Without a doubt, one of the biggest buzzwords in business over the past several years has been "collaboration." Whether among employees working in the same or satellite offices, telecommuters, or employees who work a state or a continent away, more work can get done when people can collaborate without having to send partial draft reports, spreadsheets, and other work materials back and forth using old fashioned e-mail. Reports can be generated and edited by multiple employees at once, with a central file whose changes everyone can track simultaneously. Spreadsheets can be created and data entered by both the orders and fulfillment departments at once. Teachers can share lecture materials with students via presentation slides, and students can share and review papers and other assignments with classmates.
The most popular collaboration suite was also the first: Google Apps, which features Google Drive, Google Docs, Google Sheets, Google Slides, and more.
Article writing can be a solitary occupation. I work from home, and do not do a lot of collaborative projects. Over the years I have dipped a toe into using Google Docs and Google Sheets, but I found them confusing and fairly cumbersome to use with a screen reader. They simply were not worth the effort it would take me to learn to use them effectively, especially since I would have few occasions to use them and practice my skills. However, when I learned that Mystic Access had produced "Audio Tutorial for Google Suite of Products," I figured this would be an excellent opportunity to experience and evaluate the accessibility improvements in Google Apps first-hand.
Mystic Access Tutorials Past, Present, and Future
Mystic Access is a notable newcomer in the production of audio tutorials covering voice access operation of a wide variety of devices and applications. I wrote about their Amazon Echo tutorial in the May 2016 issue of AccessWorld, and more recently, in the January 2016 issue my colleague Shelly Brisbin offered up A Review of the Mystic Access Apple Watch Tutorial. Other popular tutorials include Mystic Access Humanware Victor Reader Stream New Generation Audio Tutorial and their BrailleNote Touch Tutorial. Future offerings include audio tutorials for Apple TV and Fire TV/Fire Stick. Mystic Access tutorials are generally priced between $6 and $60. The Mystic Access hands-on approach works well in audio format. Their step-by-step lessons are both thorough and easy to follow along with.
"Audio Tutorial for Google Suite of Products" is available from MysticAccess for $39. It arrives in both a collection of MP3 files with a playlist document, and as a DAISY 2.2 book. I loaded the latter onto my Victor Reader Stream, which made it easy to follow along and practice as I went.
Contents of the Tutorial for the Google Apps Suite
The tutorial begins with a discussion of the various screen readers that will be used. The narrator, Chris Grabowski, uses different voices for the various devices, which include Windows running NVDA, JAWS, and ChromeVox, a Mac running ChromeVox, and both a VoiceOver enabled Apple iOS device and an Android device running TalkBack. He notes that Internet Explorer is the recommended browser to use with JAWS, Firefox works best with NVDA, and ChromeVox is best with the Chrome browser. The different voices make it much easier to follow along as he shifts screen readers throughout the lessons. Additionally, Grabowski discusses the need to bypass certain screen reader hotkeys, and he shows how to do this, either with a screen reader bypass hotkey or by changing the screen reader command itself.
We now move on to an in-depth discussion of the Chrome browser, using NVDA, JAWS, and ChromeVox. For each of these screen readers, Grabowski offers separate lessons on accessing the menus, browsing the Web, and exploring the Chrome extensions page. During the Chrome section, we are introduced to the ChromeVox screen reader, which is available as a Chrome plugin, and, once installed, can be toggled off and on via the ALT+CTRL+Z hotkey.
Areas not covered in this section include using Chrome on an iOS or Android device, and using Chrome with a Mac. Note: Most of the Google apps are fairly inaccessible using the VoiceOver screen reader. The ChromeVox screen reader must be used, and consequently Grabowski holds his discussion of Mac use of Google apps until the end of the tutorial.
Now we move on to arguably the most popular of the Google suite apps: Google Drive. Perhaps you already use Dropbox or One Drive, in which case you are already familiar with the concept of a Cloud drive. You can save, store, and open files from any computer logged into your Google Drive account, whether you are on a computer or a mobile device. But here's where the collaboration really starts. After creating or saving a file to Google Drive, you can choose to share that file with one person, a team, or the general public. You can also set limits on the users: read only, comment only, or read and edit.
In the tutorial, Grabowski demonstrates all of these functions while accessing Google Drive from within a browser window. Here's where you will need to switch off the JAWS or NVDA browse mode. ChromeVox has no browse mode. Google Drive uses many two-character combinations to access and open files. Too many, in my opinion. However they can be easily found by pressing the Shift + / (slash) key in Windows, CTRL + / (slash) for Chrome, or Command + / (slash) on the Mac using ChromeVox.
