I’m glad to see how much effort Google has put recently into making accessibility a key part of its mission when developing its products. They have a whole series of videos available on YouTube about Chrome and Chrome OS Accessibility. And speaking of YouTube, that’s a platform that, despite the annoyance of some ads and it’s wild-west nature, has built in closed-captioning and more. Even last week at Google I/O 19, Google’s annual technology conference, there were key sessions on accessibility.
This is a recent change though. It’s not that in the past Google didn’t care about accessibility, but it wasn’t a top priority. They were focused on making things simple, intuitive, collaborative, and available across platforms. So for a time products weren’t as full featured, but they sure did load quickly and work everywhere. And in their efforts to innovate, even without having disability at the forefront, the created products like Lens, Assistant, or Translate. While those were created for larger markets, they had the byproduct of being useful for adults and students with disabilities as well. I suppose that’s why they occasionally been given a pass.
But it’s worth noting that, because it wasn’t key in the past, Google has fallen behind in terms of innovating for people with unique needs due to their disabilities. While they create wonderful innovations that have the byproduct of being accessible, they haven’t yet fully internalized that automatic and system-wide accessibility can often help everyone and not just those with disabilities. It’s the phenomenon where lowered curbs help people in wheelchairs but it helped those with strollers, suitcase, and carts too. Similarly closed captions help the hearing impaired, but it also helps people in bars, on noisy trains, and at work. So making something accessible for one group actually makes it better for many. That ideology is only beginning to permeate Google.
Even my friend Clay Smith, an incredibly tech savvy educator, noted how he struggled and was disappointed by the lack of innate accessibility that is standard on other platforms or that it required complex shortcuts to initiate (though that’s not uncommon). The fact that I had to write a post about Accessible Add-Ons & Extensions is problematic since these can be glitchy or blocked and accessibility should be built in integrally to the system. With that said, there are some amazing tools that serve the purpose of accessibility that only Google provides and their other offerings continue to improve. Here’s an overview of Google Accessibility.
Chrome OS & Android Accessibility
The best place to start is with Google accessibility in the operating system, because that should work across the board with whatever the user is doing. Now this means we’re focussed on Chrome and Android devices first, but it should be noted that Google’s ability to work across platforms allows users with disabilities to access materials in whatever capacity suits them whether it’s on a wheelchair mounted iPad or speaking to a Google Home device. Generally accessibility features break down into the four categories of vision, hearing, physical, and learning tools, so that’s how we’ll cover them here. The easiest way to access them is through the settings icon (Alt + Shift + S). You will then need to select Advanced and then scroll to the accessibility section. It’s similar on an Android device where you choose accessibility inside settings.
Most visually impaired people have some visual acuity so they may simply benefit from some minor enhancement through like zoom, magnification, enlarged fonts, larger mouse pointers, a high contrast mode., color inversion, or color correction. Those latter modes can help people with color blindness. Soon Android will also have a Dark Theme available.
Another key tool for visually impaired people are screen readers. On Chromebooks there is ChromeVox (Ctrl + Alt Z) and on Android there is Talkback. Talkback can be setup originally by tapping and holding with 2 fingers. These allow for reading all text based screen information and can be quickly navigated through keyboard shortcuts. You also have the ability to adjust the language, pitch, and speed of the voices. Here’s a list of key shortcuts you can use for ChromeVox. As for TalkBack you can navigate information via your touchscreen, linear navigation, screen search, or continuous reading . You then can open apps, search menus, and answer calls with simple left and right swipes and double taps. There is even a ChromeVox learn mode (🔍 + O + K) to help if you’re new to it.
There are also options to select to speak particular text or connect to a braille device. This can be done via plug-on or bluetooth on a Chromebook and allows for adjustments via preferred text conversion(6-dot, 8-dot, etc.). On Android you can connect using BrailleBack which is compatible with several devices.
The accessible features for hearing impairments are fairly standard with adjustable captions and mono audio. Right now Android phones are compatible for other uses with certain hearing aid models. There are additional apps that help as well.
One of the most exciting new concepts from Google is Live Relay which uses on-device speech recognition and text-to-speech conversion to allow the phone to listen and speak on people’s behalf while they type.
For people with dexterity impairments there can be manual dexterity issues, tremors, speaking issues, and issues with general physical movement. The Accessibility Menu in Android was created to give easy access to common actions with large buttons. On Chromebook, students may find it easier to navigate the on-screen keyboard with swipe typing or handwritten text.
Users can enable dictation ((🔍 + D) o type with their voice and it’s conveniently located with the on-screen keyboard too. The tap and drag function and touchpad gestures can be adjusted as well. Students may also need automatic click to select if pressing is difficult or sticky keys if students move slowly or struggle to hold down two keys simultaneously like Shift for capitalization. Soon there will also be Accessibility Timeouts for Android which will allow more time for inputting information. Right now Project Diva is a research effort that makes Google Assistant more accessible for people with disabilities. There is also Project Euphonia which is using AI to improve computer’s’ abilities to understand and transcribe a diverse set of speech patterns, including impaired speech.
