I've written an eBook
course that teaches Word users how to get rolling creating their own online
forms. The course also teaches beginning VBA (Visual Basic for Automation),
which students use to add automation to a sophisticated invoice form they create
and enhance throughout the course.
Being sighted, I try hard to keep the blind user in mind when writing tutorials.
Learning the basics of creating an online form isn't particularly difficult.
But due to some accessibility issues in Word, the blind user has to deal with
some additional fussing to get things rolling.
In this article, I'll discuss these issues. I strongly encourage sighted form
developers to also read this article! I believe the information here will add
to your development skills.
The Forms Feature
For those of you not familiar with Word's form feature, know that you can, fairly
easily, create a form template in Word that users can fill out on their computers.
This is a wonderful feature. If you need to gather information from people,
you can create a custom form and pass it to your users. They open the form in
Word and can use the tab key to jump from field to field as they quickly fill
in the needed information. As a form developer, depending on your level of VBA
knowledge, you can also add message, input or dialog boxes to pass or gather
information. When finished, the user sends the form back to you, now containing
the details they've added. And with more VBA and ADO (ActiveX Data Object) code,
you can program the form to pass the information into a database. Or store it
in an INI file that can be retrieved by other documents with a little more VBA
code. (See my free form tutorials at www.mousetrax.com/techpage.html#autoforms,
and check out article # 5 in my Please Fill Out This Form series for
database connectivity and a downloadable sample with open code.)
Using Word's form feature to fill out a form online can be a quick and easy
process for the user. No need to manually navigate through the document, other
than hitting the tab key to move through the questions, typing in the info needed,
checking the appropriate checkbox or selecting an item from a predefined drop
down list of choices. Pretty simple. And designed properly, online forms can
make the task of filing forms with various agencies much more convenient, particularly
for the blind and disabled users. And with more and more blind users accessing
information via their computers every day, Word forms are becoming even more
Creating a basic form is fairly simple. You open a page in Word, save it as
a template, turn on the Forms toolbar, type some questions, add the appropriate
text, checkbox or dropdown form field where needed, lock the form to activate
the fields and resave it. Done. Simple right?
Now close your eyes and do it!
Blind users don't use a mouse. Think about ithow would you know where
to click? So knowing keyboard commands is essential. Screen reader software
helps provide information by reading active areas of a document or program.
But screen reader and shortcut key compatibility issues can mean the difference
between the job being easy or the job being impossible.
Many blind users have contacted me wanting to purchase my AutoForm
and Beginning VBA training course. The format I originally used for my eBook
is cool lookingwith pages that actually flipbut it's not accessible
to the blind user, because it's image based. So I created an online version,
also, that can be accessed via a screen reader. In an effort to insure that
my tutorials were truly friendly to the blind Word user, I asked a couple of
blind friends to go through the course and report back to me with any details
about areas that are either hard for them to access in Word or things I might
not have explained well enough for them to visualize. And so, the can of worms
was opened. <smile>
Granted, there are areas in my course that I will have to modify to add additional
information so the meaning is clearer and can better help the blind user find
their way through the instructions. But the biggest stumbling block we discovered
right off was in accessing the necessary Form Fields to start building a Word
Toolbars and Shortcuts
Although most blind users can access toolbars, it can be difficult and many
users aren't aware of the shortcuts needed to do it. I remember when I once
blew out my mouse driver and needed to get it working again by troubleshooting
my PC system dialogs without a mouse! That was a challenge. Granted,
blind users have special key combos within their screen reader software programs
that can help to enhance the standard keyboard shortcuts. And it's a good thing,
because many of the shortcuts offered up in Windows and Word for these moves
either are a bear to get working or just don't. And you may be like me and,
assuming you'd never need some of these more obscure shortcuts, you've overwritten
many of them with your own commands. So if my mouse broke today, I wouldn't
be creating many forms using the toolbar because accessing it now, in my case,
would be hopeless.
In the case of my friend, Doreen, we realized that a Braille program she also
uses was active and was interfering with her keyboard commands. I'm sure sighted
users can appreciate the effort needed to disable software you regularly use,
should you find it is causing conflicts with other programs. To most sighted
users, a computer is a useful device and something that helps them get their
work done. To many blind or disabled users, their computer is their life line
to the outside world. So the thought of disabling vital software is not always
Realizing Doreen was unable to use the Forms Toolbar, as Paul was able
to do, we needed to find a solution that didn't involve disabling any of her
software. Unfortunately, the form fields used for creating forms, found on the
Forms Toolbar, cannot be recreated by using the standard manual
field command of Ctrl/F9.
