Screen readers have revolutionized computer accessibility for individuals with disabilities, enabling blind, low vision, and dyslexic users to engage with digital content. However, traditional slideshow software, such as Microsoft PowerPoint and Google Slides, often falls short in providing coherent screen reader output. These programs rely on Z-order, which represents the layering of objects on a slide. Unfortunately, Z-order fails to adequately convey the spatial layout of slides, rendering slideshow software inaccessible to people with disabilities.
Recognizing the need to bridge this accessibility gap, a team of researchers led by the University of Washington has developed A11yBoard for Google Slides. This innovative solution comes in the form of a browser extension and mobile application that empowers blind users to navigate complex slide layouts and text effectively. Through the combination of a desktop computer and a mobile device, A11yBoard leverages audio, touch, gesture, speech recognition, and search functions to help users understand object placement on a slide and rearrange them to create visually-rich layouts.
A11yBoard allows blind users to interact with the slide elements using various input methods. For example, users can touch a textbox on the screen and receive a description of its color and position from the screen reader. Furthermore, voice commands enable users to modify these objects, such as shrinking a textbox and aligning it with the slide’s title. This versatile tool promotes independence and creativity, empowering blind users to go beyond simply consuming content created by others.
A11yBoard for Google Slides builds upon a series of studies conducted at the University of Washington, exploring the interaction between blind users and digital canvases called “artboards.” These artboards serve as the foundation for many slideshow software platforms. Lead author Zhuohao (Jerry) Zhang, a doctoral student at the University of Washington, collaborated with senior author Jacob O. Wobbrock, a professor at the Information School, to address the accessibility limitations of creativity tools like slideshow software.
Drawing on previous research on the challenges blind individuals face when using artboards, Wobbrock and Zhang presented the initial prototype of A11yBoard in April. Subsequently, the team worked on refining the solution, aiming for compatibility with existing software and settling on a Google Slides extension. To enhance the user interface, co-author Gene S-H Kim, a blind undergraduate at Stanford University, collaborated with the researchers. Through user testing with two additional blind individuals, A11yBoard demonstrated significant improvements in comprehending visual content and creating slides independently, minimizing the need for constant collaboration and revisions with sighted assistants.
While A11yBoard represents a significant advancement in accessibility, the user testing process revealed areas for further development. One of the challenges identified was the need for users to remain continuously aware of objects’ positions while editing them. Users also highlighted the limitation of performing each action individually, rather than completing batch actions, such as aligning multiple visual groups from left to right. Additionally, Google Slides’ current version lacks the ability to undo or redo edits across different devices, posing a limitation for users.
Despite these challenges, the researchers envision making A11yBoard widely accessible to the public. Their plans include integrating a large language model, such as GPT, into the program to enhance efficiency when creating slides. With natural language commands such as “Align these five boxes using their left edge,” blind users can leverage the power of A11yBoard to author slides more effectively. The ongoing efforts of the research team highlight the importance of accessibility in everyday tools and the continuous quest for inclusivity.
A11yBoard for Google Slides represents a significant breakthrough in addressing the accessibility limitations of slideshow software for blind users. By leveraging mobile devices, audio interfaces, touch gestures, and speech recognition, A11yBoard enables blind users to navigate complex slide layouts, understand object placement, and create visually captivating content independently. While there are areas for improvement, the ongoing research and development efforts indicate a commitment to enhancing accessibility and empowering individuals with disabilities to overcome barriers in the digital world.