Google Shutting Out The Blind?
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
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
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,"
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
that includes tutorials, guides and information about
third-party assistive hardware and software. It publishes
"Accessibility Update," an
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
"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
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,"
According to the foundation, approximately 10 million
Americans are blind and vision-impaired and 1.5 million
"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
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."