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Gmail: tripping blind people is cool

Here's a pretty old legacy post from the blog archives of Geekery Today; it was written about 20 years ago, in 2004, on the World Wide Web.

Let’s say you pass a blind person walking down a busy sidewalk, tapping a cane in front of her. Now let’s say that someone sneaks up on her and sticks out a leg to trip her up, putting it between the cane and her legs so that it will not be detected before the unfortunate victim has fallen face-first onto a concrete sidewalk. Let’s say that you ask the assailant why the hell she indulged in such a senseless act of cruelty, and her baffled reply is, Jesus! I was just playing a practical joke. I didn’t realize that people walking down the sidewalk might not be able to see!

Unfortunately, this is not very different from how many Web designers treat the blind on a regular basis. Sites are frequently designed without any thought at all for how people who don’t have normal sight might be able to access them. I’m not saying this to be preachy; bad, inaccessible web design is a sin I’ve certainly been guilty of in the past, and one that I have to make a conscious effort to overcome. It’s not easy just to sit down and produce a website that will be accessible to people with radically different ways of browsing the web. But even when the right thing to do is hard, it’s still the right thing to do, and accessibility is something that we should all seriously think about, and act on, starting right now.

Most of the sins against accessibility on the web, though, are sins of omission; people fail to make use of web design features (such as proper semantic markup or alt text for <img> tags) that make things easier on the blind. There are, however, those who do worse than that: who indulge in sins of commission by breaking standard web features and actively making their sites unpleasant, or simply impossible to use, for people who don’t have normal sight. Sometimes they do this by implementing important sections of their website with glitzy and completely inaccessible technologies like Flash. And sometimes they do it because they think they have legitimate business reasons for trodding all over basic Web standards.

As much as I love Google, it looks like they have decided to put themselves in that latter camp with their proposed free e-mail service. Google, apparently, is worried that people might reverse-engineer their webmail interface and use it in unauthorized ways; in order to get around this they have apparently decided to override basic web conventions (such as, you know, using <a href="..."> for links) and implement the interface through scripting hacks. Mark Pilgrim discusses the astonishing number of usability landmines in his demolition-review of the Gmail interface:

Gmail is the least web-like web application I have ever seen. It requires both Javascript and cookies in order to load at all. It uses frames in such a way that prevents bookmarking and breaks the back button, and frames can not be loaded in isolation because every frame relies on scripts defined in other frames. The entire application appears to have been designed to thwart reverse engineering (of the YahooPops and Hotmail Popper variety).

Furthermore, the most innovative feature of Gmail—the global keyboard shortcuts—appears to have been designed by vi users (j moves down, k moves up, and we are expected to memorize multi-key sequences for navigation). Yet by using fake links everywhere, Gmail throws away the most basic web feature, breaks useful browser-level innovations like Mozilla’s “Find as you type”, and breaks third-party products like JAWS and WindowEyes. So the target market for Gmail appears to be vi users who use Internet Explorer, and have a working pair of eyes.

In short, the only way to use Gmail is the way that the Gmail designers use Gmail. The only way Gmail could be less accessible is if the entire site were built in Flash.

Lots of people have raised privacy concerns about Gmail (see, for example, CultureCat’s remarks on Gmail and the recent Slashdot thread); I think these concerns are understandable, and worth raising, but more than a little overblown. I’ll have more to say on that in coming days, but for now I want to say that this ought to be considered a complete show-stopper. There is no excuse for interfaces that discriminate against the blind like Gmail’s planned interface does. No-one with a conscience could allow their company to go forward with a service like this. I can only hope that Sergey Brin and his compatriots will prove that they have one–by thoroughly rethinking what they are doing, and fixing their interface so that it does not needlessly make life harder for the visually disabled.

For further reading:

5 replies to Gmail: tripping blind people is cool Use a feed to Follow replies to this article

  1. Toolplusplus

    I actually have to say that G-Mail’s interfaces is excellent quality, and due to scripting it has some very very nice features, and is compatible with both firefox and IE.

    I also don’t see how a blind person should even expect to use PCs to their full potential – for the fact that PCs are designed on the basis that the user can SEE seeing as it has a MONITOR.

    Why complain? There are plenty of “blind friendly” things, and why should innovation be marred due to this?

    What I would say is that g-mail should have an alternative interface. But changing the current would piss me off, and if they had a message saying “sorry, your interface has been downgraded so the blind minority can use it” would only anger people and possible even turn people against the design community.

    Partially sighted? Get a bigger monitor.

  2. Rad Geek

    1. You’re missing the point. There are several aspects of the Gmail interface which are inaccessible not because they are trying to work some gee-whiz helpful interface feature, but rather because they want to break web standards. (Specifically, they want to break them in order to stop people from designing geegaws that parse standard HTML and reverse engineer it to use the Gmail website for purposes for which it was not intended.) Rolling custom JavaScript links, breaking the whole site if JS is not running, etc. does not improve the interface. It makes the interface worse for some people (e.g., blind people), and it makes the interface no better for you. Similarly, Gmail’s global keyboard shortcuts are implemented in such a way as to break common usability features such as Mozilla Firefox’s find-as-you-type. Again, that is a thoughtless decision that makes the interface worse, not better.

    2. Can you think of any Gmail interface feature that would be broken by fixing Gmail’s accessibility issues? I can’t, but I’m not tremendously familiar with how Gmail has progressed since April. If you can think of such an example, what is it? And why is it so important to the experience of using Gmail that it is worth trashing the user experience for blind people?

    3. Finally, this: I also don’t see how a blind person should even expect to use PCs to their full potential — for the fact that PCs are designed on the basis that the user can SEE seeing as it has a MONITOR … is just crap, and an excuse for laziness. Accessible web design is something that we all can and should do; it takes a shift in how you think about designing web pages but it is worth making that effort–particularly as computers and the Internet are daily becoming more and more important to people’s everyday lives, and when they have tremendous potential to improve the lives of the disabled if conscientiously designed. Telling blind people to go screw themselves because you’re too damn lazy to fix your broken website is not a viable option.

  3. joseph

    You may like to knock gmails interface, and being a web developer I must agree that they break all the conventional rules, but dang it if it isn’t the best site i’ve seen in a long long time. Accessability aside (they probably should have an option when you’re signing up that you want to use the accessable version or whatever) the page is increadible. They have used javascript in ways that I hadn’t even begun to think about. Their page is incredibly interactive, and is the closest to a normal application that I’ve seen on the web. So I can understand that we may want to have them continue to think about other people, but they must be commended for another well put together product, that seems to have the perfect interface.


— 2006 —

  1. Will

    Morally wrong as what gmail are doing may be, they are not charging anyone for the service, and are under no obligation to make it available for all. Look at it from their point of view: they can either have people reverse-engineering their website, or, they can have the blind minority using it, putting more strain on their servers, but with even less chance of clicking on an ad (the ads are in small text). Making it accessible to the blind is, from a capitalist point of view, bad for them.

    Not happy? use hotmail.

— 2007 —

  1. assman

    First of all gmail can’t make blind peoples web experience worse than not having gmail since they don’t have to use it. Second the blind are going to have a increasingly difficult time as computer innovation movies forward and we start seeing things like touchscreen interfaces, holographic gui’s and secondlife/croquet type 3D interfaces and projection technologies. The basic fact is people are visual so things are going to become more visual. I don’t even see how a blind person would be able to use something like secondlife. And I think secondlife will be the future of the internet.

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