Colleges Discriminate Against the Blind With Google Apps, Advocates Say

Many colleges find Google’s free e-mail and word-processing services irresistible.

Blind professors and students find them to be something else: inaccessible.

That’s the accusation of a civil-rights complaint filed today against New York University and Northwestern, two institutions that recently adopted the suite of free software services known as Google Apps for Education. The National Federation of the Blind wants the Justice Department to investigate both universities for discriminatory behavior that allegedly violates the Americans With Disabilities Act.

In a series of online videos, the advocacy group lays out a range of problems that occur when blind users access Google’s products with assistive software that reads Web pages aloud. For example, Gmail lacks clear labels to alert users to the type of information that they should put in each text field, such as the message’s subject or the recipient’s e-mail address, says Christopher Danielsen, a spokesman for the blind federation.

Marc Maurer, president of the federation, urges universities “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.”

Inaccessible learning materials pervade higher education, and today’s move is the latest in a series of offensives that advocates have mounted against the problem. A more sweeping complaint filed against Penn State in November remains unresolved.

Google told the Associated Press that the company had a productive talk with Mr. Maurer last week. “We left the meeting with a strong commitment to improving our products,” Alan Eustace, Google’s senior vice president for engineering and research, told AP. He did not go into details.

The accessibility fight comes as Google has been trying to push even deeper into academe. In January, Google unveiled an education-focused section of its Google Apps Marketplace, a directory of Web-based services that showcases applications built by other software companies that work with Google’s free applications.

Nearly 60 percent of colleges turn to outside companies for their student e-mail, according to Kenneth C. Green’s Campus Computing Survey. Google and Microsoft are the leading providers, with more than half of colleges using Google and slightly more than 40 percent of colleges that outsource choosing Microsoft.

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