By Claude Almansi
Editor, Accessibility Issues
ETCJ Associate Administrator
The National Federation of the Blind is requesting the US Department of Justice to “investigate civil rights violations . . . against blind faculty and students” by New York University and Northwestern University and four school districts in Oregon.
Motive: their adoption of Google Apps for Education, a limited series of Google applications (mail, calendar, docs, spreadsheets and sites) that educational bodies can put under their domain name, and where they can control what their staff and students do, but which present serious accessibility issues for the blind.
Both universities have recently adopted Google Apps for Education as a means of providing e-mail and collaboration tools to students and faculty. (. . .) Each of these applications contains significant accessibility barriers for blind people utilizing screen access technology, which converts what is on the computer screen into synthesized speech or Braille.
A similar request for investigation has been filed against four Oregon public school districts that are using Google Apps. The complaints allege violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.
For further illustration of this matter, please view a demonstration of screen access technology used by the blind and the accessibility barriers that a blind person experiences using Google Apps.
Dr Marc Maurer, President of the National Federation of the Blind, said: “Given the many accessible options available, there is no good reason that these universities should choose a suite of applications, including critical e-mail services, that is inaccessible to blind students.
Worse yet, according to recent data more than half of the American higher education institutions that are outsourcing e-mail to third-party vendors plan to deploy this suite, even though they know that it cannot be used by blind students. Nor can these universities claim ignorance of their legal obligations, since the United States Department of Justice and the United States Department of Education have specifically warned all university presidents against the adoption of inaccessible technology
We urge these higher education institutions to suspend their adoption of Google Apps for Education until it is accessible to all students and faculty, not just the sighted, or to reject Google Apps entirely.
The obstacles hindering blind people when they attempt to use Google Apps are very clearly illustrated in the videos of the mentioned demonstration of screen access technology page. As several of these obstacles also arise in other Web 2.0 applications, including WordPress, which is used by this journal, ETCJ, these videos are also of great general value.
The joint letter from the US DOJ and DOE to university and college presidents of universities, mentioned by Dr Maurer, contains precise references to the articles of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 that are relevant in deciding what hardware or software can or cannot be used at US educational institutions. In other countries, those in charge of accessibility compliance of their schools can use these references as guides to similar provisions in their national laws.
Of course, there are differences between the discrimination suit filed and won by the NFB and ACB against Arizona State University about its adoption of Amazon’s Kindle e-book reader, which caused the above-mentioned joint letter, and the NFB’s present request of an investigation concerning Google Apps:
By the time the NFB decided to sue ASU, Amazon had made it clear that it considered the text-to-speech of the Kindle as a mere selling gimmick that could be omitted to assuage the Authors’ Guild, even if this caving in meant giving credibility to the Guild’s preposterous claim that text-to-speech technology created derivative works for which further authorization was required (see the “Background” section of e-Book Readers: Attempting to Bugger the Blind is Bad for Business).
Google, on the other hand, has an accessibility research lab led by T.V. Raman, who is himself blind. Dr Raman signed the 2007 Overview of Accessible Solutions from Google page. He also manages the Accessible discussion group “For users of Google’s accessibility services such http://labs.google.com/accessible to share tips on what works well and what could be made better.”
Thus, on the whole, Google seems more committed to accessibility than Amazon. Moreover, the NFB has supported Google on several occasions, in particular during antitrust proceedings concerning the Google Book Search Settlement (see, e.g., Dr Maurer’s statement at the Sep. 10, 2009, session of the US House of Representatives’ Committee on the Judiciary on Competition and Commerce in Digital Books, quoted in The Democratization of Knowledge – NFB Works to Promote the Google Book Settlement – Braille Monitor, November 2009). So maybe there is a chance that Google will make Google Apps really usable by all, rather than risking the possibility that the DOJ will forbid its use in educational institutions.
Meanwhile, US universities and schools that are considering the adoption of Google Apps should take into account the NFB’s request “to suspend their adoption of Google Apps for Education until it is accessible to all students and faculty, not just the sighted, or to reject Google Apps entirely”. This also obtains for educational establishments s in other countries, because adopting Google Apps, even if a country’s laws allow it, might entail problems in collaborations with US partners, and above all because discriminating against a category of people is anti-educational.
There have been several comments on the NFB’s request. I’ll bookmark them in diigo.com/user/calmansi/NFBvGoogleApps. Here are two particularly interesting ones.
First, in What Will It Take to Sustain Online Accessibility? (March 16, 2011 – thanks to Jim Shimabukuro for this link), Cyndi Rowland, executive director of WebAIM, places the NFB’s request in the broader context of how decisions concerning accessibility are taken in higher education institutions. And she quotes Cynthia Waddell, who wrote in A treatise on the ADA and the internet that
“. . .a public entity violates its obligations under the ADA when it only responds on an ad-hoc basis to individual requests for accommodation. There is an affirmative duty to develop a comprehensive policy in advance of any request for auxiliary aids or services.”
Second, commenting on NFB’s request that the DOJ investigate civil rights violations in the adoption of Google Apps in Google Apps and the National Federation of the Blind (March 17, 2011), Steven Worona, Senior Policy Director of EDUCAUSE, writes:
…EDUCAUSE supports the aggressive and innovative efforts being made on many campuses to accommodate community members with a wide range of physical and other disabilities. In the case of Google Apps, the accommodation must come from Google, and we note reports in the press that discussions to this end have been underway for some time. We strongly encourage Google to expeditiously produce an accessible version of Google Apps.
This statement is particularly important because, according to the Official Google Blog, EDUCAUSE is where Google “first unveiled Google Apps for Education” in 2006 and held several events about them afterwards.
Filed under: accessibility, Education, law Tagged: | ACB, ADA, Amazon, American Council for the Blind, blind, college, Department of Justice, DoJ, google apps, Kindle, Nation Federation of the Blind, NFB, Schools, Section 504, section 508, University