WebAIM - Web Accessibility In Mind

Google Wave Preview Accessibility Review

Totally inaccessible.

That’s the most accurate way that Google Wave (not to be confused with the original WAVE) accessibility can be summarized. It must be disclaimed that this is a very early preview release of Google Wave, and functionality and accessibility will certainly be improved along the way. Still, it is rather disheartening to see no attention paid to accessibility. For example:

  • Alternative text is not provided for any images.
  • Background images are used to convey content.
  • Roles, states, and other accessibility properties are not defined.
  • There is no document or heading structure or semantics. None! Not even a list!
  • Form elements do not have labels or titles.
  • Keyboard focus indication is hidden, making keyboard navigation nearly impossible.
  • Most interactive elements are not in the tab order or do not respond to keyboard activation.
  • Keyboard focus is often trapped, requiring the page or browser to be closed to resume keyboard navigation.
  • The application becomes unusable and unreadable when text size is increased only slightly.

… and I think you get the general idea. One positive point – the welcome and introductory videos are captioned.


Despite it’s rudimentary nature, e-mail continues to pose a relatively significant accessibility issue to users with disabilities. This is primarily due to its dual-threaded nature – meaning that messages can have replies, but the content of replies often takes an entirely different form. The response text of a particular e-mail might be top-posted, bottom-posted, or intermingled throughout the original message. This complexity is compounded by the fact that participants can join or leave the e-mail discussion at any point.

Google Wave does a wonderful job of addressing these issues by presenting the conversation in a way that does not rely on threads or quoted replies. The entire history of a conversation can be viewed or replayed. Conversation participants can join or leave along the way without losing context, history, or content. Additionally, Google Wave adds real-time interactivity and collaboration to the communication.

In short, the potential for Google Wave to streamline and enhance communication for people with disabilities, especially screen reader users, is great. Could Google Wave be made accessible? I believe it could be. I would never advocate that accessibility constraints should limit innovation – indeed many of the most accessible technologies now available started as accessibility black holes. Of course it is always easier and better to implement accessibility as part of innovation, something clearly lacking in this case.

With ARIA and modern-day user agents and screen readers, Google Wave can be made accessible and become a powerful tool that ALL users can enjoy and benefit from – and people with disabilities have particular need for such enhanced communication tools. With a bit of education or guidance, and typical Google ingenuity, Google Wave has great potential to not only be a wonderful tool, but a wonderfully accessible tool.

(Contact the author through Google Wave at jaredsmith36459@googlewave.com)


  1. kim

    It’s extremely disheartening that the most basic accessibility principles were overlooked. Thank you for doing this type of review, Jared.

  2. Joe Clark

    You’re awfully kind to this serial perpetrator of inaccessible software products.

  3. Tom Babinszki

    Thanks for the evaluation, unfortunately I couldn’t get an invitation yet. I guess I don’t want it now.
    I’m very disappointed, but not surprised. This is not the first thing where Google either did not care about accessibility, or made an existing application less accessible.

    I’m a Yahoo! user, while I used to prefer Google, Yahoo! has just done much more for accessibility.

  4. Preston L. Bannister


    Note that Google Wave is the implementation of a new notion. The notion is new. The implementation is new. What you looked at is a PREVIEW (and a very early one at that).

    When both notion and implementation are new, many things can – and will – change. The implementors should try out lots of things, some they will keep, some they will discard, and some they will adjust. To make the best progress, invested effort on each iteration should be minimal.

    I do not believe an application can be well-designed for accessibility, just by filling out a few “alt” attributes (or the like, and the notion of mandatory “alt” attributes strikes me as … clueless.) I do believe that well-done accessibility requires substantial thought, and should not be done casually.

    For simple pragmatic reason, most developers are not well-versed in design for accessibility – and this will not change.

    Developers should focus where most needed and avoid inefficient distractions. Work on accessibility is always going to be inefficient. All of which means that early on in an innovative work, it makes no sense for a reviewer to expect effort expended on accessibility.

    If this were a general release, a critical look at accessibility would be well-justified – but not now.

  5. Andy

    @Preston L Bannister “I do believe that well-done accessibility requires substantial thought, and should not be done casually.”

    I agree, which is exactly why it should be done from the very beginning. Retrofitting and shoehorning accessibility into a released system is a complete nightmare, and the fact that WAVE falls so far short in it’s current state doesn’t give you much faith the first stable release will be any different.

