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Explorer II

Discussion Boards and JAWS

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Does anyone know if Canvas Discussions are compatible with JAWS? Our Disability Director indicated it is not. Verifying with anyone who has worked with a visually impaired student.

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My visually impaired student was able to participate in discussion. However, submitting assignments proved challenging. He ended up emailing them to me. Wondering if anyone else who has worked with a visually impaired student has had a similar experience?

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Community Coach
Community Coach

rgibson1​, I'm not sure if we ever had a student with a visual impairment who needed to use a discussion in Canvas, so I'm not sure. Yet, I will say that overall Canvas is designed to be accessible for people with all types of disabilities, so my question would be what specifically is it that isn't working right with the discussions? Will JAWS just not read the discussion at all?

I'm also going to share this with the Accessibility​ group in the Community to see if anyone there can help!

Community Team
Community Team

rgibson1​, were you ultimately able to resolve this issue via direct communication with Deactivated user​? Please take a moment to update us on what you discovered; JAWS matters in particular and accessibility issues in general are subjects we all want to know about.

My visually impaired student was able to participate in discussion. However, submitting assignments proved challenging. He ended up emailing them to me. Wondering if anyone else who has worked with a visually impaired student has had a similar experience?

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We're having a similar issue: a vision impaired student is having difficulty with discussion forums, both reading and submitting. He's emailing his contributions to his tutor.

We recently received the following feedback from a student enrolled in one of our courses:

"The major advantage of forums, relies on the user being able to scan the topics and choose which conversations to read or join. When a visually impaired person is given a forum, they get told the date the item was created, the name of the person who opened the conversation, the number of hours since it was updated, the number of times that it has been viewed, and finally, the one or two line description of what the conversation is about. There is no way of knowing if the next conversation is closer to what you are looking for, there is no way of navigating at all. It would be the same as me giving you a book with no paragraphs, or headings, or chapters, just one continuous paragraph with nothing to let you know what the next sentence will contain. Please think about using a less blatantly discriminatory teaching method".

Does this feedback resonate with your experiences, rgibson1 or

The Program Manager in relation to the course in question wrote to us that "This is not the first time we have had this sort of feedback regarding the discussions tool not being overly accessible (albeit from students without a visual impairment), so I am not surprised that is more of an impediment to a student with a visual impairment."

I looked for insights or strategies that others have employed that make Canvas Discussions more accessible. Common advice centres on simplifying the structure of Canvas Discussions by turning off threaded replies.

Does anyone have experience with the effectiveness of this approach?

Yes, it  sounds just like the feedback we were getting. I usually ask instructors to put the discussions (with clear titles) in the pinned area, and then a link in the relevant modules. This doesn't help with continuing discussions as your student pointed out.

I'm not sure how turning off threading would help, to be honest. It concerns me that it students wouldn't understand how to structure their replies to be inclusive, or that they would create more fora, thereby simply recreating the problem.

In general (regardless of visual impairment) the discussion boards are unwieldy. Navigation is challenging, once your discussion board gets either large* or busy. *Large in this case anything over about 40 students (posting). Notifications point you back to the main board, not to the reply or the thread (which is next to useless). Then your only choice is to use the search or visually scan for the unread reply. I found it easier with threaded replies, but the process was clunked and made you less inclined to respond/reply. 

I am a user of JAWS and also other screen readers. I am creating my first course as an "instructor".  I'm actually a staffer, not an official instructor at my college. But I've taken about thirty online courses using JAWS.

The problems are not really a JAWS or a Canvas issue. Instructors need to think carefully about how they structure a discussion. For example if there is more than one topic to discuss, each needs to be a separate discussion. Many instructors are kind of lazy; instead of creating a new discussion, they just create a new thread in the same discussion, making it unwieldy. Even more than blind users, this is very hard on students with learning disabilities or attention issues.

I even took a course from a guy who created one discussion for everything, gave it the topic of "class discussion" and we were supposed to post everything in there. It ended up with thousands of posts. We were each -- thirty of us supposed to post at least four times a week. Some teachers have no common sense!

JAWS has five different reading cursors and three different modes for reading on the web. If a user is a beginner, they can often get super frustrated trying to figure out which cursor and which mode to use. For example, when completing assignments you have to be in "forms" mode to check boxes, select radio buttons and edit text. But you have to be in "virtual cursor" mode, in other words out of forms mode to actually read the page. I know that sounds awkward, but believe me it's an improvement over screen reading two decades ago!

If you are working in a discussion, you will stay out of forms mode to read everything, but when you reply, you have to enter "application mode" to interact with the rich content editor.

This is necessary, these different modes, because a screen reader user needs to do two things with their keyboard, read the screen and interact with the screen. Visually, your eyes read the screen and you use your mouse and/or keyboard to interact. The JAWS user has to use the keyboard to do everything, thus the multiple modes!

JAWS can enter and exit some of these modes on its own if it gets enough context, and beginners often set it to do just that.

But if it gets the context wrong, then it's in the wrong mode for the operation you need to perform.

For example, as I'm typing this, application mode should have turned on, but it has not. I'm in the rich content editor for this forum, but JAWS somehow didn't get the message -- this happens unfortunately more often than one would like.

I am working in "forms mode" which isn't ideal for editing my post but lets me type, and I am typing carefully so I won't make too many mistakes I'll have to edit later. In "forms" mode, JAWS is set up for me to edit in single-line edit boxes and to use the space bar and arrows to check check boxes, choose radio buttons, drop down combo boxes. But to really function in the RCE I need to be in application mode, which tells JAWS that this is a web-based application and the keystrokes I issue are intended for the web app and not for it, the screen reader!

JAWS finally just decided to go in to application mode now, making it possible for example for me to use the Canvas shortcuts to go to the toolbar. 

More advanced users tend to try to override that automatic behavior and manually engage some of these modes when they can. But like breathing, where the brainstem can keep the lungs working even when we are unaware, the user only has partial control over what the screen reader decides to do especially on the web, where the environment is complex and often without many standards.

If a real JAWS user is reading this, you'll notice I've oversimplified a bit for purposes of clarity.


Followed up with our disability support person here at uni, and he advises that Jaws works with the discussion board, but he couldn't advise on how functional it is. He'll follow up with students who use Jaws to ask about their experience.