Braille Monitor                                              June 2014

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When Just Listening Is Not Enough: Google Falls Short on Accessibility for the Blind

by Antonio Guimaraes

Antonio GuimaraesFrom the Editor: Antonio Guimaraes has been a member of the National Federation of the Blind for a decade and a half. He is a member of the board of directors of the writers’ division, lives in the state of Rhode Island, and is a member of the Cambridge chapter in Massachusetts. He is currently a student in the field of social studies, who has a keen interest in technology which drives him to attend technology conferences where Google is often present. While he is not involved directly in what goes on at Google or in the discussions ongoing between Google and the National Federation of the Blind, he has given more attention than most of us to the technology being seen by students and takes seriously his obligation to report on things as he sees them. This article is the culmination of months of back-and-forth letters and phone calls in which Antonio has consistently made the case that we need to talk about Google and in which I have consistently made the case for presenting specific problems of access in the larger context of education and employment. To his credit, he has not given up, and here are his thoughts and opinions:

If you ask yourself when you last used a Google product, you're likely to say you googled something or checked your Gmail account. But, if you are blind, that is likely where your use of Google starts and ends. That's because, while Google has an active accessibility team, it has not earned the loyalty of blind users with solidly usable and accessible products and services. Google builds many other widely used tools that are barely usable at best and useless at worst. It is difficult even for the most computer-savvy blind person to keep up with what is accessible and how. Blind students, employees, those who teach computers to the blind, and anyone who is blind and regularly accesses a computer ought to be concerned about how one of the most influential and powerful tech companies approaches accessibility. If you work at an organization that deploys Google products in its daily operations, then making appointments, collaborating in the writing of a document, and storing files on the cloud with Google-made technologies soon becomes crucial to your ability to compete.

Are Google Products Inaccessible?

The answer to this question is not consistent. Some products are totally inaccessible, some require many workarounds, others are accessible only with Google's own operating system and browser, and a treasured few offer flexibility and accessibility across the board.

In order to create a Gmail account, Google uses a voice captcha that speaks a series of numbers that appear on the screen to prove that a human being is creating the account, rather than a spammer’s program. Unfortunately, the audio is garbled and is nearly impossible to decipher. So score one for Google for providing an audio equivalent to the visual captcha, but subtract half a point for failing to come up with a paradigm that is easy to use and does not exclude the deaf-blind.

Google Docs is widely used by the sighted and across all platforms including Windows and Mac. However, every presentation I've personally seen by members of Google's accessibility team has used accessibility features with Google's own hardware, operating system, and browser. Google has scant instructions for Docs, Google Calendar, and other programs. The current approach to accessibility and the lack of support for mainstream screen readers leaves much room for speculation about how Google expects the blind to access its products.

Will the company develop accessibility tools for ChromeBook, Chrome OS, and the Chrome browser and consider this an adequate response to meeting the access needs of the blind? Do they expect blind people to abandon the screen readers we have been using for years if we want to embrace the Googlesphere? If so, will they develop training programs and comprehensive manuals from which we can easily learn? Even if they do, isn’t it reasonable to ask how many operating systems, browsers, office suites, and screen readers a blind person must know before he or she can claim to be computer literate and employment-ready? These questions must be asked and deserve to be answered.

Google twice declined an interview request I made with the director of engineering, Mr. Kannan Pashupathy, who oversees the accessibility team at Google. I had the opportunity to ask him about Google's commitment to accessibility outside the Chrome environment during his presentation to the American Foundation for the Blind Leadership Conference in early March. He confirmed having heard concerns from users regarding this issue. He said that Google has had discussions and is working on agreements with Freedom Scientific, the maker of JAWS for Windows, and NV Access, the developer of NVDA, to make sure Google products work well with these and other screen readers. [Note the comments made by Google about working with other screen-reading products in the previous article.]

One would hope that these talks will result in more universally available access for the blind. If sighted people, regardless which operating system they use, have no trouble using Docs (Google’s web-based office suite that allows online collaboration in creating and editing documents), the blind should have the same option. Often the blind have no choice in whether they must use Windows, Mac OS, or Google Chrome; the decision is made for them, either by the institution for which they work, the institution they attend as a student, or by the rehabilitation agency purchasing products for their use. When the choice is truly left to them, most blind people use a PC with Windows, a considerable number use the Mac with Mac OS, and a small minority use Chrome OS. Mac OS comes with VoiceOver installed, but not everyone using Windows uses the same screen reader. JAWS for Windows, Window-Eyes, System Access, and NonVisual Desktop Access (NVDA) come to mind as the most popular screen-reading options for PC users in America. Though each screen reader demonstrates its own strengths and weaknesses when used with web browsers and office suites, none requires the use of or exclusion of a given tool. While making maximal use of any of these tools might be achieved by having a working knowledge of all of the screen-reading solutions on the market, most blind people would consider this impractical. Learning and affording one screen reader is difficult enough, and the thought of multiplying this by three or four is daunting, except for those whose identity is bound up in being a computer geek.

Blind users should not be expected to learn a new system with all of its idiosyncrasies and keystrokes simply to avail ourselves of what Google has to offer. Instead, programs like Google Docs should be available to the blind in the same way they are to the sighted—across platforms and with one’s screen reader of choice.

Google has an accessibility blog. The entry titled “Accessibility: A Progress Report” says that the company met with several organizations of the blind and attended the CSUN technology conference. That entry is from October 7, 2011. The blog quotes an NFB statement by Mark Riccobono saying that the NFB "is pleased that Google has been actively engaged with us in its work to solve access issues … Many improvements still need to be made before Google applications are fully accessible to blind users, but the enhancements that we have seen demonstrated indicate a commitment to accessibility by Google."

That statement was from two years ago and continues to be true today. Google has engaged with the blind and with the assistive technology industry serving the blind. It employs an accessibility team, but whether it will follow through on its stated commitment to accessibility still remains to be seen.

In seeking out information for writing this article I have been given information from Google that points to progress that has been made in the last year and particularly in the last six months. While more still remains to be done, one hopes this direction is one that Google will maintain and that, more than a one-time response to a specific problem, these changes represent a cultural change at the company—one that will benefit the blind and others with disabilities for years to come.

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