Google and Accessibility. What’s the plan?

March 6, 2012

Topics: Accessibility.

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.

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4 Comments on “Google and Accessibility. What’s the plan?”

  1. Google’s halting progress on the accessibility front also perfectly illustrates our accessibility mantra about the the difficulty of adding accessibility after the fact — even for some of the best software engineers in the business. Google Apps accessibility is still struggling at the “technical accessibility” level, nowhere near the “functional accessibility” level. It is not yet a practical software suite for many users with disabilities. It is just too painful to use. The interface is maddeningly inconsistent when used with a screen reader. There is no sure footing. A blizzard of hot keys and proprietary Google tools are not a solution. But it is the fastest — and at this point the most viable — strategy they seem to have right now. I agree that it would be terrible if these “emergency” solutions were interpreted as best practices.

  2. Hi, John – thanks for taking the time to comment. And also thanks for providing those two links – I had seen the report on Google Documents, and had intended to include a link to it here…but, obviously, forgot about it.

    The comparison to a “best viewed in” scenario is apt – very appreciated! (Also goes along with the focus on non-sighted users.)

  3. Joe,
    I couldn’t agree more. It’s not a huge leap from this type of “solution” to “Best Viewed In…” and all that that entails. Less than a year ago I had a Google Rep suggest that the best solution for non-sighted students to use GoogleDocs would be to use a ChromeBook, with the rep totally failing to understand that this would impose on the student that they carry 2 laptops with them: 1 for GoogleDocs and 1 for everything else. Imagine…

    The other issue I have is that, for now, it appears that primarily all efforts are being focused on non-sighted users (the exception here being Google’s progress with captioning, which is actually not too bad).

    Two important reports for those interested in this topic, that you may not yet have seen:
    ATHEN Report on the Accessibility of Google Documents
    ATHEN Report on the Accessibility of GMail and Google Calendar

  4. In order to provide more results about A11y and Google, I send you a link At CSUN12, il presented a session called “PDF (Portable Document Format) : accessibility and SEO”.

    I discuss about some a11y guidelines and their impact on PDF files, indexed and searched by Google.