You see, if you enter a Text Form Field from the Forms Toolbar,
select it and convert it to a raw field code by hitting the Shift/F9
field toggle, you'll see the standard Field Brackets and the field
command of FORMTEXT, in this case. For most fields, that means you can
also recreate a field from the keyboard by hitting Ctrl/F9 to enter the
Field Brackets (not the same as keyboard character brackets). Then you
can type in the name of the field, which here would be FORMTEXT, and
you're rockin'! Not so with Form Fieldsthis doesn't work!
If you try to recreate a form field manually, when you attempt to convert the
manual field into a field result (the actual form field itself) by using the
Shift/F9 toggle to turn it from code into a field, as you can with other
fields, an error message will appear (as shown in the image below) advising
you that the field is unavailable because it was not inserted with the Forms
Toolbar or by using the Insert Form Field dialog box.
Okay. So she can't use the Forms Toolbar until she resolves her keyboard issues
and adding a form field manually isn't an option. So I guess we'll just have
to go find the Insert Form Field dialog box, right?
You won't find it on the Insert menu, as any logical person would assume. It's
hidden under the All Commands customization dialog. So just to get started
creating a Word form, the blind user must first jump through some customization
hoops. Here are the commands you can use to hunt out the Insert Form Field
dialog box and assign it to a keyboard shortcut so you can start accessing
the Form Fields.
- In Word, hit Alt/T to access the Tools menu, hit C
to jump to Customize. This will put you into a customization mode and
also open the Customize dialog box. There are three tabs on
this dialog: Toolbars, Commands and Options.
- Hit Alt/C to toss the focus to the Command tab. This tab contains
two columns. The left is Categories, activated with Alt/G. The
right is Commands, activated with Alt/D. Sighted users can use
these columns to locate the item(s) they want and can then click and drag
the item to a menu or toolbar. But since clicking and dragging is not an option
for a blind user, you'll want to hit Alt/K to activate the Keyboard
button at the bottom of this dialog box (or hit the tab key 5 or 6 times until
you cycle to it).
- After activating the Keyboard button, a new dialog box will open, which
is very similar to the one you were just in. It, too, contains the same Category
list on the left and a Command list on the right. However, to pass
focus to these same columns via this new dialog, you'll need to use different
hotkeys. Why? Your guess is as good as mine. The fact that the new dialog
box now has the focus means the program developers could have used
the same hotkeys. <shrug> In here, Alt/C will activate the Category
column and Alt/O will pass focus to the Command column.
So hit Alt/C to put focus on the Category list for starters
(or again, start hitting the tab key until you find it).
- Once in the Categories list, the item you want to find in this list is All
Commands. You can hit the A key once to jump down to that command,
as it's the first A item in the list, or you'll have to hit the down arrow
key several times.
- Once you've found the All Commands category, hit Alt/O to
toss the focus to the right column or hit the Tab key one time. This
column is a detailed list of all the items in the All Command subcategory.
- You can then hit the letter I to jump down to the items starting
with the letter I. But that's all the jumping you can do at this point. Now
it's a matter of hitting the down arrow about 25 or so times to move down
and find the Insert Form Field listing.
- When you've located it, you'll need to tell the dialog box which key combination
you want to use to activate the Insert Form Field dialog in the future.
On this dialog box, there are three other input or edit boxes. One is labeled
Current Key, activated with Alt/U. When you move focus to this
box, you shouldn't see anything listed yet, since you haven't given a suggested
key combo command.
- Hitting the Alt/N keys jumps you to the Press New Shortcut Key
box. There you'll enter the keystroke combination you want to use for
this shortcut. However, and this is important, you'll need to verify that
the key combo you want to use isn't currently assigned to anything else or
you'll overwrite a previous shortcut. When you click the combo you want to
use, if it's assigned to anything already, that assignment will appear within
the dialog box, just below the box where the focus is now set. If nothing
is listed for that key combo, it will say Unassigned. So go through
this process until you find a suitable key combo to use and enter it into
the Press New Shortcut Key edit box.
