Google’s Accessibility Message Comes Through Loud and Clear

After Shower

Google announced their Spring Cleaning last week.

Spring-cleaning … in spring!

In this case, they aren’t just spring cleaning, but illustrating a classic case of throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

This isn’t about them closing the Google Flu Vaccine Finder (it’s being replaced with HealthMap Flu Vaccine Finder), or the missing Patent Search page (redirected to and integrated with the main Google search page), the API changes, or most of the other service changes. This is about Picasa. And I am not even much of a Picasa user!


Here’s the story. The past couple years, Google has been getting really hammered in the public media about accessibility, and their lack of responsiveness to concerns of persons with disabilities. This has resulted in lawsuits both against them as well as against schools and businesses that have adopted Google products for their employees or students. In almost all of those cases, the problem has been a service that was not accessible, and people begging Google to make it accessible. They have hired accessibility staff, made accessibility information about their products easier to find, purchased new CAPTCHA tools to potentially make it possible for persons who are blind to get around in their programs. (Unfortunately, the tool for CAPTCHAs was purchased in 2009, but doesn’t seem to have been implemented. Why, I can’t imagine.)

With the spring cleaning, Google announced two changes to the Picasa services.

“We launched a WINE-based version of Picasa for Linux in 2006 as a Google Labs project. As we continue to enhance Picasa, it has become difficult to maintain parity on the Linux version. So today, we’re deprecating Picasa for Linux and will not be maintaining it moving forward. Users who have downloaded and installed older versions of Picasa for Linux can continue to use them, though we won’t be making any further updates.”

“Starting today, the Picasa Web Albums Uploader for Mac and Picasa Web Albums Plugin for iPhoto will no longer be available for download. People can continue to use the uploader and plugin if they are installed. However, we’ll no longer maintain these tools. We strongly encourage people to download Picasa 3.9 for Mac, which includes upload and iPhoto import features.”

On the Accessible Google Group, almost immediately after the announcement, David Hole asked for help either finding an accessible option for accessing the new Picasa or for Google to restore the accessibility they had in the previous Picasa tools. You see, David is vision-impaired (sometimes referred to as blind), and uses Picasa with a screen reader.

The problem for him is this part: “Picasa Web Albums Uploader for Mac and Picasa Web Albums Plugin for iPhoto will no longer be available for download.” This is how David was uploading images, because the Web Albums Uploader tool was accessible with his screen reader. Part two of the problem was this: “We strongly encourage people to download Picasa 3.9 for Mac, which includes upload and iPhoto import features.” Picasa 3.9 is NOT accessible with screen readers. Neither is the web interface for uploading. You can tell just by reading about it.

Upload using Picasa Web Albums:

I am entertained by this line: “After the images upload, hover over a thumbnail to add a caption, zoom, rotate, or delete within the upload screen.” Doesn’t that sound like the instructions were written for someone who is blind? (Yes, that’s sarcasm.)

Actually, to be completely honest, part of the Picasa application was accessible. David tried this on both Macs and Windows, finding that the settings dialog was accessible, although nothing else was. I rather enjoyed his tongue-in-cheek description of the problem.

David Hole: “Though, the settings dialog works on both platforms. But what should I do with the settings dialog when I can’t use the application?”

“What?!” you might ask, “Why does this matter? Picasa is an image sharing and editing tool. Surely a blind person has no use for this.” I am bringing this up because I’ve been asked this very question by well intentioned people, so I thought I’d answer it right away.

First, not everyone who uses a screen reader is blind. Some people who use screen readers have low-vision, meaning partial vision. Others might have dyslexia, meaning they can see, they just can’t read. There are levels of intensity for both of these, meaning a person might have mild or severe vision loss or dyslexia. A person might have neither of these, being able to both see and read, but have cognitive impairments such as short-term to long-term memory encoding challenges, or ADD/ADHD, in which using a screen reader is a support to help them interpret what they are seeing or to remember what they are trying to do.

Second, assuming the screen reader user IS blind, remember that just because a person doesn’t see the images doesn’t mean they can’t use them. Imagine an office has a standard set of images they use in documents, such as headers or logos. A person who is blind can position those in a document without having to see them to know what they are. Likewise, a number of persons who are blind or have vision impairment make videos or tutorials illustrating how they use various computer tools or software packages, and for this they often need to use or share screenshots.

One quite common use of images by persons who are blind is in asking for help. They can grab a screenshot showing where they are stuck using an application, post it online or email it to a friend, and then ask a sighted person how to navigate the part they are having trouble finding. Without the ability to share images, they are largely dependent on waiting for someone to come visit them in person, which may take hours or days. Can you imagine how incredibly frustrating that is? And what a tremendous waste of productive time?

But enough about that. The problem here is much, much, MUCH larger than simply a service that isn’t web-accessible right out of the box. The problem here is that Google has REMOVED accessible options for products that WERE accessible beforehand!! I am struggling to think of a good analogy.

Signs: Mother's Restaurant

Imagine that you have special dietary needs. Perhaps you’re a vegetarian, or diabetic, or gluten free. Friends have invited you to a celebration and want you to participate. They’ve even said you can pick the restaurant! You choose a restaurant you’ve been to many times before and which you know has always been good about accommodating your special diet, and which has delicious options that you enjoy. The day comes, you all make it to the restaurant, you and your friends are seated, the waiter comes and starts taking orders. You didn’t bring your emergency snacks, because you know this place and you trust them. This all takes a while, and the toddler is getting cranky. The person with diabetes has taken their insulin and needs to eat NOW. Eventually, they work around the table to you. And that is when you discover that the menu has changed, they have removed all the options you were able to eat and enjoy, and there is now absolutely nothing, nothing available for you to eat. How would you feel?

Alright, Google, I hear you. The message is that people with disabilities should just STAY HOME. But you know what? I don’t think that answer is going to work out very well, for anyone.

One response to “Google’s Accessibility Message Comes Through Loud and Clear

  1. Pingback: 100,000? 100,000! | Emerging Technologies Librarian

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