At CSUN 12, I attended an interesting but somewhat disconcerting demonstration of Google’s progress on making their Google Docs suite accessible. The presentation was by Anne Taylor from the National Foundation of the Blind and Jeff Harris, the product manager for Google Docs.

They clearly agreed on one core point: that Google Docs was definitely not ready for users with disabilities. So, the demonstration was more a show of the range of changes which Google has been adding to make their Docs suite accessible.

On the surface, this is great: Google, a major web apps producer, is working very hard at making their products accessible.

But I’ll hope you’ll pardon me if I don’t consider this a reason to party.

What the demonstration really showed me was method of working with accessibility which seemed to amount to reinventing the wheel — doing whatever they wanted to implement a method for their software, then doubling their efforts so that they can use that method and make it accessible.

That Google is working to add essentially their own accessibility API (Application Programming Interface) layer between their apps and a screen reader is only mildly disturbing to me. They have the resources to do this, and I do believe, on the basis of the demonstration, that their cloud office suite will eventually be accessible.

What really concerns me is the example they’re setting.

In the CSUN session on Perfect Accessibility, Henny Swan raised a question about providing examples. The specific subject was in respect to organizations with an international reputation in accessibility, not an organization with a generally international reputation for web expertise; but I think that the point applies.

Google, while not particularly known for their accessibility expertise, is well known for pushing the envelope in web development. They build cloud software which can do some very cool things. What it does not do is follow anything apparently similar to standardized methodology — and because of that, as an example, their work is grossly problematic.

I worry that talented developers will look at Google’s methods and see them as a great example — when they may not also have the resources to build an entire accessibility abstraction layer between their ideas and assistive technology.

Now, there are some advantages to Google’s system, as well. Because they are devoting these kinds of resources to accessibility, they’re not only aiming at the possibility of using the Google Docs suite; they’re aiming at a great user experience for users with disabilities.

Nonetheless, a truly accessible interface with Google Docs is still a significant ways in the future. The best experiences currently are either using NVDA with Firefox or Chrome with ChromeVox and JAWS or VoiceOver.