It's with great fondness that I recall what I consider the "Golden Age" of television - the 1970's. Great shows like "The Incredible Hulk," "The Dukes of Hazzard" and "The Six Million Dollar Man" helped build my psyche as a child (although looking back it now seems every episode of "Dukes" had the same canyon-jumping, arrow-shooting plot as the one before it). The Six Million Dollar Man popularized the term "better, stronger, faster" in its depiction of resurrected astronaut Steve Austin, whose disabilities in the wake of a plane crash were overcome thanks to the use of cutting edge technology. Star Wars films also made this concept famous after various Jedi Knights suffered lost limbs amidst epic battles and were provided with prosthetic alternatives.
Leveling the playing field
The use of accessibility options is another good example of the ways technology can help those with disabilities by leveling the playing field in their favor. For instance, vision or hearing impaired users can benefit from accessibility settings in the Windows, Mac OS X and Linux operating systems, which assist them in using their computers. Many popular software packages such as Office 2010 include these features as well. The definition of "vision impaired" can involve a broad spectrum of people; I myself have issues with screen glare and fluorescent lighting that I alleviate with the use of a free Windows tool called F.lux which helps soften the colors of my screens.
You might not have a need for accessibility options, but perhaps you know a friend or family member who does. If you're an IT professional, you may also encounter a user whom these functions could help. I never worked or even experimented with accessibility settings until a few years ago, when I was supporting users at a phone and Internet-based catalog company. We hired a blind customer service representative to assist callers in placing orders and answering questions, which seemed incredible to me given the archaic AS/400 terminal emulation software we used, with all of the dozens of various fields to tab through. However, this man's work was made possible by the use of a software package called JAWS which read aloud the items on his computer screen so that he could do his job.
What Does Google Offer?
Google products are no exception when it comes to offering accessibility features. A recent announcement from Jeffrey Harris of Google outlined some of these new features for Drive, Calendar, Contacts, and various mobile applications (for instance, Gmail and Drive on both iOS and Android). These features include the ability of screen readers (programs like JAWS which read highlighted text on the screen aloud) to read the words in scanned PDFs and images, a notification bar for the Calendar which notifies the user of any changes made, and explore-by-touch options for screens.
Android phones have screen readers and text-to-speech capability. Google states that on the Android platform "nearly every function is possible without sight." They also support hardware connections such as teletypewriters for hearing impaired users.
The default installation of Chrome offers instructions for low-vision support, which allows zoom, different font sizes and high contrast color to make the browser screen more readable. There are also keyboard shortcuts which are useful for all manner of people - certainly they have been valuable for me when my flaky wireless mouse has decided to go on strike and I'm trying to finish a task. In addition, Google provides Chrome add-ons which offer more diverse functionality: ChromeVox (a screen reader), ChromeVis (a text magnifier), and ChromeShades, which formats browser pages for better compatibility with screen readers.
I tested ChromeVox out for a number of functions and found it quite handy for two things I need help with: proofreading material I've written (it's useful to hear written words spoken out loud to ensure the sentence flow is correct - ChromeVox caught a couple of typos in this very article for me via this manner) and to rest my eyes when reviewing lengthy technical articles.
I have experienced optical migraines in the past, which is like being stuck inside of a disco ball, and I can foresee ChromeVox being very useful the next time this occurs. Naturally, this method requires you to load the document into Chrome but saving my article as an .html file then opening it with the browser posed no inconvenience. If you do plan to try ChromeVox you'll need this keyboard shortcuts reference guide to get started.
Gmail, Calendar, Chat, Docs, and Sites are all supported via accessibility options. You can find out more about these features (which are largely based around keyboard shortcuts and screen readers) on this Google help page.
This is one of the best examples of where screen readers can shine. Google offers a tremendous number of free books online, and when viewed in Chrome these can be read aloud to you by ChromeVox.
Google recommends using Maps on a mobile device for optimum screen reader functionality. There are also additional applications for Android phones: "Walky Talky, for instance, announces street names and addresses as you pass them, and Intersection Explorer allows you to explore a neighborhood and get directions using finger touch. You can download these apps from the Android Market.
Voice has a transcription capability which can convert voicemails to text so deaf individuals can read these messages.
Yes, even YouTube has options for the hearing impaired, such as captions on videos.
The full rundown on accessibility options for all Google products is available. Additionally, Google provides a guide for administrators (PDF).
"The Six Million Dollar Man" was science fiction when I was a kid, but we may be getting closer to a real life Steve Austin these days (or his female counterpart, Jaime Sommers, aka the Bionic Woman): a fascinating article on the BBC news health site this possibility. Certainly prosthetic limbs have come a marathon distance from the days of the one-armed man in the original TV series "The Fugitive." Technology proves in so many ways that it can help reduce or eliminate disabilities to allow people affected by them to live normal and happy lives. Google's accessibility options may not enable you to run at 60 mph just yet, but they will help keep you running on their products, whether by sight, sound or even touch.
Scott Matteson is a senior systems administrator and freelance technical writer who also performs consulting work for small organizations. He resides in the Greater Boston area with his wife and three children.