Accessibility In Legal Research: Lexis Advance® & Screen Readers

Posted on 11-29-2017 by
Tags: legal research , disability , accessibility , blindness , research , blind , screen reader

Blind person using computer

Blind lawyers have practiced in all facets of the profession.


By Karla Westjohn, J.D., M.A.


Learning Lexis Advance® while using a screen reader provides not only the opportunity to remain fluent with a major legal research tool but a chance to provide meaningful information to the developer of such a platform. Too often, accessibility is never considered. More than one developer of programs for social science research—including the one mandated in academia and in most private and governmental agencies—told me breezily that screen readers had never even been contemplated when developing the programs. Then, when problems arise, the parties talk past each other. Understanding on both sides remains incomplete, and the ideal result, a fully accessible product, is not realized.

I have extensive, real-world experience with Lexis/Nexis products. As an attorney I have used Lexis/Nexis software and Besides a law degree, I have a master's degree in criminal justice. I have used Lexis/Nexis Academic® as a graduate student and as a criminology instructor. I have worked with several refreshable braille devices and with several screen readers. I have worked with computers, in real-world settings where outcomes matter, since the days of the CP/M operating system. This particular testing has occurred on a desktop computer running the Windows 7 Professional Operating System and Version 9.54 of the Window-Eyes screen reader or version 18 of the JAWS screen reader.

Why Is Accessibility Necessary?

Explore LexisNexis Legal Research ProductsSince Lexis Advance® is now the default Lexis platform, with Lexis/Nexis Academic® also changing to resemble it, the platform's compatibility with screen readers is essential. Lexis is a fixture in many legal workplaces. Many such workplaces, because of cost, use only one legal research tool. Lexis training is now an integral part of legal research classes in law schools and legal studies programs. Educational and job requirements thus mandate the use of Lexis Advance® for any legal studies or law student and many attorneys and legal paraprofessionals. Lexis/Nexis Academic® is just as pivotal to research throughout the rest of academia.

If the platform is incompatible with screen readers, then why use one? If using a screen reader is truly mandatory, screen reader users can utilize other legal research tools—if they are compatible—or be disqualified for educational programs and ultimately for work in the profession—several professions if Lexis/Nexis Academic® also counts. Some uninformed individuals have actually proposed that, maintaining that computer use by blind people is impossible or impracticable, as is practicing law or teaching. Actually, synthetic speech and refreshable braille have existed since the 1980s. Blind lawyers have practiced in all facets of the profession. Blind teachers have taught across the academic spectrum. Blind people have worked as legal secretaries, court reporters, and paralegals. Wholesale exclusion from a profession or massive abridgement of academic programs is ridiculous and imnpracticable.

More and more, accessibility is becoming a preferred business practice. Accessibility, however, is more than corporate kindness. From the late 1950s until the early 1980s, all states passed White Cane laws. The language of these state statutes mirrors that of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. These laws prohibit disability discrimination in public accommodations, state facilities, and state employment. By the 1980s many of these statutes also prohibited housing discrimination and discrimination in private employment within the state. In 1973 Congress passed the Rehabilitation Act. This was the first federal statute forbidding disability discrimination. It introduced the concept of reasonable accommodation, the requirement that the federal government, state and local government entities receiving federal funds, and private entities receiving federal funds or doing business with the federal government make reasonable modifications to programs, policies, and procedures to allow qualified disabled people to participate. The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 adopted the language of the Rehabilitation Act and extended this prohibition to most private entities, whether or not they received federal funds or did business with the federal government.

In the early 1990s, when an inaccessible Graphical User Interface (GUI) was replacing DOS, blind people faced widespread job loss. The states of Massachusetts and Washington hastened Windows accessibility by informing Microsoft that contracts for the purchases of the operating system would be cancelled because such contracts were against public policy. Such contracts, these states contended, would force them to violate the Rehabilitation Act; public policy forbids contracting for an illegal act. The Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act, passed in 1998, which specifically requires computer software and websites to be accessible, strengthens this argument. Computers and electronic research are now standard in the legal profession, allied fields, and in business. Accessible programs and websites are not niceties; law and public policy require them.

Computers and electronic research are now standard in the legal profession, allied fields, and in business. Accessible programs and websites are not niceties; law and public policy require them.

What Is Adaptive Technology and How Does It Work?

In the beginning things were simple. Binary codes like DOS used zeros and ones. Interfaces were text-based. Whether one used print, braille, or synthetic speech, the machines just read the code. By the end of the 1990s internal software and the computer's speech card were becoming more popular than external speech synthesizers. A blind computer user simply plugged the braille display into the computer, installed the drivers for the braille display or the synthetic speech software, and he had access to all computer activities. If the computer completely crashed, she could insert a system disk with braille and/or speech drivers, and solve any problems within five minutes.

The Graphical User Interface (GUI) changed all that. This pictoral shell, laid over the binary code, made automatic interpretation impossible. The mouse became the navigational peripheral of choice. Because it required the user to look at the screen, usually moving the mouse on a pad to bring items into focus, point, and click the mouse to execute controls, mouse use was impossible for blind computer users. The screen reader solved this problem.

Screen readers are software, either third-party programs like JAWS; the now-defunct Window-Eyes; and NVDA (an open-source program whose acronym stands for Non-Visual Desktop Access)--or programs built directly into the operating system, like Apple's Voiceover, which is a fully functional screen reader built into all Apple devices, or Microsoft's Windows Narrator. Narrator is as yet not as functional as the other screen readers. Third-party screen readers dominated until Voiceover emerged less than ten years ago. Such software costs more than one thousand dollars ($1,000).

