Goo-Goo for Google, but Are the Blind and Visually Impaired Being Left Behind?

The following is a guest post by Laine Amoureux. Laine is employed as an assistive technology specialist at the Idaho Commission for the Blind and Visually Impaired. She has served the state of Idaho for seven years. She recently obtained a M.S. in Assistive Technology Studies and Human Services from California State University, Northridge. Laine is an avid consumer of screen reading and magnification technologies, and best of all, you will soon be able to enjoy her contributions as part of the new SeroTalk Podcast team!

72 of the top 100 Universities in the U.S. and 7 of the 8 Ivy League schools were using Google Web Apps for productivity according to a 2012 “Official Google Blog”. Further 1 in 5 U.S. School districts are taking advantage of the Google platform, including web apps, according to a 2013 article. In addition the Google Blog also reported in 2012 that 5 million businesses, worldwide are taking advantage of Google Web Apps for business. Telework/commute opportunities are on the rise, according to a 2014 NY Times article and guess what platform lends itself perfectly to virtual meetings and collaboration? You guessed it, Google.

Why is everyone, at least in the main-stream, so goo-goo for Google? Could it be the incredible price tag of FREE for individual consumers? The incredibly low prices for educational institutions and businesses? The decrease in employee hours focused on information technology “IT) as a result of Googles’ simple deployment system?

Why are so many blind and visually impaired consumers complaining about Google? Why aren’t more blind and visually impaired users using them? Are individuals who utilize access technology being left out/overlooked/forgotten?

Instant Gratification

Instant gratification cannot be overlooked as a contributing factor to the widespread adoption of Google Web Apps across personal, educational and professional environments. Google leverages HTML 5 and Web 2.0 to create a dynamic virtual environment that provides instant communication and collaboration. Google has also implemented design attributes that make the interface easy to use, and learn to use. Little to no time is required to learn to use the apps.

As I chat with AT specialists in the field of visual impairment and blindness I am commonly asked to share tips and tricks for using new web pages. The sentiment expressed in many conversations is that web pages don’t behave like they used to, and users never quite know what to expect. Sometimes users can activate or interact with an item one way, and the next time they encounter the same type of element they must activate or interact with it differently.

The Google Gmail Web App is often used to demonstrate the specialist’s frustration and concern. It also tends to send the message that, in fact, individuals who use access technology to interact with the web are being left out. Some AT users, and specialists, will argue that it is how the web page was created, others will argue that it is the fault of access technology manufactures falling two steps behind.

Why is that? Why are so many in the visually impaired and blind community experiencing so much difficulty with inconsistent web pages? The simple answer is that not all web pages are created equal.

HTML offers developers many tools to render a web page. Each designer has preferences regarding which features work best, and how they should work. Many web designers are unaware or unconcerned with the fact that there are people on the web accessing their content with alternative tools like magnifiers and screen readers.

HTML 5, one of the tools used to render Google Web Apps in a browser, has introduced new elements that can be used by designers to render web pages. The new elements are dynamic and interactive in nature. Some of the elements are put in place, and when interacted with/activated information changes on the page. That type of activity goes unnoticed by screen readers, and for individuals using high levels of magnification the activity may also be missed, as it occurs outside of the field of view. This is one reason AT specialists report that Gmail is one of the most difficult environments.

The best resource for web designers to gain a greater understanding, and to find guidelines for using all of the great tools and elements available to them in HTML is, of course, the World Wide Web Consortium. However, that does not solve the immediate problem of using existing web pages and helping new users learn to use the increasingly chaotic web. Imagine the surprise when the tip that I give to AT specialists who requests tips and tricks for using and teaching Internet concepts and how to handle complex web pages is to use Google Web Apps.

All arguments related to how and why individuals using access technology being “left out” or “forgotten” and complaints about web designers have some validity. However, they are learning to use and implement new tools, they’re not going to get it right the first time, and if they aren’t provided with information about the problem they can’t fix it. The manufactures of access technology also play a role. They are, admittedly, one or two steps behind the main-stream. Again however, cut them some slack. They are still learning too, and what are the odds that the access technology manufactures are better than the web designers? They are going to get it wrong the first time too. If you were running before you were crawling, by all means, jump into the fray and fix this discrepancy for us.

Some Thoughts on Chrome

The accessibility features in Chrome OS can transfer, in some respects, to the Web Apps displayed in any web browser. At the time of this writing there are 3rd party tools available as well, however they are not discussed here. For anyone interested, NVDA with Firefox appears, at the time of this writing, to be the best combination for accessing the Google apps environment, and provides new users with the most consistent experience.

