Dear Google: Can We Have Some Accessibility With Our Email Please?

Last week, Mathsnerd attempted to sign up for a new GoogleMail (know as Gmail elsewhere) account. I say attempted because this did not go well. At all.

Oh, wait, what’s that, Google? After trying more than three names, I have to go through CAPTCHA to prove I’m a real person? Okay, that’s kind of soon, but whatever. Gee, you sure scrunch those letters together and make them all wavy so that I have a real hard time figuring out what the hell you want me to enter…

Huh, okay, I’ve tried eight times, Google, and I can’t seem to read it well enough that you’re satisfied that I’m a real person. And while you offer a “read-aloud” accessibility option for the CAPTCHA down below for submitting the form (which, incidentally, doesn’t work in Chrome, yeah, you know, YOUR BROWSER!), for the CAPTCHA to keep trying different handles you conveniently don’t offer any alternate options.

Captcha is a sort of Challenge that a user must pass when a program thinks that the user might be a spambot instead of a person. Wikipedia’s article looks useful if you want to learn more about it. It’s certainly not the only Challenge software out there, but it is one that is widely used, especially by Google-related products, such as their web-based email and their blogging software, Blogger. In fact, Google likes Captcha so much they bought the company in 2009, making Google responsible for implementing their accessibility policy.

Description Below

A screen grab of a Google Captcha code. I think it's supposed to say monsworene, but I'm not sure, and it's very difficult to read due to size, font choice, and the way the letters are pushed together.

Some Captchas, including the ones used by Google, have an audio option. I’ve occasionally tried to use the audio Captchas, which are a series of numbers read outloud with a large amount of background noise, designed, I assume, to keep an automated system from being able to distinguish the Challenge. I’m an experienced audio typist, so while I found this irritating, I could cut through it. Earlier this year, Blind Bargains did a study and found that 73% of blind users were unable to succeed at the Captcha Challenge – and blind users, according to Google and Captcha, are exactly who the audio function is designed for. 1

Google has an Accessibility Feedback Form. In order to use it, you must have a Google Account. Depending on any number of factors, your attempt to get a Google Account to discuss their accessibility problem with Captcha could require you to pass a Captcha Challenge in order to prove you are an actual person.

Actually, let me highlight that: In order to tell Google about their problems with accessibility, you need to be able to pass through the inaccessible Challenge.

Those of you who already have Gmail or GoogleMail accounts, you can contact Google to raise your concerns at their Accessibility Feedback Form. The Feedback form has a lot of fields to fill out. I just filled out the one that I felt was most applicable, and it went through without requiring me to put in any more information.

Here is a template you can use. Please feel free to use, edit, or adapt this for your own purposes.:

Hello Google

I was very distressed to learn that Blind users and users with other disabilities were having difficulties in signing up for Gmail accounts through the Captcha challenge. One user has detailed her experiences here: http://accessibility-fail.dreamwidth.org/33494.html , and as well, Blind Bargains reports 73% of their users had difficulties with using the audio version of Captcha: http://www.blindbargains.com/bargains.php?m=5383

I know that Google wants to be a more accessible service for users around the world. I hope that the accessibility people at Google will have the opportunity to look into these complaints and work with various people with disabilities in order to solve these problems.

Thank you for your time.

This is an issue that cuts to the heart of the problems with inaccessible web content. Obviously there are thousands – maybe millions – of blind or otherwise visually impaired users of the internet, but in this increasingly-flashy internet age, where not only information but job applications are going increasingly online, web accessibility is a huge barrier to people’s participation in society. Google, as we all know, is a huge multi-national company with the ability to make an incredible difference by working with users with disabilities in order to make the web more accessible to us. By contacting Google, you will be adding your voice to the chorus asking for greater web accessibility.

Accessibility Feedback Form.

  1. Thank you to Codeman38 for bringing this study to my attention.

19 responses to “Dear Google: Can We Have Some Accessibility With Our Email Please?”

