The other day, Google announced a new accessible search page that they say is for the blind. This page has apparently stripped out a lot of the extra clutter, leaving a cleaner interface. Also, the search results are based on page accessibility rather than completely on relevance. There has been a lot of discussion on one of the email lists that I'm on, and because of this I've really been wanting to talk about it here.
As I see it, there are two main parts to this issue. There are many problems that people are complaining about, but I'm going to talk about two of them.
First, there is the language being used. The page says that it is for "Visually Challenged" individuals or something like that. Now, I really have a problem with this whole politically correct business. I'm blind, I will always be blind, and what little vision I do have doesn't exactly change the fact that I'm still blind. I'm not challenged. Challenging, maybe, but not challenged. This is one area that I will agree with many others when it comes up. On the other hand though, I think that Google was using a term that is typically recognized as the PC way of saying "blind". They are trying to come up with the least offensive way of saying "blind" without coming out and using the actual word. I've heard of short people being called "vertically challenged", heavy people being called "horizontally challenged", (no, I didn't make that one up), or old people being called "chronologically challenged", or "chronologically advanced). I'm short, and yes, this makes it a challenge to reach things that are on high shelves, or even get to the bottom of the washing machine at times, but that's it. It's not like my situation is ever going to change, right? So, yes, Google is trying to be PC, but sometimes PC just isn't necessarily correct.
Now, the other issue of the search engine itself. I have a feeling that I'm going to be in the vast minority with my thoughts on this one. One person in particular on the email list has made the point over and over that by creating this separate page Google has demeaned the blind by "dumbing down" a page that is, for all intents and purposes, all ready accessible. He contends that with the creation of this page Google has basically said that the blind are incapable of navigating a standard web page. First of all, I really have to give Google a lot of credit. Yes, there are many areas of the site that they could have been concentrating on improving rather than the search portion, but I really think it was a step in the right direction that they even set this up in the first place. For a long time we were blocked from portions of the site because of the visual verification, and that was addressed. This was, in all likelihood, another issue that many people were also having.
Several months ago I saw an email from Google requesting that blind and visually impaired people give them feedback on their search page. I was interested in participating in this myself, however you had to actually go to them and that just wasn't going to happen. But, my guess is that this page is due to the feedback from the people they got at this study. I haven't actually checked out the page myself yet, so I'm not totally sure how it works, or what kinds of results I'd get if I used it. But I still think that Google is trying.
For the people who are saying that Google is calling the blind incompetent, there's no law that says they have to use the new site, and if the regular site works for you great. However, I can see many advantages to this new site, and not just for blind people. What about people using PDAs or cell phones which have very small screens. What about beginner computer users, or older people who don't have the ability to learn, or don't want to learn, a more cluttered interface. I honestly feel that if Google hadn't said that the site was for the blind, and had instead marketed it for Pocket PC or other devices, most of the blind people that are complaining wouldn't be complaining, and in fact would probably be saying that the site is great. It's simply because the site has been advertised as being for the blind that people are upset.
Will I personally use the site? I don't know. However, I can tell you that I have worked with many clients who I feel would seriously have a much easier time with a tool like this, and will be looking at it as a training tool. An advanced computer user, or one who is competent with their screen-reader can most likely use the regular site, but I definitely think that this new page has its place.