Complaint: Gmail hard for blind students to use

WASHINGTON — A complaint filed Tuesday with the federal government accuses New York University and Northwestern University of discriminating against blind students by adopting Google e-mail and other programs that aren’t fully compatible with technology that translates written words into speech.

The National Federation of the Blind has requested a Justice Department investigation into the schools’ use of Gmail and other Google programs, saying that requiring students to use them violates the Americans with Disabilities Act. The Baltimore-based group is also asking other colleges not to adopt the software until it’s accessible to all students and faculty.

“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,” said Marc Maurer, president of the National Federation of the Blind.

Google said in an e-mail that it had a productive discussion last week with Maurer about accessibility issues but didn’t offer further specifics.

“We left the meeting with a strong commitment to improving our products,” said Alan Eustace, Google’s senior vice president for engineering and research.

The federation said that some Google products are partially accessible to blind users, but are difficult to use without assistance from a person who can see the screen. With Gmail, for example, the process of creating an account is the biggest problem, with other glitches in navigating while relying on screen readers, said Chris Danielsen, a spokesman for the blind federation. In the Google Docs word processing and spreadsheet program, a lack of audible descriptions makes the tool bars invisible to blind users, and text that a user types is not always audible with text-to-speech technology that draws cues from the screen.

The group said there are also problems with Google Calendar, Google Groups and other programs.

“A lot of times the problem is that yes, theoretically, if you fiddled around with something long enough you could make some of this stuff work — but the products really aren’t designed to work with screen readers,” Danielsen said. “It’s an ease of use issue — and there’s no reason for those barriers to exist.”

Northwestern and NYU recently adopted the free suite of Google Apps for Education for campus e-mail and other classroom services used by students to collaborate on assignments. The blind federation says that a significant number of U.S. colleges are outsourcing their e-mail to Google. In such cases, Google often provides hosting services for campus e-mail.

A Northwestern spokeswoman said school officials were not aware of the complaint and would have no comment. An NYU spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Schools are covered by the federal law protecting rights of the disabled, while Google may not have the same obligations with products it creates.

Last June, the U.S. Departments of Justice and Education issued a letter to college presidents requiring schools that use Kindles and other e-book readers in the classroom to make sure the gadgets have accommodations for blind and vision-impaired students. The federal government examined the campus e-reader technology after a blind student sued Arizona State University over use of the Kindle and was joined by the National Federation of the Blind and the American Council of the Blind.

Amazon.com Inc. announced changes last year to the Kindle to make it more accessible for blind and vision-impaired users.

“We’re seeing so much very rapid adoption of technology at colleges and even at the K-12 level that we’re very concerned and very proactive about looking out for situations where blind students are going to be affected,” Danielsen said.

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