Braille Monitor                                              August/September 2014

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The Federation at Work with Google: Changing the Structure of Expectations

by Eve Andersson

From the Editor: Google is one of the most innovative companies in the world. It’s products are well-known and are found everywhere. Google makes the world’s fastest-growing operating systems, and it is used in cellular telephones, computers, and even self-driving vehicles. When this technology is usable by the blind, their opportunities are enhanced; when the technology is not, those same opportunities are diminished.

Eve Andersson in deeply involved in access at Google, and these are the moving remarks she made at the convention:

Thank you Dr. Maurer. Hello, everybody. It is a great pleasure and honor to be here. What an amazing week this has been, getting to meet some of you here at the convention, learn from your experiences, get feedback on our products, and give demos of some of them. It’s been beautiful.

Before coming here I stopped over in Atlanta, and I was able to attend the opening ceremony for the National Association of the Deaf convention. It took place in the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. This is the church that Martin Luther King attended as a young child, and this is the church where he preached as an adult. To be standing in that spot where this great man stood was really moving to me, and, of course, the reason it was so moving is that he preached equality for all. This is something that I have believed in my whole life. And now, to be able to work at Google, leading our accessibility engineering efforts, to further that goal of equality for all, is really important to me.

I’d like to tell you a little bit about what we’re doing at Google to further accessibility. I’m going to do something we don’t normally do at Google which is crack open the door a little bit and give you a peek at some of the inner workings of what’s going on. My goal is to show you that we are serious about accessibility at Google, and I want to tell you about structural changes that we’ve made.

We don’t want to launch our products, get feedback about features being inaccessible, and then apply Band-Aids after the fact. That’s not sustainable, and it’s also not fair to the people who use our products. So we’ve made these changes with the goal of incorporating accessibility into the design, the engineering, and the testing of our products. I’d like to give you a little background. Dr. Maurer alluded to this: Google is made up of many independent teams. In fact, Google encourages creativity and experimentation and individual efforts, and that means that putting into place a cultural change like this is not quick and it’s not easy, but it is something that we’re doing. I’m going to tell you a little bit about some of our efforts.

As I mentioned, I lead our accessibility engineering team. This is a group that grew organically within Google over time through the passion of individuals who cared about accessibility in the organization. Over time it has become more structured and more systematic. This team has people with expertise in user experience design, engineering, testing, assistive technology, and user research. We have program managers who work throughout Google to help put programs into place. We have a writer who’s dedicated full-time to accessibility writing, and we have people who specialize in education.

Speaking of education, all new engineers who enter Google in our major engineering centers --that’s Mountain View, California, New York, New York, and Zürich, Switzerland -- they are all now required to go through a one hour accessibility workshop in their first couple of weeks at Google. This is a hands-on workshop in which they learn about mobile accessibility as well as web accessibility, and they actually have to write some code right there in the workshop to make a web application accessible. We’ve also launched over ten other internal courses to teach about web accessibility, Android accessibility, iOS accessibility, assistive technology, testing techniques, user experience design, running user studies for accessibility, and others. We also have a course that we have developed and released to the public, an online course called “Introduction to Web Accessibility” free of charge.

In terms of education, there is a huge shortage of women, minorities, and people with disabilities in the software industry, and we’re trying to address that as well. We are now offering to pay the tuition for anybody with a disability to take courses in Code School to learn software engineering techniques. By the way, my team is hiring, so feel free to come up to me afterwards if you or someone you know is a great engineer.

Another effort we have put into place is releasing guidelines related to accessibility internally. We have engineering guidelines in place for engineers to follow as they develop their products. We’ve also internally released user experience guidelines to be used in the design of our products so that they are designed correctly from the beginning.

Every year we hold a conference called I/O -- it’s a pretty big conference in San Francisco -- and this year we launched our design standards for what’s called the Material Design. It describes how each of our applications should behave, and it’s also to be used by external developers in designing their applications for Android. For the first time, at the time of release, we included accessibility guidelines in our design principles. Our goal of course is not just for Google to make more accessible products, but we want the whole world to make more accessible products.

One amazing thing that I’ve witnessed in this role over the past year is that in the early days we used to have to push accessibility on product teams and try to force them to commit to making accessible products, and now the relationship has changed. People are coming to us for advice. It’s becoming a pull relationship, and we have trouble keeping up!

We’ve been holding user experience studies with people with disabilities so that we can learn how people really use our products. In the past few months we’ve had studies going in Zürich, New York, and Mountain View, and I got to attend some myself. These user studies are so important for us so that we can learn, and we caught so many things just going through those studies. I’d like to invite any of you who would like to participate in user studies to sign up. We have an email address that we’ve created especially for this convention, and if you would like to participate just send a message -- it doesn’t have to say anything -- to <NFB2014@Google.com>. That is all you have to do. You will then receive an email reply, and at a later date you will be asked to sign up for a user study in your area of the world.

We are also sponsoring research by universities as well as doing research ourselves. We have faculty research awards that we give out, and we have now started giving out awards specifically for research into accessibility.

Another very important thing we’re doing is engaging in the community by being here and by meeting as many people as we can. I want to say that the NFB has been such an important partner to us. The amazing Anne Taylor and team have given us so much feedback; they are an absolute pleasure to work with, and I am extremely grateful.

Let’s move on to some of the tangible improvements. It’s great that we are making the structural improvements, but I also want to show that they are leading to changes that are visible in our products. I’ll just focus on one right now, which is a really important suite of products for education and the workplace. That is Google Drive, which is our file sharing system as well as documents, spreadsheets, slides, and forms. We have been working to increase accessibility support when these products are used within JAWS, NVDA, VoiceOver, and ChromeVox. We’ve done comprehensive testing to make sure that everything is keyboard accessible, and we’ve also put in refreshable Braille display support in Docs and Slides.

One of the big advantages to using these tools over traditional desktop productivity applications, at least for me, is the ability to collaborate easily with other people, and we have recently put in support so that, if you are editing a document and somebody else is editing the same paragraph, then the screen reader will announce that to you so that you can collaborate in real time. We have also made revision history completely accessible so that, if one of the collaborators messes up your document, you can go back and fix it.

The latest version of Drive was built with accessibility from the ground up. This was one of our case studies for this new model of working, and our team, the core Accessibility Engineering Team, worked very closely with Drive engineers, some of whom specialize in accessibility themselves, to correctly design, build, test the product, run user studies, etc. It is being rolled out gradually, as many of our products are. Over the next few weeks people will start getting access to the new Drive in their accounts. So I hope you like it!

The University of Michigan is a university we’ve been working with very closely, and the chief information officer, Laura M. Patterson, said, “The latest improvements in Google Drive and Docs for users of assistive technology are a major step forward and exemplify Google’s commitment to making their products available to all members of our community.”

So we’ve been working across the board on many different products, and I just wanted to give you that one example. I think a very important message though for me to leave you with is that we acknowledge that there is still a long way to go. This is a lot of work, but it is hugely important, and we’ll keep striving for it. Google believes -- and I believe -- that everybody in the world has a right to education and to jobs that are relevant in the information age. We also think they have a right to education and entertainment, and we’re not going to stop until we get there with Google’s products. We want to be part of the solution.

Thank you to all of you for your feedback, your support, and thank you to the NFB and Dr. Maurer for inviting me to come and speak.

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