Google's self-driving cars get the headlines — and they should, because self-driving cars may save lives and significantly increase passenger safety. The cars offer freedom and mobility for people unable to drive, such as people who are blind or low-vision. Unfortunately, the cars remain an experimental project, not a mass market product (as of the time of this writing).
Yet there are Google tools available now to help blind or low-vision people use the web and Google Apps. These tools include customized settings, keyboard shortcuts, and browser plug-ins. (If you're using a Google Apps account, an Administrator may need to configure a few settings to allow access to some of the following options.)
Chrome: Enlarge text
You may already know that pressing [Ctrl] and [+] together enlarges text, while [Ctrl] and [-] decreases the font size. (To be complete, [Ctrl] and  resets the font to the default size.)
Default font — and font size — also may be changed. Here's how:
- Go to the Chrome menu bar (the three lines in the upper right corner)
- Click Settings
- Select Show Advanced Settings
- Move to the Web Content section, where you can adjust the default font, font size (from "very small" to "very large"), and page zoom levels (from 25% to 500%)
Gmail: Themes, Shortcuts, and View
Gmail offers a high-contrast theme that may be helpful to some users. Follow these steps to switch to this theme:
- Click the sprocket (cogwheel) icon in the upper right corner of Gmail to access the Settings menu
- Choose Themes from the drop-down items
- Select High Contrast Theme
Note: If you use a Google Apps account, your Administrator controls your ability to select your own theme. To enable this, an Administrator must log in at admin.google.com, choose Google Apps, Gmail, and then click the Advanced options. In the End User Settings section, the option "Let users choose their own themes" must be checked.
Gmail's HTML view offers a streamlined user interface that proficient screenreader users might prefer. Some low-vision users may also find the interface easier to view. Try the HTML view anytime at http://mail.google.com/mail/h/.
Gmail, along with many other Google Apps, supports keyboard shortcuts. Press the [C] key when in Gmail to compose a new email, [U] to refresh the message list, and [K] to move to the next message. Google provides a complete list of Gmail shortcuts online.
Follow these steps to enable keyboard shortcuts:
- Select the sprocket menu in the upper right corner
- Choose Settings
- Click the General tab
- Select Keyboard shortcuts on.
Note: Keyboard shortcuts work in standard view, but not in HTML view.
Calendar: Agenda view
Much like Gmail, Google Calendar works with screenreader software. It works best when set to list events in Agenda mode. To change the setting, select the sprocket to access calendar Settings. Locate the setting for Default View and change it to Agenda from the drop-down menu.
ChromeVox: Google's free Chrome screenreader extension
Many low-vision or blind people rely on the JAWS screenreader by Freedom Scientific, which is software for Windows Home or Professional systems. JAWS works with many software applications, including Chrome. Within Chrome, many Google Apps also work with JAWS.
For Chrome users, Google's free ChromeVox extension provides screenreader capabilities. On Windows and Mac OS systems, install the extension from the Chrome Web Store. Chromebook users activate — or de-activate — ChromeVox by holding the [Ctrl], [Alt], and [Z] keys down simultaneously (it comes pre-installed as part of the system). Windows users toggle ChromeVox by holding [Shift] and [Alt], then tapping the [A] key twice, while Mac users hold the [ctrl] and [command] keys and tap the [A] key twice.
With ChromeVox active, you press two ChromeVox keys along with various other keys to navigate. On a Chromebook, the ChromeVox keys are the [Shift] and [Search] keys. For example, to navigate down a page to the next section, hold the two ChromeVox keys down at the same time as the down arrow key. The [-] and [+] keys zoom down to and up from page object levels, which is useful when navigating lists or word details. For example, you can zoom down to the letter level to have ChromeVox read a word letter by letter.
ChromeVox also offers a Sticky mode, which functions much like a Shift lock key: it locks the ChromeVox keys on, so you don't need to press the two ChromeVox keys each time — you just press the individual navigation or feature keys. On a Chromebook, with ChromeVox active, press the [Search] key quickly twice to toggle Sticky mode.
On Windows, the ChromeVox documentation suggests that the ChromeVox keys are [Ctrl] and [Alt], and that pressing the [Ctrl] key twice activates Sticky mode. However, these keys did not work on my Windows 7 system. Instead, I activated Sticky mode by pressing the [Insert] key twice. After that, ChromeVox navigation worked as expected.
Learn more from the ChromeVox website, which includes a step-by-step tutorial.
More Google accessibility resources
Google Apps users should refer to the "Google Apps for Blind and Low-Vision Users" page, which provides information about how each app works with a screenreader, plus keyboard shortcut and navigation information.
Google Apps Administrators should refer to the "Administrator Guide to Accessibility" page for additional configurations and customizations.
While I admire Google's initiative to create a driverless car of the future, I appreciate their efforts to make Chrome, ChromeVox, and Google Apps work for low-vision and blind people today.
Which of Google's accessibility features do you use in your organization? Share your experience in the discussion thread below.
Andy Wolber helps people understand and leverage technology for social impact. He resides in Ann Arbor, MI with his wife, Liz, and daughter, Katie.