooses to close it.
Allow Users to Assign a JAWS Hotkey During the Startup Wizard
During the startup wizard JAWS should give the user the option of assigning a hotkey to start JAWS in the event that it’s been shut down. Many users know how to do this by accessing the JAWS properties on the desktop. Some users may not know how to do this and JAWS should make it easier for both groups of users. Window-Eyes used ctrl+alt+W as its shortcut key and NVDA uses ctrl+alt+N. Can JAWS please give the user the option to use ctrl+alt+J or, better yet, allow them to assign their own?
Progress Indicator Tones
This is something which I’m honestly surprised that JAWS hasn’t implemented years ago, considering that this feature existed in Window-Eyes and has been a part of NVDA, perhaps even before that screen reader’s first public non-beta release in 2009. I’m referring to the percentages you often hear when performing an action such as installing a piece of software or when copying a large file or group of files from one folder to the next. Leasey from Hartgen Consultancy implemented this feature in 2019 and I was one of the users who requested it. Still, this is something which I think Vispero should consider adding to JAWS as a standard feature which could optionally be either turned on or off by the user.
Allow the User to Assign Numbers and Punctuation Keys When Using the Navigation Quick Key Manager
I love the navigation quick key manager. As an example of how I use it I’ve chosen to assign the “any link” hotkey to the letter K as I got very used to being able to navigate links with K and shift+K with NVDA. For those who wonder what I did with the Placemarkers hotkey I assigned that to M and unassigned the ability to navigate by frames, as this is a feature that I don’t really need. I’d like to see the capability of assigning keys to these functions other than letters, such as numbers, punctuation keys or keys which are specific to the number pad.
Script Writing Wizard
The JAWS scripting language is perhaps one of the most powerful features found within JAWS. By writing scripts you can add features and capabilities to JAWS that many people wouldn’t even think that a screen reader could do. As proof of this just visit Hartgen Consultancy to see what Brian Hartgen has been able to accomplish with JAWS scripting. However, let’s be honest. The scripting language is a programming language and it needs to be learned in order for it to be mastered. Why not make this a bit easier by implementing a script writing wizard for new or inexperienced users. It could prompt them with a series of questions with choices for things like “what would you like this script to do”, with a list of functions from which to choose. It could perhaps work a bit like the Cursor Keys dialog did in Window-Eyes. Perhaps an interface like this wouldn’t be able to offer every type of function but it would at least allow most users to write some basic scripts.
JAWS Script Repository
Over the years many people have written scripts for JAWS. While some are available for purchase many of them, perhaps most of them, are available at no cost. The problem is that you either have to know where to obtain them or you have to perform some Google searches and hope that you’ll be able to locate them. This never made sense to me. It would be like buying a Kindle and then finding out that the only way to download books for it is to go to sites such as Joe’s Kindle Books or some other third-party site. NV Access offers its official addon repository for NVDA users and Window-Eyes offered Script Central, which behaved much like an app store, allowing users to browse, download and install scripts right from the screen reader itself. I never understood why Vispero doesn’t host its own script repository for its users. This would greatly extend the capabilities of JAWS for many users and it would ensure that user-created scripts would always be available.
USE AI to Guess and Reclass Controls
JAWS is now starting to use artificial intelligence to recognize photos with its recently added Picture Smart feature. However, what would be both very helpful as well as innovative would be to have the option of having AI attempting to identify controls and then reclassing them. As an example, if you had a control which looked and behaved like a button but which wasn’t an actual button it would be fantastic if JAWS could examine the control and say, “hmmmm, that looks like it could be a button” and then JAWS could then allow the user to interact with that control as if it was a button. This would have to be an option which the user would need to enable, as JAWS could certainly make some incorrect guesses.
The documentation that comes with JAWS has always been both accurate as well as comprehensive. The problem that I have with it is, to be frank, that it’s dry and sometimes uses overly technical language which could go over the heads of some users, particularly those who may be new to computers.
As an example, if you are on the Windows desktop and you press insert+F1 for context sensitive help or what JAWS refers to as screen sensitive help, you will receive this message, which begins with the following text.
“The desktop list view contains application icons and desktop items.”
Press the first letter of the desired item to move to it.
To open or start it, Press ENTER.”
This is, of course, true. However, it’s a bit too technical for some users. What’s a list view? What’s an application icon? Why can’t it say something like the following.
““You are on the desktop.
The desktop contains a list of items such as programs, folders or even documents.
Press up, down, left or right arrow to move to each of these items.
You can also press the first letter of an item to immediately move to that item.
When you find an item that you want to open, press enter.”
Writing documentation is an art more so than a science. Admittedly, it’s not easy to write documentation which appeals or speaks to all users. I do think, however, that the needs of the new or inexperienced user should be considered when preparing the documentation.
Beginner and Expert Mode
One of the features which Window-Eyes offered was the ability to have two separate modes. When Window-Eyes was first installed it would default to a beginner mode. In this mode, not all menu options were available. However, the screen reader did contain just enough features to allow the new user to control basic options, such as adjusting speech settings. Once you switched to the advanced mode you would find that all of the menu options were available to access. I used to provide training to blind and visually impaired adults in the use of assistive technology and many of them wouldn’t initially need some of the more advanced features which JAWS has to offer. This might also be a good reason to alter some of the screen sensitive help, perhaps simplifying the language when JAWS is in its novice mode.
