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GMail Evaluations

High Contrast Mode

High Contrast Mode changes the color scheme of the page to provide more contrast between the foreground and background elements. It is used by some people with visual disabilities. Google does provide some high contrast themes and options for viewing their applications. Google’s implementation was not tested in this set of evaluations.

Grade: A- on OS X; C on Windows

On OS X all of the functions could be performed in high contrast mode. However, in a few instances buttons and text had insufficient contrast. In Windows many of the buttons appear as black on black, in which case users have insufficient information about the purpose of these buttons to make them usable. Skilled users may know they can hover over buttons to see the buttons’ tooltips if they’re able to use a mouse, but many users are likely to be unaware of this workaround.

JAWS with Firefox

JAWS is the most popular Windows-based screen reader.

Grade: D

GMail is quite difficult to use with JAWS for a number of reasons. It is difficult or impossible to

  • easily navigate through messages in a conversation thread
  • attach files
  • determine if a message is starred or marked as important
  • work with the task list
  • set GMail settings
  • compose messages with the rich text editor
  • access the “People” functionality when reading messages
  • find the shortcut keys and screen reader help screens

GMail uses ARIA landmarks to aid in navigation of the interface. However, some additional landmarks would greatly aid in navigation. In general, the interface needs more semantic structure to aid in navigation. One key area where this would be beneficial is within conversations, so users can more easily move from one message to another. There are many tasks that have shortcut keys defined for them, which in theory would make the task accessible. However, the aforementioned conflicts between JAWS and GMail shortcut keys render these features unusable.

ChromeVox on Windows

ChromeVox is the built-in screen reader for the Chrome browser.

Grade: C

Overall, the accessibility of ChromeVox in GMail is quite good and most functions can be accessed except for a few notable exceptions. Some of these exceptions involve core functionality and thus kept ChromeVox from receiving a B in our assessment.

ChromeVox accessibility is heavily dependent upon the use of shortcut keys. Even with the lengthy list of shortcut keys, there are still many aspects of the system that cannot be accessed. Some of the major problems with ChromeVox are:

  • files cannot be attached to messages
  • the GMail settings page cannot be read by ChromeVox
  • when composing messages with the rich text editor, ChromeVox frequently says “deleted” after reading a line
  • the Tasks feature cannot be used
  • the “CC” and “BCC” fields are difficult to find because they are nowhere close to the “To” field


VoiceOver is the built-in screen reader for OS X.

Grade: D

VoiceOver has many of the same issues that JAWS does, with some additions. Most significantly, VoiceOver cannot:

  • easily navigate through messages in a conversation thread
  • add a label
  • create filters
  • easily reply to or forward messages
  • mark a message as important
  • work with the task list
  • set GMail settings
  • compose messages with the rich text editor
  • find the shortcut keys and screen reader help screens

Some of the additional problems encountered can be attributed to the contextual toolbar not being responsive to keyboard commands via VoiceOver, like the “More” and label menus. Additionally, if the user switches to the plain text editor for composing messages it is easier to compose messages.

Keyboard Only

Keyboard-only access is trying to use an application using only your keyboard without ever relying on a mouse. Keyboard-only access is a critical test because many assistive technologies interface with computers by mimicking the behavior of a keyboard. Also, many users simply cannot use a mouse and need to interact with an application solely through a keyboard.

Grade: B

Most functions are accessible using keyboard alone. Google’s documented shortcut keys provide a lot of assistance in quickly navigating the interface and performing actions. The only notable exceptions are

  • selecting or deselecting all messages
  • using the rich text editing features
  • inefficiencies in creating and managing the visibility of labels
  • accessing the GMail settings

There are also times when an excessive amount of tabbing is required to access portions of the interface.

Sticky Keys

In addition to testing with keyboard alone, an assessment was conducted using Sticky Keys. Sticky Keys is not a product, but rather is a function built into operating systems. Sticky Keys allows users to submit key press combinations in serial as opposed to the normal parallel fashion. For instance, instead of simultaneously pressing Control and V, the user can press the Control key, let go of Control, and then the V key. Sticky Keys is used by some people with mobility impairments.
This assessment was included because in the earlier evaluation of Google Docs, problems were observed that only occurred if Sticky Keys was enabled. However, this was not the case with GMail (or with Calendar). The same problems reported in the preceding section related to keyboard accessibility were observed, but there were no additional problems that solely affected Sticky Keys users.

Read & Write Gold

Read&WriteGold is a software application that assists users in reading and composing text through a series of tools such as text-to-speech reading, word-by-word highlighting, and spell-checking functions designed for particular learning disabilities. It is not considered an alternative means of interacting with an application, like a screen reader. Rather, it adds a layer of functionality on top of an application to aid the user.

Grade: A

All of the major functionality of Read and Write Gold works fine in GMail.


ZoomText is a screen magnification application that allows users to selectively enlarge portions of their screen, such as the area beneath their mouse. It also will read the text from the page to the user.

Grade: B

The screen magnification functions of ZoomText work fine with GMail. When using the screen reader functionality some of the same problems as in other screen reader tests were uncovered, namely that the tab order for user interface elements were not always logical. This made looking for specific functions problematic at times as the control being looked for was not already in the zoomed in section.

Dragon Naturally Speaking with IE

Grade: D (possibly a B when Dragon is used in combination with Firefox)

Dragon Naturally Speaking does technically work in GMail, but not in a way to take advantage of any of its features to aid people with disabilities. One of Dragon’s strengths is being able to recognize link text on a page so the user simply needs to say “click send” in order to click on the send button. In GMail, virtually none of the links or clickable items are recognizable by Dragon as being clickable links. The means the Dragon user, in order to use GMail, must resort to issuing keyboard commands, like saying “tab” repeatedly to navigate through the page, or must issue GMail shortcut key commands. The other alternative is to utilize the Mouse Grid, a series of increasingly finer detailed grids superimposed over the screen, to click on sections of a page. Both the keyboard commands and the Mouse Grid processes are very labor intensive and inefficient when they are the only means by which a user can navigate the page.

A surprising discovery late in our testing process revealed that Dragon and Firefox work quite well together. This was surprising because the conventional wisdom has been to always use IE with Dragon because there is better support for this combination for all Web pages. We are uncertain at this point why Firefox works so much better with Dragon than IE and we are currently doing some more tests as to the accessibility of this combination.