Is Google inaccessible?

A U.S. advocacy group has launched a civil rights challenge, claiming the software is unusable for blind students

Google is the wrong choice for university email, a U.S. advocacy group is charging.

But it’s more than that. They argue that by choosing to outsource university email services to Google, universities are violating the civil rights of vision-impaired students and faculty.

The U.S.-based National Federation of the Blind launched a civil rights challenge against two American universities this week, pointing out that while Google’s free software suite is attractive, it is nearly impossible to use by the blind.

Their position is pretty clear. President Marc Maurer writes:

“Given the many accessible options available, there is no good reason that these universities should choose a suite of applications, including critical email 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.

“The National Federation of the Blind will not tolerate this unconscionable discrimination against blind students and faculty and callous indifference to the right of blind students to receive an equal education. 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.”

Canadian universities, though, are in a similar spot. Large schools like the University of Toronto, the University of Alberta and even smaller schools, like Lakehead University, have already signed over their email services to Google.

North of the border, most concerns related to this shift have been about privacy. How much control does a university have over the privacy of its students’ email accounts when they’re based out of servers on U.S. soil? It turns out, not very much.

But those concerns are theoretical. Concerns about accessibility are real, daily and serious for those whose disabilities prevent them from using core services.

Google told the Chronicle of Higher Education that they were meeting with the NFB to improve their product line, but no details or timelines were offered.

The NFB is right to challenge the use of inaccessible software as much as wheelchair-bound students are right to challenge the lack of ramps on campus. Canadian schools should be paying close attention, and working with their students and faculty to ensure that all services — especially critical core services — are available to all.

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