Responding to critics, Google makes Drive, Docs suite more accessible for the blind

The improvements include smoother interaction with third-party screen readers and more keyboard navigation capabilities

Google has added features to Drive and the Docs apps suite to make the products easier to use for people who are blind or have poor eyesight, an issue over which the company has been criticized.

The improvements include smoother interaction with third-party screen readers for better text-to-speech performance and expanded keyboard navigation capabilities. The enhanced products include the Drive storage service, the Docs word processor, Slides presentation app, Sheets spreadsheet software, Drawings tool and Forms creator.

For example, Docs now recognizes descriptive text in images, so that screen readers can verbalize those descriptions, and there are new keyboard commands for editing Sheets charts and pivot tables, Google said on Thursday in a blog post.

In Docs, Sheets and Slides specifically, screen readers will be able to relay more elements from the documents, including spelling suggestions, comments and revision history logs, and they will alert users when collaborators enter or leave a document, and when they are performing co-editing actions.

There is now also support in Docs, Slides and Drawings for Braille displays so that users can read and enter text. "With Braille support, your screen reader's settings for character echoing are automatically followed. Braille also dramatically reduces the lag between when you press a key and when it's announced by your screen reader, and improves the announcements of punctuation and whitespace," wrote Alan Warren, a Google vice president of engineering, in the post.

Google has also added what it describes as "step by step" guides for using screen readers and Braille displays with its applications. The company will also provide phone support for Drive-related accessibility questions. Users can request a call at the Drive support site.

Google, which has a new site devoted to its accessibility efforts, also posted a YouTube video where some of the new features are demonstrated.

About two years ago, Laura Patterson, the CIO of the University of Michigan, blasted Google, saying its Google Apps suite lacked sufficient accessibility features for students with disabilities, such as visual and learning impairments.

As a result, the university, which signed a 10-year deal to use Google Apps, delayed at the time the mandatory adoption of the suite by its students and faculty, according to reports from The Michigan Daily, the university's newspaper. The Docs suite is included in Google Apps, along with other components, like Gmail.

However, in Thursday's Google blog post, Patterson is quoted as saying that the "latest improvements in Google Drive and Docs for users of assistive technology are a major step forward and exemplify Google's commitment to making their products available to all members of our community."

Google has pledged to continue making progress in accessibility for its products.

Juan Carlos Perez covers enterprise communication/collaboration suites, operating systems, browsers and general technology breaking news for The IDG News Service. Follow Juan on Twitter at @JuanCPerezIDG.

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