NFB: NYU, Northwestern and Other Schools Adopting Google Apps Discriminate Against the Blind

Claude AlmansiBy 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.

NFB’s request

From the NFB’s March 15, 2011 press release (also archived at Webcite):

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 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  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.

6 Responses

  1. Claude, my estimate of Google went up a few notches when I learned, through this article, that Google “has an accessibility research lab led by T.V. Raman, who is himself blind. . . . He also manages the Accessible discussion group ‘For users of Google’s accessibility services . . . to share tips on what works well and what could be made better.’”

    BTW, I love his initials!

    Hopefully, Google will take the lead in its Google Apps and show the world how deeply committed it is to universal accessibility. And as you’ve said in some of your previous articles and columns, everyone gains from the added features — not just the deaf or blind.

    Just as the innovations, inventions, and discoveries from NASA’s space explorations have spilled over into countless other fields, the features that make apps accessible to the deaf or blind will open numerous possibilities for others. -Jim S

    • The participation of Google staff in the discussions of the accessible group seems to have increased of late. See e.g. Dominic Mazzoni’s interventions in the the new google profile discussion.
      This discussion is particularly interesting, both because of its relation to the accessibility issues exposed in the NFB’s Google signup video, and as an illustration of the cultural/technical aspects involved in developing a Web 2.0, dynamic page, and making it accessible with several browsers and several assistive tools, and the many more combinations of both:

      Among these aspects, there is the possible conflict between Google’s “perpetual beta” culture, where they release products when they are still ironing out bugs. Now if you use a product visually, a bug is annoying, but if you have to use it sequentially, mostly, because that’s what your screen reader says, bugs become a real pain, unless there are kind of anchoring points you can easily go back to in the page.

      Another aspect arising from that discussion is users’ preferences. A simple accessibility solution would be to offer an alternative traditional html only, as with Gmail. Html only pages stay put, they don’t change under you. However, some expert screen reader users want the dynamic experience. In fact, even though screen readers play one thing at a time, they also have “skipping” capabilities that can produce a polyphonic experience that seems similar to Bach’s cello suites where the cello, even though it mostly plays one note at a time, can produce several intertwining tunes.

      Not everybody is a Rostropovitch of the screen reader, though – or has an instrument that can do these things: the question of the cost of the updates of JAWS – still the most used screen reading software – leading to people using former versions that can’t handle the new indications of dynamic pages has also been evoked in this discussion.

      And re your mention of NASA, Jim, Dominic Mazzoni – see his resume – worked for NASA 2001-2006, before becoming software engineer at Google – and after being research and teaching assistant (1999-2001) at Carnegie Mellon University, where he authored the Audacity multiplatform, free audio editing software, for which he is still project leader. And Audacity is greatly if not totally usable with a screen reader.

      So Dominic Mazzoni’s participation in the accessible group discussions seems to bode well for an improvement of the accessibility of Google online applications.

      • In the discussion entitled Accessibility of Gmail and Google Calendars of the Google “Accessible”, Dominic Mazoni wrotein a message dated March 31, 2011 in the archive:

        …We would love suggestions of organizations you think we should be in contact with. Personal introductions would be particularly welcome, please encourage anyone in a leadership position at those organizations to email me directly. .

        in reply to a message sent by Karen Sorenson on the same day, where she wrote:

        ..I think Google has heard the call, but hasn’t quite gotten the message. They are reacting to this NFB complaint as an issue w/screen readers rather than an opportunity to cooperate with accessibility groups. Have they approached any organization that specializes in accessibility other than the NFB? Does anyone know? …

        Dominic Mazzoni’s e-mail address is retrievable from his profile page for Google groups, though retrieving it involves solving a CAPTCHA (whose audio version is rather severely garbled).

  2. Hi, JIm

    I fully agree with you, and, possibly, so do the NFB people. However, Ira David Socol, in A “universal” VoiceThread? Not quite. And, Google and Prezi (March 20, 2011), writes about the NFB’s action:

    … The details of the complaint are complex, but here’s my Google Apps complaint.
    Those same “light” screen readers [used by people with dyslexia], the ones which make browsers accessible? they don’t work with Google Docs. Actually, they did with earlier html Google Docs, but the spring 2010 upgrade eliminated that functionality. …

    If this is one of the reasons for the NFB’s request, maybe Google could re-offer the .html version as an alternative for Google Docs? It already does have an html alternative for Gmail. Not sure it would solve all the issues, though. Socol’s conclusion well summarizes the dilemma for educators like him who are aware of accessibility issues:

    So, is it OK for us to use these tools in schools? I am conflicted. I tend to think “yes” assuming that we always – automatically – provide alternative access capability which is, essentially, equal. After all, we still use those inaccessible books in our rooms, we still let teachers write, in handwriting no less, on the “board.” But I’m bothered by it because use may tend to remove the pressure on these organizations to move toward accessibility. These companies want access to our students, should we offer that if they don’t really want access to all of our kids?

    However, not all educators are. Not even in Italy, where art. 5 about schools of the law on computer accessibility has produced a wealth of resources on its concrete application. So the NFB’s request could help making these teachers and for their school administrators aware of both the obligations and opportunities of accessibility when they choose online tools.

  3. […] deve ancora completare questo post e che ce n’è invece una versione completa in inglese: NFB: NYU, Northwestern and Other Schools Adopting Google Apps Discriminate Against the Blind – magari fra di voi c’è qualcuno che preferisce leggere in inglese, anche le barriere […]

  4. Update

    On September 14, 2011, T.V. Raman (Technical Lead, Google Accessibility) published Enhanced accessibility in Docs, Sites and Calendar on the Official Google Blog:

    Over the past few months, we’ve worked closely with advocacy organizations for the blind to improve our products with more accessibility enhancements. While our work isn’t done, we’ve now significantly improved keyboard shortcuts and support for screen readers in several Google applications, including Google Docs, Google Sites and Google Calendar.

    On the same day, Naomi Black (Technical Program Manager, Accessibility) announced a Live webinar: Accessibility Updates for Docs, Sites and Calendar for September 21, 2001, on the Official Google Enterprise Blog.

    See the late September discussions in the Google-lead accessible group for responses to the announced changes and to the webinar.

    Of particular interest: Naomi Black’s post on September 23 in the Who is my Google Rep? thread:

    If you’re interested in future beta testing around accessibility, please
    fill out this form: (…)

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