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Google Apps Accessibility: A Light at the End of the Tunnel?

A couple of weeks ago, Google announced accessibility improvements to a number of Google Apps, including Google Docs (documents list, documents, and spreadsheets), Google Calendar (agenda view), Google Sites, Google Books, and Google Chat (as part of Gmail). Those improvements did not settle the issue of making Google Apps fully accessible for the visually impaired. However, they may signal that the end of the tunnel is in sight, and that the light campuses are seeing may no longer be a train of potential litigation or U.S. Department of Justice inquiries.

The video archive of Google’s webconference to demonstrate the improvements is now available, so you can see firsthand how Google’s accessibility team characterizes what they have achieved thus far and what they have in progress. As noted in the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) review of the Google Apps improvements, keyboard navigation and screen reader support for the relevant Google Apps accessed via Firefox and the screen reader application, JAWS, as well as via the Chrome browser using Google’s own ChromeVox screen reader, have been significantly improved. (Google notes that its improvements in screen reader support for Google Calendar extend to Apple’s VoiceOver screen reader as well.) Some drawbacks remain, though, such as the Google Calendar improvements currently being limited to the Agenda view (it offers day, week, month, and four-day views as well), and accessibility of the Apps via Internet Explorer remains a concern.

I discussed the Google Apps accessibility improvements and Google’s ongoing progress in this area with Dan Goldstein, NFB legal counsel, yesterday. He expressed appreciation for the improvements Google has made thus far and its stated commitment to continuing that progress. He also noted that substantial progress remains to be achieved, though, before Google Apps can be considered fully accessible to the visually impaired, consistent with the accessibility requirements colleges and universities generally must meet as he understands them.

However, given the improvements made and the pace of change demonstrated to this point, Goldstein indicated that Google Apps could conceivably cross the necessary accessibility threshold from the NFB’s perspective within the next few months. In raising that as a possibility, he reiterated that Google Apps “isn’t there yet,” and it is not definite that it will be within the timeframe he mentioned. Thus, institutions should continue to consider accessibility concerns in relation to Google Apps carefully pending information on further progress. If Google does achieve what he thinks possible, though, 2012 may truly be a new year from the standpoint of institutional adoption of Google Apps for Education.

EDUCAUSE members should still watch for more feedback on Google Apps accessibility from sources such as the EDUCAUSE IT Accessibility Constituent Group. For example, members of that group have expressed concern that Google Apps may continue to pose problems for persons with other forms of disability, such as those who need to use speech recognition software (e.g., Dragon Naturally Speaking) to interface with the applications. But institutions interested in adopting Google Apps for Education should be heartened that a major area of concern could possibly be resolved within the relatively near term.


My name is Greg Kraus and I am coordinating a working group from the Access Technology Higher Education Network (ATHEN) and the EDUCAUSE IT Accessibility Constituent Group to more fully assess the accessibility of Google Apps for multiple types of disabilities. As campuses move forward in their decision making process or their implementation process for Google Apps, one key thing to remember is that solving the accessibility problems for one type of disability does not necessarily solve the problems for all types of disabilities. It is true that making an application accessible for people with visual impairments does address the needs of several other types of disabilities, but we want to also let campuses and Google know what other issues need to be resolved.

We are delighted that Google has taken leadership in making the Google Apps suite more accessible and have been impressed with their efforts to date. But as noted, there is still more work to do, and Google is aware of this and is working on it.

Our Google Apps Accessibility Interest Group is planning to release our initial report in about two weeks, just as the EDUCAUSE Annual Conference is beginning. Assessing the entire Google Apps suite for all types of disabilities is quite an extensive task. Our initial report will be on the Documents portion of Google Docs and will cover various assistive technologies, including screen readers, screen magnifiers, keyboard-only access, and speech recognition software.

If you have any questions about our group you can contact me at

Terrill Thompson, moderator of the EDUCAUSE IT Accessibility Constituent Group, asked me to post the following information about accessibility offerings at our upcoming EDUCAUSE 2011 Annual Conference ( in Philadelphia, PA:

For anyone interested in discussing this issue and learning more about current status and implications, there are many opportunities to do so at EDUCAUSE 2011, both face-to-face and online. The IT Accessibility Constituent Group has compiled a list:

For those interested in hearing directly from the Google accessibility team, we will be speaking next week at a discussion session titled "How Accessible is Your Cloud" - Meeting Room 202B ( We will also have the accessibility team at the Google booth in the exhibit hall speaking from 9:45 - 10:30am. 

Higher education institutions are trying to ascertain the accessibility of the Google Apps suite and the impact it will have on their campuses. The Access Technology Higher Education Network (ATHEN) conducted accessibility evaluations, covering multiple types of disabilities, on Google Documents in order to provide campuses as much information as possible. The evaluations revealed that while work had been done to improve the accessibility for screen reader users, there are significant shortcomings for both screen reader users and people with other types of disabilities requiring different assistive technologies. The evaluations cover visual, mobility, learning, and cognitive disabilities. The report may be read online at

or can be downloaded as a PDF at

ATHEN will continue its work by performing additional evaluations on other applications within the Google Apps suite.

Any questions or comments about this report can be directed to Greg Kraus (, Coordinator of the ATHEN Google Apps Accessibility Interest Group.

Just wanted to let folks know that we've just posted a YouTube podcast by one of our test engineers, demonstrating how to use Google Document List in a screen reader.

Looking forward to meeting many of you tomorrow, either at the discussion "How Accessible is your Cloud" at 8am or afterwards in the Google booth from 9:45 to 10:30 for the fireside chat.