by Gary Wunder
In this issue we are running three articles about Google: this one, one by Antonio Guimaraes, and a third by Jim Barbour. So why three articles, and why are all of them about Google? We have three articles because the framework I want to build around the two that have been submitted is beyond my ability to do in a headnote of manageable length. I also want to include information that has come to my attention since these articles were submitted. As for the second question: given all the technology companies in America and the world, why Google? This requires a more complicated answer.
Google is one of the most exciting companies on the planet and may well be the most innovative. It has revolutionized the way we do research and the way we settle arguments around the dinner table; and it even helps those of us who work on the Braille Monitor determine how words are spelled as the English language adds new ones and combines old ones.
Google offers great promise to the citizens of the world, with cars that may someday drive themselves and with glasses that may strengthen the human/machine interface. Its ambitious goal to digitize all of the books in the world is enough to get anybody’s attention, and the potential to change the lives for blind people needs no elaboration. But the most immediate reason to focus on Google is that it is giving away an office suite called Google Apps, a group of programs that resembles offerings by Corel or Microsoft in that it provides a suite incorporating an email system, a word processor, a spreadsheet, and a database application. When compared with the cost of competing office products, Google's offer is tempting to state governments, colleges, and universities; and, when institutions adopt Google Apps as their office tool of choice and it is less accessible than the standard office tools that have been used for years, blind people get hurt, be they users of government services, employees, or students.
When the blind began to see Google Apps emerge as the office suite of choice in their institutions, they first tried to learn the new system—exactly what any person, blind or sighted, would do. When it became apparent that even expert users of current screen readers couldn't make the system work and the network of blind people teaching blind people could not bridge the gap, approaches were made to Google. The response at that time was pretty much what we have seen from other technology companies: this product is new; we're working on access for the blind, and you'll probably see something in future versions. But bosses and professors wanted blind people to produce. They understood the problem, but they also understood that grades and paychecks couldn't be handed out today with the someday promise of future productivity. So, sometimes politely, but always firmly, the blind were told to figure it out or admit we could not perform the essential functions required to be achieving students and productive employees. The public perception that the Americans with Disabilities Act targets specific jobs for blind people or that it requires instructors and bosses to set lower standards is a myth, one which a quick look at cases filed under the ADA will quickly dispel.
President Maurer explains the involvement of the National Federation of the Blind in this way:
The frustration level eventually got high enough that many people inside the organization were demanding that something be done. Governments were adopting Google as their platform of choice, and that meant jobs and education were going. Because we couldn't get anyone at Google to pay attention in any meaningful way that addressed more than minor details, we were prepared to get injunctions from the legal system to prohibit their products from being used. At the time we were beginning the legal process, which we knew would be expensive, very slow, and probably only partially successful—as most of these things are—we contacted a senior vice president at Google who said that Google would change things. We knew that Google meant it because this vice president said in our presence that, although they release products with bugs in them—even when they know there are bugs—they don't release products if the bugs are so big that you can't use the product. What the vice president was acknowledging was that, if you were blind, you couldn’t use the products. He said that this is what Google calls a number one problem.
These conversations occurred three years ago, and, true to his word, he told people to fix the problems we had painstakingly identified. But they didn't get fixed because these problems were more involved and had to be addressed in a way different from Google's traditional approach. This caused him great chagrin, but, since that time, we have repeatedly met with Google, and things are changing. A lot of these changes have come from structural changes in the way Google has been looking at accessibility for the past year. We have told Google in detail what doesn't work, and they have begun the process of making the changes to see that the problems are fixed.
A promise that is unsupported by action is a thing we have come to know for years, from lots of people, including Google. But the action within the last six months has been big enough to be impressive, and, if it continues, it will be quite noticeable in the products Google comes to deliver. We have every reason to believe it will continue and that Google and the blind of the world will be the better for our ongoing negotiation, collaboration, and the relationships we have developed. As a part of this relationship, Google will have a high-level representative on the convention agenda in Orlando, and I believe we will all be encouraged by what she has to say.
These are the impressions Dr. Maurer and members of our team have carried away from Google, and they are encouraging. With all of this in mind, we still have an obligation to acknowledge the significant challenge that Google’s technology has posed to blind people. To do that, we are carrying the two articles which follow, understanding that they represent the legitimate concern, frustration, and hope that blind people have experienced in connection with Google.
I have interviewed two people who are prominent in Google’s accessibility efforts and have given them some ideas about what is being said in this and the articles that follow. They would prefer that we dwell less on history and the problems the blind have had with accessibility and focus more on changes that have happened in the last year and those soon to come. I have taken the position that we cannot fully recognize the strides they are making and will continue to demonstrate without an appreciation of that history and that its mention places in a positive light the changes they are working so hard to make. Their commitment to work with other developers of screen-reading solutions marks a departure from their previously stated position, that being that a blind person wanting to use Google should use Google’s hardware and its screen reader. Those agreements are in place, and while there are technical reasons why their systems are likely to work better with the things they develop than with other screen readers and browsers, they are committed to making their products work well with the screen-reading solutions already used by the blind.We invite Google to make their own contribution to these discussions and will be pleased to advertise to all who care to read and listen how this innovative company demonstrates the power of inborn accessibility and what a culture committed to this concept can do to reduce and perhaps eliminate the digital divide that threatens to separate blind people from meaningful participation in getting an education and being part of the workplace in the twenty-first century. Because we are firmly committed to equal access, to education, and to employment for the blind, you can be certain that the National Federation of the Blind will continue to be involved with Google and other developers of technology and that the Braille Monitor will be a conscientious chronicler of the events that will shape opportunities to live and fully participate in the world.