    Oh and since when was something as basic as using semantic headings or lists an ‘inefficient distraction’? Accessibility aside, basic HTML like that takes little heading scratching and should really come naturally to anyone who’s been doing it for any length of time.

  6. Ian

    I contrast to some of the posts here, this is actually the most positive article about Google Wave that I’ve read. You raise a fascinating point about its potential to help overcome the inaccessibility of e-mail. Such a powerful possibility seems at odds with their lack of accessible tools in implementation.

  7. Chris Leong

    Google Wave is already ridiculously complex and ambitious, which is something people who are not software developers may not be able to appreciate. To try and weave too many extra features like accessibility into all of this, at such an early stage, could have significantly affected the delivery time of the project or even made it fail. Although less time may be spent on a feature if you plan for it from the start, if you try to mix in too many features right off the bat, you may never actually end up completing anything.

  8. Jared Smith


    “Too many features” like taking 3 seconds to write some alt text? Or maybe putting the main navigation in a list? Or not adding outline:0 to the CSS? Really complex stuff like that?

  9. Web Axe

    As a leader, Google needs to set a (good) example, and the knowledge and technology is available (web standards, ARIA, etc). And with money coming out of every orifice, this shouldn’t be an issue.

    Also, I agree with many comments above such as Kim “It’s extremely disheartening that the most basic accessibility principles were overlooked” and Tom “Yahoo! has just done much more for accessibility.”

    And to add to Jared’s list of “complex stuff” in the comment above, how about adding some headings, Google?! Not rocket science!

  10. Doctor

    A likely possibility: the web interface will always be useless for visually impaired users. Instead, audio clients will implement the wave protocol.

  11. Joe Clark

    I think the claim that E-mail is inaccessible is nonsense.

  12. Jared Smith


    I didn’t claim that e-mail is inaccessible. But there’s no question that it is not a perfect form of communicating – even for those that do not use screen readers. If everybody quoted messages properly (I know you agree here), always replied to the right people, didn’t use improper HTML in e-mail, etc. then it would work fine. But the truth is that complex communications via e-mail typically are far less than optimal for screen reader users. Do you disagree?

  13. Ricky Buchanan

    Now it’s been released in a bit less of a preview-only way have any of these problems been addressed at all?

    And yes, I find that developing with semantic HTML like headings and lists makes things more efficient, not less! But then I’m not developing Google Wave (nor have I used it, if it’s unfriendly to expanded text sizes then I am locked out of it for accessibility reasons so I haven’t bothered to fish for an invite yet) and perhaps they have their reasons.

    OTOH I am not very hopeful that things will substantially improve in the near future, given Google’s record. Realised the other day that signing up for a Feedburner email subscription requires navigating a CAPTCHA with no audio alternative … geez!


  14. Dennis

    You are a true pioneer – thanks for this.
    I’d also like to add:
    I purchased your WEBAIM guide to accessibility a while back and it’s very helpful. I recommend all folks who provide web accessibility at some level, use it regardless if you have a disability or not.

  15. avşa adası

    I always follow your blog site. Narrator is very beautiful and informative articles. Would like to thank all the authors I wish you success

  16. Jim Thatcher

    Y’all know what you are talking about. I don’t. Jared – you start out this article about Google Wave without a single word about what it is. It is not Wave now hosted at Webaim – that I know!


  17. bristol handyman

    Way too many features for me.Takes too long to write some alt text? Or maybe putting the main navigation in a list.

  18. Federico

    Why do people ALWAYS complain?
    Why do people ALWAYS feel the need to say that this or that product are lousy, or bad?

    You don’t like Google Wave: don’t use it!

    When Google Wave was first opened, it was an early beta version. It was lacking lots of features, and Google itself knew that and told that.
    Wave was out mainly for developers to see it and begin building something around it.

    Why do sharp people like you keep judging everything from the top of their knowledge? If you know THAT much, do it yourself!

    IMHO, of course.

    Federico from Italy

  19. Google wave discontinued

    I’m sorry to announce that, but unfortunately , google announced on their official blog that google wave is no longer developed, so sad really, but the bright side is that google said they will include it in chromium OS

  20. Tom Baxter

    I agree with the fact that if you don’t like google wave don’t use it lol. I never saw the point myself but then most people never saw the point in skype at the beginning.