Firefox Extensions for Accessibility

Three Firefox extensions for library public workstations that reduce barriers to information access

Defining the Project

In the last year I have been given the responsibility for maintaining our library's public workstations. So as I have managed the suite of software installed on them and as I have developed the default settings we lock into place for the machines (browsers don't remember visited web pages, Windows doesn't remember recently opened documents, etc.) I began to see a place for installing a set of Firefox plugins that provide accessibility features that allow users to customize their browsing experience to meet a range of accessibility needs. As I thought about this, I realized there is a core paradox when it comes to accessibility in library public workstations:

  • There is no such thing as an average user and "the tyranny of the majority" can make access difficult for many users.
  • All the public computers in the library need to have a single, predictable interface.

The tension between these two competing ideas led me to devise a few rules in my search for accessibility extensions.

  1. Users should not be forced to customize their browser before using it. (Accessibility for some should not be a barrier to others.)
  2. Extensions should be as self-explanatory as possible. (If an extension requires training to use, it is too complicated.)
  3. Accessibility features should be easily recognized by those who are looking for them. (If users don't know it is there, it may as well not be.)

With these rules in mind, I selected three Firefox extensions that increase access to library computer users: NoSquint, Readability, and Text-to-Voice.

Three accessibility extensions for library public workstations


NoSquint developers' website:

Add NoSquint extension to Firefox:

The size of text on a computer screen is a barrier to accessibility for many of our users. There number of ways to manipulate text size are legion. It can be incredibly confusing and frustrating for users to find an appropriate text size or to un-do the customization from a previous user. I get annoyed when my preferred way of changing text zoom (Control-Mousewheel) acts very differently on a Windows machine than it does on a Mac. NoSquint is a Firefox extension that simplifies and unifies changes to text size inside the browser.

nosquint buttons
three simple buttons to control text zoom

For this project, I use NoSqint to place three buttons on the Firefox toolbar at the top of the browser window. The green plus button makes text larger. The red minus button makes text smaller. The yellow one button returns the view to default settings. These simple controls are easy for users to figure out by simple experimentation. NoSquint offers a powerful range of tools that include global settings, individual page settings, and separate zoom settings for text and images. NoSquint also offers the ability to change background and text colors to options more accessible to the individual user.  In order to comply with my rules for this project, I ignore the full feature set and simply rely on the three easily identifiable buttons to provide users with more control over their browser experience.


How to use Readability

Add Readability extension to Firefox

Readability is an extension for reading large blocks of text. It works best on HTML pages, such as a newspaper, blog, or article. It does not work well or at all with .PDF documents or pages with a lot of blocks of small text. For example, it would not work well on the front page of the New York Times website, but it is absolute magic for viewing individual articles on the New York Times site.

Readability reformats a page to make the text more easily read. It hides sidebars, navigation tool-bars and anything that distracts from the actual text. It can increase text-size, provide a background and contrast that is easy to read. It is also useful for formatting pages in a way that is printer-friendly.

web page before readability applied
before applying readability (click for larger image)
after readability
after applying readability (click for larger image)

Using Readability

readability icon
The Readability icon

Clicking on the icon in the lower-right corner of Firefox will turn on Readability for the current web page. Right-clicking (PC) or Control-clicking(Mac) will bring up the preferences screen where the Readability display can be configured. Alternately, the readability icon can be added to the tool-bars at the top of the Firefox window, or keyboard shortcuts can be used. (For PC users: Control-Alt-R to turn on, Control-R to turn off. For Mac users: Command-Option-R to turn on, Command-R to turn off.)

Right-clicking (Windows) or Control-clicking (Mac) will bring up formatting options. You can select style (limited font and background options), text size, and margin width from this menu. For screen reading, I prefer the Inverse setting and for printing I prefer the Newspaper setting, experimenting with these will help you find the settings that your prefer.

When Readability is engaged, it places three simple icons in the upper-left corner of the window. The first will refresh the window and turn off Readability for this page. The second allows you to print the Readability screen, which is often an improvement from printing from the browser. The third is an email button to share interesting articles and pages.

Text to Voice

About the Text to Voice extension

Add Text-to-Voice to Firefox: follow the link from the URL above

text to voice icon
text to voice icon

HTML was originally designed as a text-based medium. Text isn't the preferred medium for all of our library users to access content. Text to Voice is a simple plugin that reads text on a webpage aloud. Using it is as simple as highlighting text on the screen and then clicking on the Text-to-Voice icon. Right-clicking (Windows) or Control-clicking (Mac) will bring up options, which include choosing a female or male voice and selecting the source language of the text. Text-to-Voice is not the most fully featured screen reader available, but it is simple, easy to use, and free.

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