  1. codeman38

    I still think the worst thing about the audio CAPTCHA– and a sign that they really didn’t test it as well as they should have– is that they did almost too good of a job in making the noise sound like the signal. Or, in other words, the background noise sometimes ends up sounding like exactly what you’re supposed to be listening for.

    I have auditory processing issues that affect hearing speech above background noise, but when I know i’m supposed to be listening specifically for digits, that drastically lowers the search space. However, I’ve tried the audio CAPTCHA a couple times when I couldn’t decipher the visual one, and sometimes it’s hard to tell whether or not the digit I heard was actually part of the foreground. It’s very easy to accidentally generate a “two” in background noise; that’s just two phonemes to combine! And since the background noise seems to be English speech played backwards, it’s fairly easy to accidentally generate “one” (“no” played backwards!) and possibly “eight” as well.

    I guess none of their natural language processing researchers were on hand when they developed this CAPTCHA… ^_^

  2. Rainbow

    I often have trouble leaving comments on blogger sites with my gmail account because the audio capture often does not work at all, I don’t know why this is but it’s very frustrating. I also find the mail boxes in gmail a little difficult to navigate with my screen reader but maybe that’s just my personal preference. Asking for improved accessibility from large web organisations like google can be an exhausting process, I attempted to point out Myspace’s multitude of problems with accessibility (it had been fairly accessible when I joined but became increasingly unusable as they tried to turn it into Facebook) I sent endless e-mails to them detailing the issues but all I got back were messages saying ‘we require more info from you to deal with this problem’, after sending as much info as I could with no helpful response I gave up and left the site which was a shame as I liked the music features. It’s shameful that disabled net users should have to fight these battles daily in order to use these major sites, it’s incredibly draining to find that when we go online into spaces which should be accommodating we’re faced with many of the same barriers that exist in the physical world, yet more proof that accessibility doesn’t end with ramps and braille signs!

  3. Static Nonsense

    Aaaaaand those CAPTCHAs are exactly why I do not have a gmail account. I tried a little over a year ago and I couldn’t for the life of me get past them. And it sounds like the audio version would only make it worse, considering my responses to conflicting sounds.

    It’s (not so) nice to know that nothing about it has changed.

    Now if only I could access the Accessibility Feedback Form. Sigh.

  4. Michaela

    Good heavens. I have, with my glasses, 20/20 vision and visual processing good enough to get remarked upon and even still am not certain what exactly that’s suppose to say. Even with the hint, I had to squint and tilt my head to see it. One wonders if the folks at Google ever look at them. Conversely, my audio processing is rather less than optimal and your description of the audio captcha made me nearly twitch. It would be very nice if Google stepped back from all their work on shiny new toys occasionally to consider who they’re excluding from their use (either due to privacy or accessibility concerns).

  5. Zellie

    Anna, I linked to this post at EServer TC, an online arrticle for technical communication. I hope you don’t mind, but I wanted to reference this post in a class assignment I’m writing about accessibility and the porfesor’s policy is that we must find our articles on EServer TC or add them before we write them.

  6. Astrid

    I had to install Apple QuickTime to make the audio CAPTCHA work – sometimes. If it works, I can discern the numbers pretty well on the Blogger site, but there are other sites (mostly forums) which use a different kind of audio challenge, which is really hard to discern. Besides, audio CAPTCHAs don’t always work on my mobile connection. With more and more people accessing the Interent on smartphones, this ought to be a point of attention.

  7. Quijotesca

    There are other types of audio CAPTCHA but they doesn’t mean they’re any better. I remember one that had me type out a random movie quote or something and it wouldn’t take just part of the phrase. It was a total pain in the ass and wound up being harder to do than attempting to read the blurry letters. I’m not blind, but I can’t always read CAPTCHAs and I thought that might be easier. I guess not.

    I spent some time trying to figure out what site that was. I thought it was Yahoo!, but they just go for the garbled stuff technique. Then I thought it might’ve been AOL since I had trouble getting some instant messenger passwords at some point, but that one uses a similar technique only it involves really obnoxious beeping sounds. It made me wanna stop the noises as quickly as possible. Ug. Really, had I felt compelled to stick around, I’m not sure I would’ve been able to process the relevant information, anyway.

