[Athen] FW: Google Books are now accessible (ish)

Ron Stewart ron.stewart at dolphinusa.com
Sat Jul 14 07:16:10 PDT 2007

Interesting development, too bad you have to have a screen reader to use it
at this point.


Original article published at:

First Step in Adding Accessibility to Google Books - Was It Enough? by
George Kerscher

Copyright (c) 2007 George Kerscher

On July 3, 2007, Google quietly made what may seem to be a subtle change to
Google Books. However, individuals who are blind or have a print disability
are going to be both very excited and disappointed. For them it is not a
"subtle" change. A very special hidden link was added to the Google Books in
the "full view", which is exposed to Assistive Technology (AT) such as
screen readers used by people who are blind or have a visual impairment.

Google Books has been of huge interest to those in the print-disabled
community ever since it was announced. It is estimated that less than 5% of
books published in print are ever produced in an accessible format.
This scanning project has the potential of being an unparalleled source of
books, and will be a huge improvement over what is available in the
mainstream for persons who are blind or print disabled. The DAISY
(www.daisy.org) standard, which provides structured and multimedia access to
a book, still provides the ultimate in accessibility. Other disability
groups as well as the educational community are just now learning the
benefits of DAISY and the multiple projects funded by The DAISY Consortium.
Google technology so far does not compete well with the accessible features
of DAISY books, but the scanning of millions upon millions of books from
libraries around the world marks the serious start of the digitization of
the world's print heritage. Now, with Google Books, not only is the Web
indexed by the Internet giant, but the wealth of knowledge stored in our
libraries can be found and accessed.
The search function in Google Books returns titles that have a match in the
text of the book. Words which are found are highlighted on the image of the
printed page from the original book. If the title is in copyright a
"snippet" is visible, but if it is out of copyright, the "full view"
of the page is displayed.

The very special hidden link that is available from the full view now allows
people who use access technology with their computers to read the text.
Prior to this change, it was not possible, the views were images, not text.
At the National Federation of the Blind's Annual Conference held on July 5,
Dr. T.V. Raman, who is himself blind and who works for Google, said,
"Consider this to be step zero of many steps that will benefit blind and
print-disabled persons throughout the world." Indeed this is a significant
step; having hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of books available to a
population that thirsts for information, but which is blocked from using
traditional mechanisms for reading, is without precedent and of extreme

How does the accessible version work? Google inserts a "hidden" link to the
OCR view of the text. With Assistive Technology in place it is prominently
presented as the first item in the full view. This link takes the reader to
a completely accessible interface to the book.
Normal keyboard commands that screen readers typically use are all present
in this interface. A person with a disability using Assistive Technology can
read the OCR text, move to the next or previous page, go to pages, and use
the table of contents.

If sighted users have the loading of images turned off, the link is exposed,
but it is very difficult to find. Sighted users have the better option to
"view plain text" which substitutes the image view with the scanned text .
The presentation from the new hidden link provides the same functionality,
but in a much more screen reader friendly approach.

However, there is an inequality that must be addressed immediately.
Reading off-line is supported by Google Books. There is an option to
download a PDF version of full view books, but because these are only images
of the pages Assistive Technology can not present the information to the
blind reader. This functionality is therefore only available to the sighted
community. At present there is no option for readers who are blind or have
some other print disability to download an entire book as a zip file for
off-line reading. Most people who use alternatives to print books use some
kind of portable reading device. Very few people do their reading online and
without a download feature there is this glaring inequality between the
reading options for sighted and users who are blind or print disabled. I
trust this is one of the many improvements which Raman references.

In addition, those unable to see the screen cannot access the "limited"
(snippet) view, and there are no links to sites where someone who is blind
or has a print disability can go to get an accessible commercial version or
a high quality version with figure descriptions and other important features
from a library serving persons with disabilities, for example, Recording For
the Blind and Dyslexic (RFB&D) in the USA or one of the many other libraries
which make up the DAISY Consortium and serve the blind and print-disabled
population around the world.

Raman believes that the Google Book search is tremendous for research
purposes, but that it is not intended to replace traditional libraries or
bookstores. Nonetheless, sighted persons can download the whole book for
free. Raman said, "As a blind person, I want the same access as anybody
else. I eventually hope we can link to a place where the blind person can
get the accessible version in the format they want with figure descriptions
and all, like from Recording For the Blind & Dyslexic." Indeed once
commercial digital publications become accessible through Assistive
Technology, the Google Book search should lead the reader using Assistive
Technology to a site where the book can be purchased or to a library site
that provides the book in the high quality DAISY format, braille, or large
print, just as it does for sighted readers. Never the less it is a fact that
the Google collection contains more titles than are in all the libraries
serving the blind throughout the world. One must recognize that the Google
content may be the only source for accessing many of these titles. It is not
The OCR errors are quite obvious. These are not normally apparent to sighted
readers because they are looking at the image of the page rather than the
plain text view. The Google Book search, optimized for scanned materials,
still yields outstanding results with the searches. Raman said, "The OCR
errors are there, but this will get better over time." By this Raman may
mean that the OCR recognition approaches will be improved by Google and the
errors will be corrected through an automated process.
I agree that there will be the ongoing need for the alternative versions
that have figure descriptions, tactile graphics and the other important
enhancements that the libraries serving the blind provides.

Google is seeking input from blind and disabled users. Raman suggests that
persons with disabilities sign up for an account on Google (persons who are
blind will be able to use the accessible audible Captcha they have
developed). They should then sign up for the "accessibility" forum.
In this forum you can post messages to accessible at google.com and share your
thoughts about the many accessibility features that Google is introducing,
including Google Books.

I applaud the first step that Google has taken. I trust that it is indeed
Google's first step toward full access to the information in Google Books. I
understand that Google believes in the iterative software development
process. As such, this is the first iteration of their accessibility
developments in Google Books. I personally believe that in our Information
Age, access to information is a fundamental human right. Any newly developed
information technology must take into consideration the needs of blind and
print disabled readers from the beginning; doing anything less is simply
wrong and a violation of our human rights. Nobody benefits more from
Google's first step than readers who are blind or have a print disability.
Now let's take more steps towards equality starting with the download of the
full book just as a sighted reader can do.


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