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NFB Google Apps Concerns Continue

Via email, Dan Goldstein, outside counsel for the National Federation of the Blind (NFB), was asked to address NFB’s current views on the accessibility of Google Apps for Education. (Thanks go to Terry Thompson, accessibility technology specialist at the University of Washington and immediate-past leader of the EDUCAUSE IT Accessibility Constituent Group, for initiating the dialogue.) In his response, Dan noted that the concerns NFB raised at the start of 2012 about Google’s approach to addressing Google Apps’ accessibility problems have only grown over the course of the year. Thus, NFB is once again considering legal and/or regulatory options to dissuade institutions from using Google Apps for Education as their institutional productivity suite.

Essentially, NFB testing and dialogue with members of its community as well as Google indicate that Google is working to address Google Apps accessibility deficits, but only in the context of Google’s own Chrome Operating System/Web Browser environment and its related accessibility tools (e.g., the ChromeVox screen reader). Google has told NFB that it is developing the next iterations of Chrome and related Google Apps to be fully accessible within its own product ecosystem. However, there is no indication yet that Google intends to address accessibility problems that arise from users accessing Google Apps via other market-standard browsers (e.g., Internet Explorer, Firefox) and assistive applications (e.g., the JAWS screen reader, the Dragon NaturallySpeaking speech recognition application). Furthermore, NFB testing has found that the current versions of Google Apps are not sufficiently accessible within the current Chrome environment to be considered viable for persons with visual disabilities.

NFB notes that the overwhelming majority of students, faculty, and staff with vision- or text-related disabilities are likely to have their assistive technology approach for the Web already built around non-Chrome browsers and assistive applications that, at present, do not appear to work well with Google Apps. Asking them to work in the Chrome environment to achieve accessibility thus entails a potentially wholesale shift in the technologies and applications with which they are well-versed, thus introducing requirements that NFB believes would not constitute a “reasonable accommodation” under the law.

Google and NFB continue to exchange views and information on this subject, so progress may still emerge. A team from Google recently spent two weeks onsite at NFB headquarters to get input on ways to resolve various Google Apps accessibility issues. Google has also indicated to NFB that the next version of ChromeVox will incorporate many of NFB’s recommendations, and thus make Google Apps easier to use for persons with visual disabilities. According to NFB, Google intends to fix all of the issues it reviewed onsite with NFB in time for CSUN 2013 (The 28th Annual International Technology and Persons with Disabilities Conference). However, it appears that the new version of ChromeVox will also not be available publicly before this point. Thus, significant upgrades in the accessibility of Google Apps within the Chrome environment may not emerge until late in the first quarter of 2013. And that still will not address NFB’s concerns about the accessibility of Google Apps in non-Chrome browsers and assistive applications.

Google has let EDUCAUSE know that its relevant Google Apps teams are currently processing the information gained from their onsite engagement with NFB. Once they have clarified what their findings mean for Google Apps development, a Google representative will touch base with us to discuss options for sharing Google Apps accessibility information and plans with the EDUCAUSE community. In the meantime, institutions that have adopted or are considering adopting Google Apps should check with their Google representative about the status of these issues. CIOs should also consult with their general counsel’s office about what this information means in the context of institutional compliance with relevant laws and regulations, given institutional policies and processes for meeting accessibility requirements.

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