Changeling’s Guide to Using Mastodon for Screen Reader Users: chapter One. Introduction

What Kind of Guide is This?

This is a guide for using the microblogging service Mastodon. While much of the infromation here can be applied to anyone, this guide is specifically designed for users of screen readers, software that provides spoken interpretations of content displayed on computer screens. It is not intended to replace the documentation for any specific screen reader, nor is it intended to replace any of the official Mastodon documentation. In fact, I’ll be linking to several of the documentation pages for Mastodon throughout these posts.

Why am I Writing This?

When Twitter hit critical mass as a microblogging service, it did so with the help of its then feature-rich API, meaning that you didn’t actually need to be logged on to the Twitter website to be using the service. Instead, you could use programs called clients to access the service, and you would have full access to the service, until the recent changes in Twitter’s API happened over the summer of 2018. During that time, I started looking into alternative microblogging services, because I discovered that is my preferred form of self-expression. I found Mastodon.

When I first encountered mastodon, I expected to need an API and a client to be able to use the service. I have been using a screen reader for over three decades at the time of this writing, and I’ve become used to needing an alternative way to access services like email and social networks. For example, this post is being published on a WordPress blog, but the writing and editing is being done through Google docs which, with the help of an add-on, will upload the doc to WordPress as a draft, and I’ll publish it later. (Just as an aside: The default WordPress is very accessible with screen readers. I just happen to really enjoy using Google Docs.) While I found a few such clients that I will discuss in a later chapter, what I found out is that I didn’t actually need a third-party program to use and enjoy Mastodon. This is because, unlike many services that incorporate accessibility as an afterthought following the building of the service, Mastodon appears to have been designed to be accessible from the beginning. If this is true, you may be thinking, then why is this guide necessary? Wouldn’t the original documentation be enough to get someone started?

Technically, yes. It was certainly enough to get me started, and I’ve seen plenty of screen reader users participating in the Mastodon community to their satisfaction. I’ve also seen people expressing frustration with the service. The most common complaint I hear is that the keyboard shortcuts offered by the Mastodon software don’t work. This series of posts will work to answer that, as well as any other problems a screen reader user may experience while using the service.

How am I Writing This Guide?

You may have noticed that this post had “Chapter One” in its title. This guide is going to be written as a series of posts that I was originally going to call parts and then decided to call chapters. There are two reasons for this.

First, I like to give a lot of detail to things when I write about them. If you’re the kind of person that needs lots of detail to grasp a new concept, this is going to work out splendidly for you. Unfortunately, this also means that the resulting post, were everything to be published in one, would be way longer than anyone on the Internet typically wants to read in one sitting. People click on a page to get their question answered, then they move on.

The second reason for publishing in multiple posts is so that, if you are the kind of person who likes to find an answer to their question and move on, you will be able to do that, and you wouldn’t even need to read an entire post. Each chapter is titled so that you know what’s in the chapter, like “Introduction”. If you’re at a point where you don’t need an introduction to this guide or Mastodon, you may wish to skip the first couple chapters, and start where your confusion started. Once you get there, you can jump to the section that best answers your question, using the “In this post” section below the post title and above the first section of the post, or jumping by heading until you get where you need to go.

What do I need to use Mastodon with a screen reader?

You don’t need anything special to sign up for and use Mastodon. However, here is a list of what you should have before you begin. Most of these you will already have, but it’s worth reviewing the list anyway.

  • A valid email address and password you can remember.
  • Confidence in your ability to use your screen reader fo choice, particularly with web browsing.
  • A browser other than Internet Explorer.
  • You’ll need to except the idea that while it has many features of Twitter, Mastodon is not necessarily designed to replace Twitter. There are some tools that will make your your life on Mastodon after or alongside Twitter easer, but mastodon is not Twitter.
  • An idea of what kind of online community you’d like to belong to. We’ll discuss this more in Chapter Two, but Mastodon has many communities (instances) one can join based on their interests.
  • You’ll need to except the idea that Mastodon is not a traditional program. It’s a web app, meaning that how you interact with it is different from what you may be used to. This will be discussed in much greater detail in Chapter Three.
  • The willingness to work toward understanding new concepts.
  • The willingness to ask for help. You’re joining a community, and everyone there was new at some point. Users are generally friendly. Just remember to treat others how you would be treated.

Coming Up

In Chapter two, we’ll be taking a closer look at what Mastodon is, as well as how to choose and join an instance.  the meantime, review the list of things you’ll need before you start, and get those things together so the next chapter will be a smooth experience for you.

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  1. Thanks for putting this guide together. I’ve been playing with Mastodon on my iPhone, but haven’t done much more than just exploring. I am looking forward to reading the next posts on here.

    • No worries. Mostly what are I get are responses from people who take great effort to explain why they will never ever use mastodon and how I’m wasting my time. The exception is people already using Mastodon. I’m actually holding off on talking about things like using mastodon with smartphones until Chapter Six, so the guide right now is written for using a more traditional computer. That’s where the keyboard shortcuts come in.