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Last week’s 2015 Section 508 Interagency Accessibility Forum hosted by the U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services (HHS) featured a plenary session sharing Google’s challenges and strategies for Section 508 compliance and accessibility of its products and services.  The following are my notes from the session.

Accessibility at Google

The second plenary session was a discussion between Adrienne Biddings, Policy Counsel at Google, and Deborah Kaplan, Section 508 Coordinator at HHS. (Please note: none of this if official Google policy or statements – these are just my notes from the talk)

  • Adrienne provides a role where user with disabilities can communicate requirements back to Google
  • The 508 concept was that access to the Federal government marketplace would drive adoption. Is that a factor to Google?
    • Yes, it is a factor for apps which Google sells to the U.S. Federal Government where there is an impact. Outside the scope of those requirements, the focus is really on getting users engaged with the products.
  • The core challenges to Google for accessibility are organizational. Technically the issue is that many people coming out of computer science schools don’t have training on accessibility.
  • Product VPs under Sundar (Google CEO) have a lot of autonomy so that they can move fast. The downside is that there isn’t a central approach to accessibility and process since it’s really a bunch of different product teams. So the issues is that you don’t get consistency across these teams since testing tends to be different across each of the testing groups.
  • Google opened up a group where people could start to talk about various different issues that they had with accessibility. There is some power to having someone in a powerful position acknowledge and see how those things can impact peoples lives.
  • How does Google approach accessibility testing given a constant release environment?
    • Regression was a big issue in the beginning. Google would send a minor update, without regression, and it would create a major accessibility bug. So regression testing for accessibility was a key thing.
  • Once a product team agrees to be on the Google Accessibility Requirements (GAR) you have to reach a certain level of accessibility to launch. The only way to launch a project without GAR pass is to get SVP approval. GAR is a combination of 508, WCAG and CVAA.
  • A central team does all the testing to make sure it stays consistent.
  • A team of a few thousand contracts outside of the U.S. that do ongoing accessibility testing.
  • Google needs a lot more resources to do the level of testing that is required.
  • As Google has more hardware that transition becomes more difficult as they need more people to do the testing.
  • What is the 508 testing process?
    • Google doesn’t just test for 508, they test for a broader internal standard – GAR (see above).
    • It combines automated and manual testing.
    • Testing also occurs at various different phases and various different people are testing throughout the process.
  • Automated Testing
    • Is any of the automated testing available?
      • No, most of our automated testing in proprietary but some may be public.
  • What are the big challenges you see over the next 5/10/20 years for accessibility?
    • Developing markets. In humid places it’s hard to get cell phones to work, let alone make them accessible. A key challenge is how do you get things to work at the low end of the economic scale?