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Earlier today I signed an online petition to encourage Google to take a leading role in promoting accessible web development. The petition, launched by a Canadian web developer, suggests that

Google has not taken a strong lead in producing standards compliant, accessible web sites. Although contributing to the W3C and other standards bodies, the many sites that Google produces do limit access to people with disabilities. Given the web presence that Google has, this is enough of a problem, however it is worsened by the fact that Google’s model is copied regularly by web developers looking for an industry standard to follow.

Google Accessibility

A new home for accessibility at Google

Google were impressively quick to respond, posting a link on the petition to a new official blog post entitled A New Home for Accessibility at Google, by accessibility product manager Jonas Klink.


The post announced a new website, www.google.com/accessibility, pulling in all of Google’s existing resources on accessibility. There are some impressive examples of the good things that Google is involved in, such as a new talking RSS reader for Android devices and their incremental improvements to WAI-ARIA support in Google Chrome. This is wonderful stuff to hear about.

Jonas goes on to talk about Google’s approach of “launch early and iterate” – whereby they get things out of the door early on and respond to feedback to improve their products, and encourages that very feedback via a specific accessiblity-bug reporting form.

Given the recent disappointment surrounding the apparent inaccessibility of Google Wave (see WebAIM’s blog post for a review), this all seems very timely. And whilst most of us would recognise that it’s not always possible to make new products 100% accessible right from the outset, especially where people are trying something new and innovative, it would be great to see the subject given higher priority in the development phase of the big players like Google.

The “launch early and iterate” mentality has many great strengths (and I’ve always liked the idea that beta is forever), but perhaps one of the risks of relying on feedback to focus your improvements is that, with a completely inaccessible product, you probably won’t be getting much feedback from the people affected the most – those who are completely locked out. Also, many of the issues from which Google Wave reportedly suffers are obvious issues – things which Google shouldn’t need to rely on feedback to spot. In that respect, cynics might even consider this an attempt to shift the responsibility onto the user, rather than the service provider, which is never a good thing.

For that reason, Google’s response is encouraging but not complete. It would be great to see some more specific commitments to developing accessible products – and not just from Google. We therefore need to keep the pressure up, respond to the invitation for feedback, and, crucially, support those users who are actually affected, helping them to provide the most valuable feedback of all.

Perhaps then we’ll be getting somewhere.

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3 Responses to Google and accessibility – not there yet

  1. Ben Millard says:

    Looks like they’ve treated it as a new PR channel about their useless-but-headline-grabbing activities in accessibility. Who cares if a little-used web browser (Google Chrome) supports a never-used technology (WAI-ARIA)? Projects like that are over-funded geekish sideshows.

    Using efficient, semantic HTML throughout all their web pages is what would actually help users. And I don’t just mean the 1-3 Google sites most people use. I mean all of them.

    They have the ability to write important pages with good HTML. It’s easy to make accessible websites when you hire the right people. So it seems they choose not to do this in nearly all their projects.

    As you and I and all other accessibility professionals know, building accessibility in from the start is the best way to do it. Often it is the only way to do it since managers will rarely authorise major work on a product they thought was already complete.

    Accessibility continues to be led by enthusiastic do-gooders, often working under the radar. It continues to be a somewhat guerilla movement, despite the high-level standards and laws.

    (I’m assuming this form accepts HTML links since the footer says it’s WordPress.)

  2. Thanks for the post.

    I agree with Ben – it is important to get those who understand accessibility involved from the start. It works out cheaper in the long run than trying to retro-fit accessibility, and if the right people are involved then it shouldn’t delay the development process.

    Re Ben’s point about working under the radar… I think that until there is a high profile legal case then few companies will care too much about accessibility.

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