Recent changes to Google Docs stopped some accessibility tools from working.

Here’s what you need to know about Google Canvas.

Student holding card for google docs

Google Docs recently changed the way they render text (from HTML to something called Canvas).

The important thing to understand is that this change took away ALL of the information that accessibility tools needed to be able to work in Google docs. 

Speech-to-text, text-to-speech, and word prediction all relied on HTML rendering in Google Docs, so this was a colossal change for assistive tool developers and students who rely on these tools every day to read and write.

Google gave software developers many months’ notice that this change was coming, but the path to keep assistive tools going in Google Docs proved to be a major endeavour while the timer ticked towards Google moving to 100% Canvas—effectively removing the lifeline fallback option. That lifeline was removed just recently and stopped some accessibility tools in their tracks.

I recently sat down with Kevin Johnston VP Engineering North America at Don Johnston Inc.—who also happens to be Don Johnston’s son—to talk about why and how Snap&Read and Co:Writer continued to work. It was my first time meeting him, and he was delightfully warm and kind, so I felt okay about admitting that I didn’t really understand much about his department and what they do.

Research and Development is the name of it, and as it turns out, the good folks of R&D work very very hard: constantly tweaking Don Johnston’s software in response to the many changes in the many platforms (Chrome, Google Docs, LMSs, etc) that Snap&Read and Co:Writer work with and responding quickly to any user problems that arise.

These people are the reason the tools work day in and day out, and it’s no easy feat.

But their work is done with heart: when it comes to assistive technology, Kevin’s utmost priority and passion is helping students with disabilities.

Kevin Johnston, smiling

“I don’t care if you use somebody else’s tools, says Kevin. “For me, it’s really important that students have the tools that they need to access the curriculum and participate in school.”

“That’s the number one thing,” he says.

Which is why, when faced with this huge obstacle to ensuring accessibility features would continue to work in Google Docs, he worked in close collaboration with other companies—our competitors, if you will—to ensure that kids with disabilities could keep using their AT. And one of those companies (back in the spring of 2020) was Texthelp.

This collaboration took place before Don Johnston and Texthelp joined forces. Kevin says that he enjoyed working with Ryan Graham, CTO at Texthelp, and he sees really exciting possibilities in the merging of their respective R&D departments. This includes the brilliant minds from Lingit, Wizkids, Claro, and LexAble, all of which fall under the Texthelp umbrella and all of whom Kevin says have been a blast to collaborate with already.

“When I look at how much work we do to just maintain our tools, it takes about half of our time to just make sure our tools work tomorrow like they did today,” Kevin says. “That’s a lot of work.

Kevin says that by working alongside the Texthelp team, the R&D departments can work far more efficiently by pooling resources and workload.

“Maintaining the tools could then take something like one-sixth of our time, or even one-tenth of our time, and we can get to more innovation,” he says. “I want to make things that can help students more. It’s great.”

Kevin says he feels like a “kid in a candy store” when he thinks about all the possibilities this new collaboration brings.

“Because if you think about it, my job is a lot of technical stuff,” Kevin says, “But at the end of the day, all we’re doing is whatever we can do to help these students read and write.”

And we’re really excited to see what other amazing things Texthelp and Don Johnston will accomplish together.

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Don Johnston Human Learning Tools written next to blue logo

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