    The whole thing is pretty frustrating. Having to sift through tons of spam comments is a pain, but there really aren’t a lot of viable solutions to the problem.

  8. Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg

    My sight is pretty good, but my auditory processing system shouts “NO!” when specifically asked to decode sounds in conflicting noise. This is why I’m glad that, up to this point, I’ve somehow managed to decipher those incredibly unclear written letters and have never had to use the “helpful” audio captcha.

  9. Brigid Keely

    This is why I don’t have a STEAM account. I spent SEVERAL DAYS (literally, days) trying to sign up for an account, and could not read most of the captchas. They don’t have an audio version, and there doesn’t seem to be a way to reach an actual person to work around the issue. It’s incredibly frustrating. Now, from your description, I wouldn’t be able to use an audio captcha at all.

  10. starsandscars

    I didn’t fill out the form but I did send an e-mail based on the example in this post (thanks for that) to accessible at googlegroups.com . I don’t know if it’s the same. I hope they take note and rectify this soon.

  11. starsandscars

    Forgot to add, you need a google account to do that. Which is helpful.
    Apologies for the double post.

  12. AnjaKJ

    I’m HoH, so I can’t comment about the audio CAPTCHA system that Google use. However, the visual ones are vile beyond belief. I can’t make the one used as an example out, and I’ve had similar problems in the past when setting up accounts for less tech savvy family members.

    Google’s whole human verification system just sucks.

  13. Katherine

    I can’t understand that example at all either. Usually on most sites I can get past the visual captcha after a few attempts, but it shouldn’t be that hard. I’ll complain to Google and Steam about their inaccessibility.

  14. lilacsigil

    I have problems when the letters are at different heights and sizes, as in the example, and I can’t follow the “line” of the text. The audio is just impossible, so I usually just refresh until I get one I can read. I’m rather embarrassed that I never even thought about complaining. Thanks to FWD and mathsnerd for reminding me this is, of course, a community accessibility issue, not “just my problem”.

  15. Ang

    I’m filling out the form now (thank you so much for raising awareness of this and making it easier to get in touch with Google), and I see this note at the bottom:

    Was your organization interested in using Google products, but were unable to because of accessibility requirements? If so, please take a moment to explain below:

    Interesting, huh? Seems like they know there’s problems…

    OH. I just hit submit on my finished accessibility form, and what happens? The page blinks and I just see my form again. Nothing to say my feedback has been received. :/

  16. Sharon Wachsler

    Rant rant rant fume fume! YES! I HATE these friggin verification things — and I am sighted and hearing. I have had probs not just w/google but many other sites. Filling it out (guessing) again and again till I finally get lucky or give up. My eyesight isn’t ideal, and I’m a bit neurologically quirky, but I think these things have got to be problems for most of the population!

    However, I have noticed, in the past year, that many sites seem to have made their wavy letters/words not QUITE as impossible as before, but the audio CAPTCHAs — my god! — totally impossible.

    Also, what about the options for deafblind users? My best online friend is deafblind, uses the computer for *everything* and is constantly thwarted by these friggin “spam controls.” There has GOT to be a better way. I’m going to try to write to google, now that I have this info from you on how to do it — thank you.

  17. Kat

    I agree that Google’s CAPTCHAs are ridiculously hard. My 64-year-old dad just signed up for Gmail and had to ask me to help him read the one that popped up on his screen (looked a lot like the one above), and even I couldn’t read it! We must have made a lucky guess because it went through. ReCAPTCHAs are far more readable and help transcribe old books too.

  18. notemily

    Wow, that example is atrocious. I’m more familiar with the Blogger ones, and despite the fact that Blogger is owned by Google (I think), the Blogger ones seem a lot easier. This page has an example of one near the top. The letters are much clearer and more distinct than in the example here. I hear that the Blogger audio-Captcha option also adds background noise, though, so it’s not any better on that front.

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