- The next button you need to activate is the Assign key to lock in
your key combo assignment. The activation command is Alt/A, but you
can't hit that because, if you do, that key combo will be added to your shortcut
request, since that's where the focus still sits. You'll have to hit the Tab
key to move the focus out of this box. But, surprise! When you do hit
the Tab key, the focus moves out of the current edit box and onto the
next button in the tab order, which just so happens to be the Assign
key. Will wonders never cease? <smirk>
- Once there, hit Enter to activate the Assign button. This
move will then also pass the focus over to the Close button in this
dialog. So another hit to the Enter key will close this dialog and
back you up to the Customize dialog box.
- Unfortunately, in here, the focus is still on the Keyboard button,
so hitting Enter would just jump you back into the last dialog again.
There's a Close button on this dialog, but I guess the developers couldn't
come up with a shortcut letter to activate this button, because there isn't
one. So hit the Tab key to pass the focus to the Close button,
as it's the next button in the dialog's tab order. Then hit Enter to
activate the Close button to get out of customization mode. Done!
Now you can use the same features sighted users access by right clicking near
the top menu of Word and selecting the Forms toolbar. <sarcasm>
By using your new shortcut, you can activate the Insert Form Field dialog
box that will allow you to select one of the three form fields used to create
forms. Sighted users will find Text, Checkbox and Dropdown
form fields. However, blind users will have to realize that their readers apparently
call these same fields Edit, Checkbox and Combo Box form
Note! We don't yet know whether the screen readers are reading these
names as defaults or whether Microsoft wrote these names into the program. If
they did, it would mean that what the blind reader hears and the sighted user
sees, are different. This would obviously add confusion when reading instructions.
But the screen readers may be picking up the names of the controls and this
is just their default terms for these items. Further, when reading the control
and reading the dialog box, you may hear both terms. So be aware of how these
fields mix and match, so you won't be further confused when reading instructions
given to you by sighted users. We don't yet know where the problem lies. But
the fields were read off the same way in both JAWS and Windows Eyes. (Thanks
to Bill Cameron for his help establishing this fact.)
One other problem we discovered, however, is that the Word Insert Form Field
dialog box does not properly recognize a Form Fields that has already
been placed on a page. So you cannot simply highlight a field and reopen the
dialog to access the Options dialog, which you'd need to add Help, set
bookmark names or set any of the other property options for the field. Therefore,
if you don't have the forethought to access those Options while first in this
dialog when adding a new field, you'll have to later highlight the field and
activate a right mouse click keystroke. This move will bring up the mini
menu, which you can then arrow down to reach the Properties men option.
Once there, hit Enter and you'll open the current field's Properties
(Options) dialog box.
I won't be providing any further forms lesson here, but know that I have several
free articles available on my web site to teach you how to get started creating
forms. You'll find them at this link: www.mousetrax.com/techpage.html#autoforms.
Or you can purchase my Word
AutoForms & Beginning VBA eBook course in it's online version. However,
as I said in the beginning, although this course is accessible with a screen
reader, it was not totally written with the blind user yet in mind. But with
Doreen and Paul's help, I hope to have a truly blind developer version available
in the near future. And if you do purchase the current version, I'll be happy
to help you along the way with clarifications.
Advice to Sighted Developers
When creating an online form, you need to keep all possible users in mind. Realize
all that a blind user has to go through in Word just to access a simple
feature that sighted users can find with a couple clicks. Also, if you walked
through the customization steps with us, you have an idea of how difficult it
can be for users to activate dialog boxes without a mouse. Keep these issues
in mind when you're designing your dialog boxes and forms. Remember to add activation
hotkeys and run through the tab order to make sure it makes sense. Create forms
that are accessible for all users, not just those with mouse in hand.
Before you call a project finished, put down the mouse and see if you can run
your form without one!
Also, realize that blind users would appreciate additional information added
to the forms that their screen readers can read to tell them what information
is needed. It's fairly simple to add Status Bar Help to a form field
so this information can be read by a screen reader. Double click any form field
and you'll see a button to add Help to the field. Although you have two
options, Status Bar and Help Key, be sure to choose Status Bar Help,
as that will be read more easily by screen readers, as well as be displayed
on the status bar when the field gains focus. The maximum characters you can
add is 135 for Status Line Help. This added info is a great help to your
form users, both sighted and blind.
A few additional development minutes on your end will mean your forms will
be truly accessible to all users.
Be sure to also check out my Word Shortcuts article in this issue. There you'll
find a downloadable Word document containing all the Word shortcuts pulled from
Word's Help files and assembled in a Word table that can easily be sorted to
help you more quickly find the Word shortcuts you need.