The screen reader looks within the graphical shell and identifies the text, items, and controls on the screen. Screen reader users navigate with the computer keyboard, the controls on a refreshable braille display, or by using gestures on a touch screen. In the latter case, one first touches the item to identify it and then uses a gesture to activate the item or control.

"Clicking" on something can be done in many ways, depending upon the control. Usually, one activates an item which has focus by pressing the Enter key. One checks boxes with the spacebar. Right-clicking occurs by pressing the Windows context menu. One selects text or other items with the arrow keys.

Screen readers can access a program or website only if developers have used standardized program classes and labeled each item and control both with respect to what the control is and what it does. For example, a control could be a button, a dialog box, a slider, a combo box, or an edit box. The button may facilitate printing, saving, or downloading. The edit box may be used for signing in or searching. Therefore, in order to be completely accessible, a "download" button must be labeled so that the screen reader can identify it as a button and state what it does. An improperly labeled control might simply identify itself, both in braille and through synthetic speech, as a button. If the screen reader announces the function but not the control, the function of it may appear in refreshable braille and be announced with synthetic speech. Because no control is specified, giving focus to the control is almost impossible with only synthetic speech. With a refreshable braille display, one can sometimes use a routing button to place focus on the control and activate it.

Providing technical support can sometimes pose challenges. The Arrow keys, Page Up and Page Down keys, Home and End keys, as well as Control-End and Control-Home keys provide some information about where one is on the screen. Moving a braille display can provide some information about screen layout. Navigating with a refreshable braille display is like moving a single strip around the screen, with the information corresponding to the strip being the information displayed. Navigating with a keyboard, then, does not provide exact information about the screen. Moving around a web page with the Tab key will not move systematically across the screen. Screen readers provide information about the items on the screen, not necessarily where they are. Telling someone that the Close button is an X in the bottom right corner of the screen, for example, will not provide valuable information. Screen readers provide information about what an item is. Neither refreshable braille displays nor speech synthesizers describe graphics. Even if they did, describing pictures of controls would be far slower than specific information about what a control does. Information that the search box is a red box near the top of the screen, then, would not be particularly helpful. This does not necessarily mean that experienced blind computer users do not learn about the pictures which often describe controls. The envelope denoting email comes readily to mind. As a rule of thumb, though, providing information compatible with keyboard navigation and using the name of the control works best.

The Accessibility of Lexis Advance®

In the past two years, Lexis Advance® has made significant progress toward accessibility. Two years ago the website was unusable with access technology. This inaccessibility triggered fury when this author learned that it would be replacing as the platform for Lexis. The cost of adaptive technology is significant. To ensure full functionality, this author purchased a professional version of a third-party screen reader at eleven hundred dollars ($1,100) and a refreshable braille PDA, which can also function as a display, for approximately five thousand five hundred dollars ($5,500). Doing legal research in braille is as fast as doing it in print. Doing research with a reader takes three times as long and involves significantly more cost.

This author has evaluated all aspects of the website included in her plan: cases and statutes, secondary sources, Shepardizing, and printing and downloading. Search boxes and result lists were entirely accessible with synthetic speech and refreshable braille. Sources linked within sources could be accessed easily by entering on links. Moving back to the original results, either with Alt-Tab or via the History button was virtually seamless. Checkboxes for selecting documents within search results worked properly with the use of the spacebar. Combo boxes, common in identifying time lines for research, opened properly with the use of the Enter and Arrow keys. Edit boxes, which allow for manual denotation of dates in searches, appropriately employed the Tab and Enter keys for full access.

Mention of a graphical representation of Shepard's Citations was initially worrisome. Employing such a representation exclusively would make Shepard's inaccessible to blind lawyers and paraprofessionals. Fortunately, the traditional list remains. The link above cases, permitting immediate Shepardizing, is easy to use.

Miscellaneous features such as getting individual documents when the researcher knows the exact citation, notifications about when a researcher is about to leave his or her plan, printing, and downloading work fairly well. Typing a citation in the search bar works as well as the old Lexsee feature. Although sighted researchers receive notifications with asterisks near certain sources, Lexis Advance® also provides a clear "Out of Plan" message and a "Get It Now" message which clearly states a price. These messages are entirely accessible.

The website's only accessibility flaws are in the Printing and Downloading features. These features consist of eight buttons near the Folders button. None of the eight buttons are labeled. The website identifies what the control is, but not what it does. Labeling a button for oneself via a screen reader cannot be done on someone else's website. To provide a temporary workaround, thereby allowing a blind researcher to utilize these features would involve memorizing the layout ofthe buttons. In Tab order they are: Print, Print Settings, E-mail, Download, Download Settings, Dropbox, Dropbox Settings, and Printer Friendly. One learns instantly what the button does upon activation, but knowing a control's function before activating it constitutes real access.

The settings pages for printing and downloading are unduly complicated. The layout in and Lexis/Nexis Academic® was far preferable. The Format and Basic Functions buttons cannot be activated with the Enter key. These buttons seem to function more like headings. Exact settings can be found below them. These settings are accessible with a screen reader. To have a download process properly, turning off the Pop-Up blocker is necessary, at least in Internet Explorer. Pop-Ups announce and facilitate document delivery.

Turning the Pop-Up blocker on and off certainly can be done, but it is inconvenient and disconcerting. Failing to turn on a browser's Pop-Up blocker can allow malicious programs to enter a computer. Very few security programs are completely accessible, another source of outrage among blind professionals, so removing problem software is doubly inconvenient. A true dialog box, common in former software, would be faster for everyone to use and would lessen security risks. That change would make Lexis Advance® a truly excellent platform.

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