Allow the User to Customize Screen Sensitive Help
One feature which would solve the problem of confusing or overly technical language in the screen sensitive help would be a way to allow the user to customize or alter these messages. This is something which Window-Eyes allowed the user to do. It would be fabulous if assistive technology instructors could do this as we could then modify these messages and adjust them for the needs of the individual users they are working with. They could, for example, add specific instructions or other hints that might be applicable to that user’s particular computer. Perhaps this could be done with another hotkey which might be missed or too complex for a user to accidentally press, such as insert+shift+F1.
Remove “Task Switching” Message When Pressing Alt+Tab
Many times JAWS says “task switching” when the alt+tab key has been pressed. Sometimes, it even says this twice. Depending on the voice being used and on the speed of that voice this message can be both annoying as well as time-consuming and it simply doesn’t need to be spoken at all. Can we please just have that message eliminated?
Improved Support for LibreOffice
I think we can all agree that the support JAWS offers for Microsoft Office, at least when it comes to Word, Excel and Outlook, is superb. If you use a screen reader and you need to compose and edit documents or spreadsheets Office is definitely the package to get, particularly if you’re a JAWS user. However, Office isn’t free of cost. Sure, you can subscribe to Office 365 on an annual or even on a monthly basis but the fact is that some people simply can’t afford the extra expense. Fortunately, there are some free alternatives, one of which is LibreOffice, available from the Document Foundation. LibreOffice does offer basic accessibility and works reasonably well with JAWS. However, it doesn’t offer the extra level of accessibility that we’ve come to expect with Office products, such as Word and Excel. As an example, LibreOffice Writer should include the same configuration options found within the Quick Settings dialog as we have for Microsoft Word. Users who either can’t afford Office or who just want an alternative to Office deserve the same level of access.
Improved Support for Popular Antimalware Programs
This is a topic I’ve written about previously. Years ago I would have never recommended Microsoft’s Windows Defender as its ability to defend against malware was pretty lackluster. However, recent reviews suggest that this is changing for the better and Windows Defender can now be considered a reasonably good antimalware solution. While I personally believe that Defender has a somewhat unintuitive user interface the fact is that it is very accessible with screen readers and it’s safer and more reliable now than it was in the past. However, JAWS still needs better access to today’s more popular and commonly used security solutions. A few years ago I wrote a review of Kaspersky Antivirus and how it works with the NVDA screen reader. With JAWS I find that access to Kaspersky is a bit hit and miss. At times JAWS actually did a fairly good job reading most of the labeled buttons in the main Kaspersky window, even better than what I experienced with NVDA. I noticed this improved performance shortly after installing Kaspersky but the performance in this window totally degraded after a while. Perhaps this was due to a Kaspersky program update which introduced accessibility regressions. Navigating with the touch cursor helps but access to this and other critical packages needs to be top-notch. Freedom Scientific should invest the same amount of resources in making the top antimalware programs accessible as much as it does in making other programs accessible, such as Microsoft Office and Google Chrome. I’ll agree that developers of these programs should take responsibility and include accessibility in all of their software. However, it may take some serious advocacy on the part of screen reader developers to make this happen. Screen reader developers should also assist, where possible, in writing scripts to make these packages as accessible as they do with Microsoft Office. Having robust security on our Windows machines is essential. However, these programs are useless if they generate warning messages or if they require our input and we’re unable to reliably access these messages and interact with their controls
Improved Support for Mozilla Thunderbird
Mozilla Thunderbird has been my preferred email program of choice for over ten years. On my computer its performance is faster than Microsoft Outlook and its commands are similar to Outlook. JAWS does offer some support for Thunderbird but I would suggest that this support needs to be improved. Here are some examples.
- It is currently either impossible or, at least, exceedingly difficult, to reorder the columns in a mailbox. Some of this is Mozilla’s fault for not providing a keyboard-friendly way to do this. Currently, I have to use the Mozilla Apps Enhancements addon for NVDA in order to perform this task. This means that I have to unload JAWS and then load NVDA inn order to easily reorder columns in the message list from the keyboard.
- Allow a hotkey to move to or open a list of attachments
- Remove the title of the message from the top line of the message, including the occasional “X Unicode” symbol. The first line of an email message should be the first actual line of text that appears in the message body, just as what we have with Microsoft Outlook.
- When deleting messages from a message list, such as the inbox, please remove the occasional “not selected, not selected” prompts that JAWS occasionally says.
In short, I’d like to see the same level of accessibility in Mozilla Thunderbird that we already enjoy with Microsoft Outlook.
Allow the User to Pause and Resume the Reading of Text During a “Say All”
This is honestly an idea that I took from NVDA but I think it’s a useful feature. Essentially, while continuously reading text using the “say all” command allow a press of the shift key to pause rather than stop the reading of text. As long as the user hasn’t moved the cursor to another location or hasn’t switched to another program a second press of the shift key could then resume the reading of text at the point where the reading was first paused. I’m aware that the left and right shift keys are used for skim reading commands but the left and right arrow keys could still be used for this purpose. Vispero could always add a setting to allow the user to choose whether the shift key is used for either skim reading or as a pause/resume key.
Include the Option to Speak the Version Number of JAWS on Start-up
Because a new JAWS installation does not remove previous versions of JAWS there are many users who, for several reasons, may have several versions of JAWS installed on their computer. It would be nice if, as an option, JAWS could announce its version number as it starts, as in “JAWS 2020 Professional is ready.” Window-Eyes included a similar option and I’d love to see it included as a JAWS feature.
That wraps up my wish list for features that I’d personally like to see added to JAWS 2020 and beyond. As JAWS is a fabulous screen reader now celebrating its 25th anniversary users should be treated to a landmark, game changing and innovative release for the JAWS 2020 cycle. I’d love to read your comments as to features that you’d like to see added to JAWS.