- In the past few years, Google has shifted the way that it thinks about accessibility, moving from grassroots advocacy to codified systems.
- Beyond making all its products accessible, the next big challenge is finding ways for its technology to help disabled people navigate the wider world.
Homework is a drag for any high schooler, but for the class of 2006’s Laura Palmaro Allen, even starting an assignment required a laborious, multistep process.
She and her family had to strip her textbooks from their bindings, run the pages through a high-speed scanner, and digitize them — all before she could use text-to-speech software to actually ingest her history lesson or reading exercise. Allen has limited vision because of a rare eye condition called Choroidal Osteomas: At the time, her school didn’t offer any easier ways to accommodate her.
Fast-forward a decade and a half and Allen now regularly coaches visually impaired kids on far simpler ways to get their work done using near-ubiquitous smartphones or laptops. As a program manager for accessibility for Google‘s Chrome software, she not only gives demos, but spends her days making the company’s products work better for people with all different kinds of disabilities.
While there’s still considerable work to do on existing products, Google sees its next big challenge as exploring how it can use its technology to help make the the wider world — not just the bits and bytes of digital screens — more accessible.
Here’s how the company’s trying to make that happen.
From grassroots advocacy to a cohesive system
Allen first joined Google in a sales role in 2010. She quickly noticed ways that products she used every day, like Docs and Gmail, could be improved for blind or low-vision users like herself.
Back then, there were some Google employees focused on accessibility, but the group was small and scattered. It spurred Allen to take on a “20 percent project,” consulting with different product teams across the company.
By 2013, Google realized that it needed to do better and do more. It launched a centralized Accessibility team to oversee all its products, as well as user research and employee education focused on disabilities.
The crux of that change was that while accessibility-related product decisions used to too-often rely on grassroots advocacy from people like Allen, there’s now a standardized process in place.
“Any new product or piece of a user interface needs to go through a set of accessibility checks and tests,” she said. “In the same way that privacy and security is checked for every product, accessibility is now checked as well.”