In Google Web Apps, prior to enabling any accessibility features, users are already at a large usability advantage, if they must interpret and work with information in this way. The interfaces are “clean.” There is not a lot of meaning conveyed in the layout, but what meaning is conveyed by placement of web edit fields, or text changes, there is white space surrounding the item. This allows magnification users to clearly find, and read, text or view images, with fewer distractions. Google also tends to use simple images to convey meaning through pictures. For instance, one gear to represent “settings” rather than a complex, colorful, interwoven image of multiple gears.

The high contrast mode, that can be enabled in Google Chrome browser (on Chrome books) or on the Android tablets, can aid in reducing glare. In turn, for some users, this reduces eye pain and fatigue and allows users to spend more time on the computer than they might otherwise. Unlike high contrast in Windows or Mac OS, I found that all content is displayed in contrasting colors. In Windows, for example, links remain dark blue, but the background is black. In that environment links become indistinguishable from the back-ground. This did not appear to happen when high contrast was enabled in Google Chrome, on a Google ChromeBook.

The experience of the ChromeVox TTS extension is highly variable. Variables that impact a user’s experience include, but are not limited to: ChromeVox developer flaws, flaws in the HTML, the ability for one to tolerate the TTS synthesizer, previous screen reader experience; ability/willingness to learn new methods of navigation/interaction; ability to memorize key strokes; the platform on which the browser is running; and the user’s ability to conceptualize based strictly on textual information.

The magnifier extension in Chrome, on the ChromeBook is nothing too exciting. It falls in line with most magnifiers. You can select full, docked or lens magnification. The image begins to pixelate around 7 power, which is consistent with other screen magnifiers. The user can control the level through key strokes, but to make more advanced setting changes, like the type, the user must enter the accessibility settings. This is inconvenient for users who need to change the visual appearance frequently.

A Side Note on Magnifiers

I want to quickly touch on one of the most innovative magnifiers I’ve encountered. It just so happens to come on the Google Nexus 7 Android Kit Kat tablet. I know, a little off topic, but I feel the need to share since I’m on Google.

The user must enable the feature in accessibility before the short cuts will work, however, once enabled, the user has simple, one-touch access to the type and level of magnification. The user can triple tap one finger to enable full magnification, increase and decrease magnification with the “pinch to zoom” gesture, and is provided with an automatic switch to 0 magnification when a new page loads. This provides the user the opportunity to get an idea of the overall content, gather some of the contextual information provided by layout, and to select where he or she would like to see in greater detail.

IN addition the user can triple tap and hold to magnify only the area under the finger. This is similar to the lens type of magnification offered by most desktops. To the best of my knowledge this is a feature only available in Android. This allows a user to gather contextual information, focus in on specific details without losing other reference points.

Final Thoughts

One factor that is sometimes missed in the accessibility finger pointing game is us, the AT specialists. Yes, I’m including myself. Often AT specialists are self-taught in the technologies they use and instruct on. When providing 35 hours of direct service to consumers each week, with the other 5 spent on preparations and report writing there isn’t much time to try to figure out something new. The concepts behind the Google Web App interfaces, and how the access technologies can interact with the interfaces, is significantly different than most are accustomed to in a traditional PC environment, either Windows or Apple. I’m guilty of dismissing something as a possible tool for professional, educational or instructional use because it took more than 5 minutes to figure out. So, again, we’re back to that instant gratification thing.

For the AT specialists it may not be instant gratification, as much as it is ease of use, or learning to use, the tool. As I’ve read more on the learnability and heuristics of text-to-speech I’ve come to believe that individuals who use TTS, or high levels of video magnification, to access content are unaware of contextual information provided by formatting, layout, font size etc. As a result these users synthesize the information differently (i.e. smallest detail to big picture). As a result the learnability factor of Google Web App interfaces, rendered with HTML5, often take more time to figure out. They are however consistent, and provide a solid environment in which to teach people about the dynamic HTML 5 elements, that will hopefully transfer to using other web pages. It is much like using Microsoft Word to help reinforce, or teach, Windows concepts.

To aid fellow AT specialists, and access technology users, I have committed to learning as much as possible about the Google Web App environment, and want to share that information. If we are not careful we will be the reason our consumers cannot compete in education and employment environments. This is not an easy under taking. I am still learning, so cut me some slack too, I’m going to get some things wrong to start, and of course the web pages, and other tools are likely to change as well…

About Joe Orozco

Joe Orozco is the Communications Director for Serotek Corp. He is also Managing Director for AlphaComm Strategies. When he isn't writing web pages, proposals, and online marketing materials for social and commercial entrepreneurs, he enjoys reading and writing about technology, financial management, and strategic planning. Follow Joe on Twitter @ScribblingJoe
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