Braille Monitor                                                     November 2007

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First Step in Adding Accessibility to Google Books–Was It Enough?

by George Kerscher

From the Editor: On July 5, both George Kerscher, senior officer accessible information, Recording for the Blind & Dyslexic, and Dr. T.V. Ramen, a research scientist with Google, Inc., addressed the 2007 convention of the National Federation of the Blind. The topic was online access to books for blind readers. Following the convention Mr. Kerscher wrote an article describing the brave new world of Google Books and explaining where the problems still lie. This is what he says:

On July 3, 2007, Google quietly made what may seem to be a subtle change to Google Books. However, individuals who are blind or have a print disability are going to be both very excited and disappointed. For them it is not a subtle change. A very special hidden link was added to Google Books in the "full view," which is exposed to assistive technology (AT) such as screen readers used by people who are blind or have a visual impairment.

Google Books has been of huge interest to those in the print-disabled community ever since it was announced. It is estimated that fewer than 5 percent of books published in print are ever produced in an accessible format. This scanning project has the potential of being an unparalleled source of books and will be a huge improvement over what is available in the mainstream for people who are blind or print disabled. The DAISY (www.daisy.org) standard, which provides structured and multimedia access to a book, still provides the ultimate in accessibility. Other disability groups as well as the educational community are just now learning about the benefits of DAISY and the multiple projects funded by the DAISY Consortium. Google technology so far does not compete well with the accessible features of DAISY books, but the scanning of millions upon millions of books from libraries around the world marks the serious start of the digitization of the world's print heritage. Now, with Google Books, not only is the Web indexed by the Internet giant, but the wealth of knowledge stored in our libraries can be found and accessed. The search function in Google Books returns titles that have a match in the text of the book. Words found are highlighted on the image of the printed page from the original book. If the title is in copyright, a snippet is visible, but, if it is out of copyright, the full view of the page is displayed.

The very special hidden link available from the full view now allows people who use access technology with their computers to read the text. Before this change it was not possible; the views were images, not text. On July 5 at the National Federation of the Blind's annual convention, Dr. T.V. Raman, who is himself blind and who works for Google, said, "Consider this to be step zero of many steps that will benefit blind and print-disabled persons throughout the world." Indeed this is a significant step; having hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of books available to a population that thirsts for information but is blocked from using traditional mechanisms for reading is without precedent and of extreme importance.

How does the accessible version work? Google inserts a hidden link to the OCR view of the text. With assistive technology in place, it is prominently presented as the first item in the full view. This link takes the reader to a completely accessible interface to the book. Normal keyboard commands that screen readers typically use are all present in this interface. A person with a disability using assistive technology can read the OCR text, move to the next or previous page, go to pages, and use the table of contents.

If sighted users have the loading of images turned off, the link is exposed, but it is very difficult to find. Sighted users have the better option, to "view plain text," which substitutes the scanned text for the image view. The presentation from the new hidden link provides the same functionality but in a much more screen-reader-friendly approach.

However, one inequality must be addressed immediately. Reading off-line is supported by Google Books. There is an option to download a PDF version of full-view books, but because these are only images of the pages, assistive technology can not present the information to the blind reader. This functionality is therefore available only to the sighted community. At present readers who are blind or have some other print disability have no option to download an entire book as a Zip file for off-line reading. Most people who use alternatives to print books use some kind of portable reading device. Very few people do their reading online, and without a download feature we face a glaring inequality between the reading options for sighted users and users who are blind or print disabled. I trust this is one of the many improvements that Dr. Raman referred to.

In addition, those unable to see the screen cannot access the limited (snippet) view, and there are no links to sites where someone who is blind or has a print disability can go to get an accessible commercial version or a high-quality version with figure descriptions and other important features from a library serving people with disabilities like Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic (RFB&D) in the USA or one of the many other libraries that make up the DAISY Consortium and serve the blind and print-disabled population around the world.
Raman believes that the Google Book search is tremendous for research purposes but that it is not intended to replace traditional libraries or bookstores. Nonetheless, sighted people can download the whole book free of charge. Raman said, "As a blind person I want the same access as anybody else. I hope eventually we can link to a place where blind people can get the accessible version in the format they want with figure descriptions and all, like from Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic." Indeed once commercial digital publications become accessible through assistive technology, the Google Book search should lead the reader using assistive technology to a site where the book can be purchased or to a library site that provides the book in the high-quality DAISY format, Braille, or large print, just as it does for sighted readers.

Nevertheless it is a fact that the Google collection contains more titles than are in all the libraries serving the blind throughout the world. One must recognize that the Google content may be the only source for accessing many of these titles. It is not perfect. The OCR errors are quite obvious. These are not normally apparent to sighted readers because they are looking at the image of the page rather than the plain text view. The Google Book search, optimized for scanned materials, still yields outstanding results with the searches. Raman said, "The OCR errors are there, but this will get better over time." By this Raman may mean that the OCR-recognition approaches will be improved by Google and the errors will be corrected through an automated process. I agree that we will have an ongoing need for the alternative versions that have figure descriptions, tactile graphics, and the other important enhancements that the libraries serving the blind provide.

Google is seeking input from blind and disabled users. Raman suggests that people with disabilities sign up for an account on Google (blind people will be able to use the accessible audible Captcha they have developed). They should then sign up for the "accessibility" forum. In this forum you can post messages to accessible@google.com and share your thoughts about the many accessibility features that Google is introducing, including Google Books.

I applaud the first step that Google has taken. I trust that it is indeed Google's first step toward full access to the information in Google Books. I understand that Google believes in the iterative software-development process. As such this is the first iteration of their accessibility developments in Google Books. I personally believe that in the information age access to information is a fundamental human right. Any newly developed information technology must take into consideration the needs of blind and print-disabled readers from the beginning; doing anything less is simply wrong and a violation of our human rights. Nobody benefits more from Google's first step than readers who are blind or have a print disability. Now let's take more steps towards equality, starting with the download of the full book, just as a sighted reader can do.

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