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Making Search Accessible to Visually Impaired Users

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Until recently, the needs of visually impaired users wasn't a top priority for search engines. That's changed, but there are still issues that need to be resolved, according to people with vision challenges.

Earlier this year, Google released an accessible search for visually impaired users, a personal project of Google engineer Dr. T.V. Raman. The move by Google to release the project came on the heels of Google changing from the visual-based security device called "CAPTCHA," which requires users to type the letters that they see in an image.

With its accessible search, Google added an audio component in response to online petitions and outcry from visually-impaired users. With the CAPTCHA system, blind users were not able to access many Google services, such as GMail, Blogger, Google Groups, or a Google account, as the visual challenge kept them from participating.

Dr. Raman comes from a background of advocating standards-based programming and structured data on the web.

Raman says, "For accessibility, clean, well-structured semantic markup is the best thing you could hope to have. The three key phrases 'clean,' 'well-structured' and 'semantic' are all important in the above. Adherence to specs definitely makes checking easier. I believe that Web sites creating clean, well-formed XHTML content will, over time, find it significantly easier to serve all their users better—simply because their content will be easier to manage and evolve."

Google's accessible search was received positively by the blind community, yet many low-vision users took issue with the tagline of "search for the visually impaired." Why? It turns out that many sites are accessible for blind users, yet the same amount of accessibility is not available to low-vision users, who require different methods in order to access the content.

Creating accessible web sites

The main obstacle to creating accessible web sites is that needs vary widely—there is no single "fix" that will make a site accessible to all users. Because of the varied nature of access, the multiple types of assistive technology, and multiple user needs, sites must cater to a host of diverse combinations.

For example, consider Lee, who has albinism, a condition of "low-vision." She prefers to view yellow or white text on a black background for added contrast. Google's accessibility search was not helpful to her, as it was obvious that it was initially created for blind users. However, she is a Google search fan. She would like the ability to store her Google preferences through a cookie so that her background and text color preferences would be automatic.

Another user, Glenda, is currently writing a book about overcoming cerebral palsy and building a life for herself. She uses a combination of assistive technologies to interact online. Her main input device is a keyboard, on a non-slip mat. She also uses a joystick to control the cursor movements, and word prediction software that predicts the words that she is typing, which saves on keystrokes.

Glenda does not have any vision impairments, but she relies on interfaces that are clear, simple, and have a consistent design, and that have features that enable her to input information easily and do not distract her by moving or flashing elements.

Chris is blind, but is able to use the internet and related technologies faster than most sighted persons thanks to JAWS, a software utility that reads information on the screen using synthesized speech.

He says, "What is 'usable' to people with varying levels of vision impairment has hardly been studied and those of us interested in doing so are few and far between. So, in my opinion, moving from 'accessible' to 'usable' will take another decade."

Continued development at Google

Google continues to enhance its accessible search tool. It has recently been improved to give blind users access to the same advanced search features that are available in the regular Google search.

Dr. Raman, who has been intimately involved with building speech-enabled interfaces for many years, sees the Google accessible search as "a good first step in delivering the most accessible information online" and says that Google will continue to develop ways to be more accessible.

He welcomes any user feedback, as "we get better when we know what works for the user and welcome feedback on everything from improving taglines to adding new features."

Dr, Raman feels that the impact of the accessible search will go beyond a simple service and one that will affect the development of the web. "I hope that as we continue to improve accessible search, we'll have a long-term positive impact on increasing awareness of the need to create clean, accessible web content," he says.

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