Google Makes Apps More Accessible

Improved support for screen readers makes Google Apps more inviting to the blind.

Thomas Claburn, Editor at Large, Enterprise Mobility

September 11, 2014

3 Min Read

Google's 10 Big Bets On The Future

Google's 10 Big Bets On The Future

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An estimated 60% of Internet users exhibit what one online advertising firm calls "banner blindness," the inability to remember the last ad they saw. But for millions of Internet users, actual blindness presents a far more pressing problem.

Google, which dominates the online advertising market, has been working to make its cloud services (which aren't directly ad supported) easier to use for people with vision impairment. Over the past year, the company has been deploying accessibility improvements in Google Apps.

In June, Google rolled out a new version of Drive with better keyboard accessibility, support for zooming and high contrast mode, and improved screen reader compatibility. On Thursday, the company extended its improvements to Google Apps editors, specifically Docs, Drawings, Forms, Sheets, and Slides.

"Whether you're backing up a file in Drive or crunching some numbers in Sheets, it should be easy to bring your ideas to life using Google's tools," Alan Warren, vice president of engineering, said in a blog post. "But if you're blind or have low vision, you may need to rely on assistive technologies such as screen readers and Braille displays -- and that can make working in the cloud challenging."

Google has made it easier to use a screen reader with Docs, Drawings, Forms, Sheets, and Slides. It has enhanced text-to-voice verbalization, and it has improved keyboard navigation controls.

The company has added support for alt-text associated with images in Docs. It has improved keyboard editing of charts and pivot tables in Sheets, and it has extended screen reader support to spelling suggestions, comments, and revision history. It has added the ability to search menus and perform actions in Docs, Sheets, and Slide, and it is planning to add this search capability to Forms and Sheets soon.

Google's accessibility enhancements also extend to collaboration: In Docs, Sheets, Slides, or Drawings, screen readers will announce when people join or leave a document and will play sounds to indicate the presence of collaborative editing.

Finally, Google has modified Docs, Slides, and Drawings to read and enter text using a Braille display, and it is offering callback phone support for people with Google Drive accessibility questions.

The National Federation for the Blind (NFB) estimates that as many as than 10 million Americans are blind or visually impaired. The organization also notes that education and employment opportunities for the blind depend on the accessibility of computer and Internet technology. Neither the NFB nor Google had figures on the number of people in the US using screen readers.

In an email, an NFB spokesperson said that, though the organization has been promoting awareness of accessibility issues with some success, accessibility remains far from universal. "The National Federation of the Blind is engaged in many efforts to change this, and litigation is only one strategy (usually the last resort) that we employ; others focus on providing direct training and assistance to those seeking to make their websites and applications more accessible."

The NFB sued the online document service Scribd in July because its documents are not accessible to blind people.

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About the Author(s)

Thomas Claburn

Editor at Large, Enterprise Mobility

Thomas Claburn has been writing about business and technology since 1996, for publications such as New Architect, PC Computing, InformationWeek, Salon, Wired, and Ziff Davis Smart Business. Before that, he worked in film and television, having earned a not particularly useful master's degree in film production. He wrote the original treatment for 3DO's Killing Time, a short story that appeared in On Spec, and the screenplay for an independent film called The Hanged Man, which he would later direct. He's the author of a science fiction novel, Reflecting Fires, and a sadly neglected blog, Lot 49. His iPhone game, Blocfall, is available through the iTunes App Store. His wife is a talented jazz singer; he does not sing, which is for the best.

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