While you can currently connect some Bluetooth switches like the Blue 2 to the Chromebook, it doesn’t have screen scanning set to make it very useful. For those with greater challenges, Google offers Voice Access and Switch Access on Android devices. They recommend Google Now for Voice Access, but I find it to be glitchy, but OK Google is very reliable. The Voice Access and Google Assistant continue to get better and the capabilities of going between applications is incredible. It layers numbers on actionable items to be spoken. It now supports new languages as well. The switch access can be set up for external switches or the buttons on the Android device. One issue though is that it requires navigating the screen to set it up. They have updated their text editor for switches to make that process easier though. Check out the switch access community to learn more.
Many of the visual and speech tools overlap with the browser like zooming or Select to Speak. One notable extra is translating pages. When you come across a page written in a language you don’t understand, you can use Chrome to translate the page.
- On your computer, open Chrome.
- Go to a webpage written in another language.
- At the top, click Translate.
- Chrome will translate the webpage this one time.
Here is the NYC Department of Education’s Chrome Accessibility Guide to give you a full overview.
Accessibility in Apps
There are some apps that are created completely with access in mind and other apps for everyone that have some built-in accessibility features. Here we’ll look at both.
Lens now provides more visual answers by using AR to overlay useful information and content onto the things you see. You can look at a dish and get the recipe and connect to locations on maps. It can even identify information about any media in front of you. It will also automatically convert text in the world to be accessible by screen readers, be translated, or find definitions. It’s another example of a broad Google tool also providing specific usefulness for people with disabilities.
Lookout is a great app that lets visually impaired users “see” what’s happening in their world with the eyes of the camera. It can read barcodes, text on a sign, tell you the color of your shirt, or what kind of dollar bill you’re holding. It can even work offline which is amazing.
Some decent apps for the hearing impaired include Sound Amplifier and Live Transcribe. Sound Amplifier does just what it says, makes the ambient sound louder, but one problem with the sound amplifier app though is that it only works with wired headphones and not hearing aids. Live Transcribe and Live Caption though are very promising with Transcribe able to convert conversations and the latter able to convert any spoken words on your device even in personal videos or podcasts. They’ve made it better too with less distracting fonts and colors adjustable text, pausing, and type back capabilities. These are still being tested though.
Google also has a focus on enabling Morse code systems linked to GBoard and Morse keyboards. Watch Tania’s story below for more details.
Several of Google’s own apps have built-in accessibility as well.
- Assistant: While the assistant was created for the convenience of all users, the ability to get information and control various home devices with your voice provides a valuable utility for people with visual and physical impairments. It can also be connected to a smart display and screen readers for added accessibility.
- Docs: This includes Voice Typing, translation, and HyperDocs which allow for multi-modal and differentiated learning.
- Captions: These can be set up in YouTube and now while you present in Slides (Ctrl + Shift + c).
- Differentiation: In Google Classroom you can send assignments to multiple classrooms or create differentiated assignments for individual groups of students. In Google Forms you can create differentiated pathways where students who get incorrect responses receive remediation with a helpful video or guides to remind them.
- Translation: Google Translate 100+ languages using your camera, voice, or handwriting. You can even have conversations with people in other languages. Soon to come is the Translatotron which will even mach original speech
- Exploration: Google Maps: now has wheelchair accessible directions routes. Expeditions lets students explore areas via virtually to avoid physical obstacles. And Tour Creator allows teachers to make their own VR experiences for situations like travel training
Accessible Add-Ons and Extensions
As I said the best accessibility is that which is built in, but here are ways to expand the capabilities. You can find a more complete list of accessible add-ons and extensions that are available, but here are some of the most useful.
- BeeLine Reader: for struggling readers, breaks down the text by colors for long passages
- Read & Write: the free for teachers all-in-one literacy accessibility tool that brings speech-to-text, text reading, focus screens, definitions, picture symbols, and more
- Kaizena: spoken/video student feedback
- LucidChart Diagrams: help students visualize their learning.
- Pear Deck: in addition to formative assessment on your slides, Pear Deck provides for differentiation through student grouping and a variety of assessments
As you can see Google provides access to a variety of tools that improve accessibility for users and they continue to improve in their efforts. I hope it remains a key focus for their design team and the areas that are currently lacking get addressed. If their ideas like Project Diva, Project Euphonia, Lens, Live Transcribe, Lookout, and Google Assistant improvements are any indication, there are many great accessible innovations on the horizon even if the present needs some work.