Accessibility When Users Select and Highlight Text

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Highlighting Text: Accessibility & Find-ability in Long Works
Use case
In order for software-based highlighting features and associated notes to be universally useful and to become an important part of online social and educational interactions, standards must support access to highlights for users with disabilities, for users of small screens, and for situations where highlights are scarce and part of long works (i.e. a single highlight somewhere in a 500 page book).
Highlighting online, in eBooks, and in applications can closely mirror highlighting with a highlighter pen in a printed book. In addition, highlights might be associated with additional notes that appear onClick/onKeyPress or onMouseOver/onFocus, similar to notes written in the margin or on sticky notes in a print book. These could be user notes, instructor notes or social notes (from others using the same materials or within a social network).
This functionality is far more than decorative. As it is integrated into eBooks and other reading applications, in short works, it will provide sighted users of large screens with the following:
  • A quick way to find some text the user highlighted before (for example, to use in a writing assignment)
  • A way to create notes to review before an exam: As students read through the first time, they can mark key items to re-read before an exam. A student might do this for themselves. A tutor might do this for a student. An instructor or a teaching assistant might do this for many students. Students might do this for each other.
  • A quick way to find some text that a fellow student is talking about
  • A basis for online discussion
  • A quick way to find text referred to in test questions
  • Different colors might indicate different uses (for example, different users or text to use in a paper versus text to study before an exam)
Finding the highlights: It is essential that as these uses become central to educational reading, students and instructors with disabilities can fully participate. All users must be able to both access highlights and create highlights. Note that a key aspect of highlighting, even in its roots in a printed text, is to be able to find the text without reading all of the text. You flip through a book quickly, pausing only where the highlights appear:
  • As such, for blind users, there should be notification of the number of highlights of different types, a way to navigate to each highlight and to choose which type of (color) highlight to navigate between.
  • It is also important that users of smaller screens can access highlights. Consider that a small screen might include only a few sentences at a time. In this case, similar to screen reader reading, it is not practical to skim the text to find the highlight, and notification and navigation options should be provided.
  • Finally, in a long text with sparse highlighting, sighted users of large screens will also benefit from notification and navigation options. As such, while navigation based on semantic tags is usually available only through assistive technologies, it might be best to have the navigation required here available through the user agent (browser or eBook reader).
  • Considering serious academic use, including testing, there should be some way for a blind screen reader user to know exactly which text is being discussed. In other words, some way to discover exactly where the highlight begins and ends.
Colors are often used to categorize different highlight types. Rather than leave accommodations for this to each individual implementer based on WCAG, a standard should be provided for categorizing highlights semantically.
Keyboard access to any notes available at the highlight location is necessary as well. (This is mentioned here, rather than assumed, since a similar feature has remained keyboard inaccessibility for years: The title attribute used for tooltips remains inaccessible to keyboard access.)
To Come. Need to review annotations use cases.
Relevant W3C group(s)/specification(s)
External relevant group(s)/specification(s)
Need to review:
  • ePub Readers - how do they handle highlighting
  • Custom Highlighting features currently in screen readers. For example, JAWS offers Custom Highlight Assign CTRL+INSERT+H.
  • How adding comments in text editors works with screen readers currently. What do users think of these?
  • It's worth looking at products in the AT space for annotation, such as Don Johnston's Read:OutLoud
Submitted by
Suzanne Taylor