Another Google Drive feature mentioned here is the Google Drive Download app that will enable you to add your Google Drive to Windows Explorer. Once added, you can perform file management as you normally would on your PC, copying, deleting, and opening files as usual. There are also desktop apps that will open your default browser and take you automatically to one of the Google apps covered in the next section. Grabowski did not include these in his tutorial because his goal is to teach users to use the suite of Google apps, no matter if you are on your own computer or a shared PC.
The next three major sections cover Google Docs, Google Sheets, and Google Slides. These are similar in function to MS Office Word, Excel, and PowerPoint, respectively, and, on the Mac, Pages, Numbers, and Keynote, respectively.
As mentioned, I had dabbled a bit with these apps, but always found them too confusing. However, after following along with Grabowski's lessons and properly matching my browser to my screen reader, the pieces began to fall into place.
Google apps allow more than one user to work on a file simultaneously. Grabowski demonstrates with his Mystic Access partner, Kim Loftis, how the accessibility features in the Google apps will notify you when another person has begun editing along with you, and where exactly their cursor is located.
Grabowski does not demonstrate how to accessibly track changes other users have made to your files. Nor does he demonstrate any of the apps more advanced features, such as adding an image to a Doc or getting help for a Sheets formula. His coverage of mobile apps is somewhat basic. For example, he does not demonstrate how to detect when another user has joined you in editing a document.
From what I learned from this tutorial, Google has come a long way in providing accessibility to their apps. Indeed, each of the apps includes an Accessibility tab on the menu bar, with options such as Speak Selection Formatting, Next List, and Open Comments Thread—each of which includes keyboard shortcuts.
There are still issues. As Grabowski demonstrates, the apps' spell check tool is a bit wonky. It does not read out the misspelled word using either IE or Firefox. It does work well with ChromeVox, however, so even if you don't plan to use the Google screen reader on a regular basis, you should probably install ChromeVox so it will be there to help you overcome the occasional accessibility glitch.
Areas for Improvement
Grabowski limits his discussion of Google Hangouts to texting and making a call using an iPad. Does it work the same on a PC, Mac, or Android device? Hopefully, after completing this tutorial you will have learned enough to go exploring these platforms on your own.
Braille support is not explicitly mentioned. As I understand it, there used to be some significant issues with Google apps displaying menus on a braille display, but not the working text. Grabowski tells me these are no longer issues, but I think some direct mention of braille support should have been included in the tutorial.
The tutorial also does not cover Google Classroom. Though not a part of this tutorial's mission statement, I mention it here as many students and teachers may be expecting its inclusion, and might otherwise be disappointed. Perhaps Mystic Access is working on a tutorial for Google Classroom; I believe there would be a great market for such a resource among school district and special education teachers.
Many students use Chromebooks to do their schoolwork. Chromebooks are mentioned in the tutorial, but since this tutorial was published Google has replaced their initial ChromeVox Chromebook screen reader with ChromeVox Next. Many of the commands have been simplified, and I do hope a Chromebook tutorial is on the Mystic Access to-do list.
At $35, the Audio Tutorial for Google Suite of Products is value priced. I have seen similar tutorials running from $75 to $150.
The step-by-step audio guidance works well. The tutorial does not strive to be comprehensive. Indeed, that would take a book several hundred pages long. What this tutorial aims to do, and in my opinion it succeeds admirably, is to offer a beginner's guide to these apps, giving you sufficient basic knowledge to venture forth on your own into the more advanced features.
I went through this tutorial because I was curious about how far Google had come with their accessibility initiatives. If you are a student, this tutorial is critical. If you are employed and your employer uses collaborative features, you will also want this tutorial. Even if your employer isn't currently taking advantage of a collaborative workplace, it's likely just a matter of time before they do.
Those who are currently seeking employment, or who plan to do so in the future, will also benefit from using this tutorial to become familiar with Google apps. I suspect soon these skills will be as mandatory as using a desktop computer, and the sooner you develop these skills the better.
Product: Audio Tutorial for Google Suite of Products from Mystic Access
- The Current State of ChromeVox Next (Beta), a Screen Reader for Chrome OS, by Aaron Preece
- A Review of the Mystic Access Apple Watch Tutorial, by Shelly Brisbin
- Learning to Use the Amazon Echo with the Mystic Access Audio Tutorial, by Bill Holton
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