RealTime IT News

Is Google Shutting Out The Blind?

Accessibility activists charge that search goliath Google shuts blind people out of many of its services.

"Google was the straw that broke the camel's back," said Joanmarie Diggs, curriculum director for Carroll Tech, a program that teaches disabled people workarounds for barriers to their use of technology. "How many cool things can Google come up with that block people who are blind?"

The problem is the "captcha," the distorted letters that users must decipher and type into a box before they register for a service.

Google uses captchas during registration for the many betas and non-search offerings, such as Blogger.com and Gmail. Captcha is an acronym for "completely automated public Turing test to tell computers and humans apart." Developed by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University, they're used to separate the humans from bots in Web site registrations, preventing large-scale automated registrations that can then be used to send spam.

But captchas are gotchas for the blind.

Many vision-impaired computer users employ screen readers, software applications that convert text and graphics -- as long as the graphics have descriptive "alt" tags -- into audio. The speech simulator can read menus and the names or descriptions of navigational elements such as buttons and links. But screen readers are stymied by captchas.

Google is working on it, said Marissa Mayer, director of consumer products. "We are planning on releasing some alternatives in the next one to two months that make our current captchas more compatible with screen readers, and we're looking into audio captchas," Mayer said.

Web usability expert Jakob Nielsen isn't a fan of captchas. "It annoys everybody," he said. "If you do need them," he said, "the way to [make sure the site is accessible to those using screen readers] is to provide two alternative modalities, both sight and sound. Click a button and it will play an audio clip. That's the simplest and easiest way."

This is the alternate that MSN provides for those who can't see the captcha used in registration for services, including Hotmail and MSN Spaces. A speaker icon appears next to the captcha; the screen reader will say, "audio symbol. I can't see this image." Users can click on it to hear the captcha text read aloud.

Microsoft has a well-developed accessibility initiative, including its Accessible Technology Group. The company maintains a Web site that includes tutorials, guides and information about third-party assistive hardware and software. It publishes "Accessibility Update," an electronic newsletter, has a partner program for assistive technology vendors and provides an automated way for developers to test assistive technology against Microsoft products.

It also incorporated more than 20 options for Internet Explorer 6.0 to make it easier for those with impaired vision. For example, users can change text and background colors of pages for better visibility, increase the font sizes, and change the size of or remove buttons on the toolbar.

Yahoo offers a less immediate alternative. Users who click on a "more information" link next to the captcha are taken to a box explaining how captchas prevent bots from automatically registering millions of e-mail addresses.

There's also white-on-white text that a sighted user won't see but a screen reader will. It says, "Visually impaired or blind users: We can help you register. So that a customer care representative can contact you, please provide your phone number in addition to your required e-mail address when you contact us by pasting this URL into your browser."

A Yahoo spokesperson didn't know whether Yahoo had an accessibility team or any special initiatives, and Yahoo executives weren't available for comment.

As Diggs put it, "Yahoo has text if you happen to be visually impaired, you can fill out this form and we'll call you. And they actually do. MSN has an audio version, but if you're hearing impaired too, you're out of luck. Google has no alternative. You have to get sighted assistance to pass the test."

The alternatives are far from ideal, said Darrell Shandrow, a technology consultant and editor of the Blind Access Journal blog.

"You need three or four options," he said, "maybe visual, audio, a customer service option and a way that somebody using a relay service could also use it." Moreover, the customer service rep should call back within a couple minutes, he said, not in hours or days.

"Everybody should at least make an attempt."

According to Mayer, Google has an accessibility team that's part of the user interface group. But Google hadn't made this a priority. "Generally, when we release a product, we let user feedback dictate our priorities. We hadn't received many e-mails discussing this as an issue, and that's one reason it slipped under our radar."

Shandrow said he's petitioned Google for seven months or so and even wrote letters to CEO Eric Schmidt. "The feedback goes into a black hole somewhere, and there's no response." He added that customer service for blogger.com, Google's free blogging service, did respond in four or five business days and facilitated registration.

But Mayer said that the team received less than one e-mail a month about the captcha issue -- and hadn't received that many overall. "We're aware of the issue now, so we've escalated the priority, despite the lack of feedback," she said.

Jay Leventhal, senior resource specialist for the American Foundation for the Blind, admitted that Web site barriers aren't as big an accessibility issue as physical barriers. "I think fewer people are aware of this problem than of other [problems] that aren't computer-based," Leventhal said.

According to the foundation, approximately 10 million Americans are blind and vision-impaired and 1.5 million use computers.

"A lot of people still don't use a computer, especially people with disabilities," Leventhal said. "As an organization, we want [companies] to use accessible alternatives. At the moment, there aren't that many. I don't even know of a place where Google suggests an alternative."

Sight-impaired Google fans can expect that to change within a month, Mayer said.

"I'd anticipate we'd have a release that improves this issue in the next month or so," she said, "and one that really solves the problem, hopefully, in the month after that."