Blind Students Oppose Colleges’ Use of Gmail

The National Federation of the Blind filed a complaint to multiple universities last week, calling their use of Google programs like those used by Georgetown discriminatory toward blind students.

Both New York University and Northwestern University recently adopted Google Apps for Education, which provides each student with a Gmail account, according to a March 15 NFB press release. Georgetown has similar applications, requiring students to use Hoyamail, the campus email system hosted by Google. Hoyamail also provides access to other Google Apps for Education, including the calendar and Google Docs.

These programs, including Gmail, are not compatible with text readers that convert written text into spoken words or Braille, according to the press release. As a result, blind students are unable to fully use these programs, a fact that poses problems for students at universities requiring use of Gmail.

According to Rachel Pugh, director of media relations at Georgetown, there are alternative options for Georgetown students who are unable to use Google programs.

“University Information Services does have in place provisions to provide a different email account, file sharing account or other technologies to any student or faculty member who requires this assistance,” she said. “While Google Docs is only available to students for general use rather than primary class activities, a student with a disability is still encouraged to contact the Academic Resource Center to arrange for alternative accommodations.”

According to NFB Director of Public Relations Chris Danielsen, the federation filed a request for investigation with the U.S. Department of Justice on behalf of blind students at both New York University and Northwestern University. The investigation will look at their recent adoption of Google Apps for Education and determine whether or not they have violated the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.

Danielsen expressed his desire for program changes that would make such web services available for blind students.

“Obviously these universities should not use these apps unless or until they are accessible to all students. We also hope that Google will do everything in its power to make these programs more accessible,” Danielsen said.

Google expressed its willingness to make its programs more accessible. Google Senior Vice President for Engineering and Research Alan Eustace recently met with NFB President Marc Maurer to discuss accessibility issues.

“Recently we had a productive discussion with Dr. Marc Maurer of the National Federation for the Blind, and he shared a powerful message on the importance of accessibility,” he said in an email. “We left the meeting with a strong commitment to improving our products.”

An article in the Washington Post stated that the Northwestern administration had not heard of any complaints, and did not have a comment. However, NYU Vice President for Public Affairs John Beckman commented that the university plans to take the concerns of the NFB into account when implementing the new technology. As of yet, NYU has not fully implemented Google Apps for Education.

Danielsen was unsure whether or not NYU or Northwestern University had any such alternative options in place, but stressed that this was not the main issue.

“It isn’t whether they have an alternative option, it’s a matter of separate but equal. For example, a collaborative project using Google Docs. To the extent that a student has to use separate technology inherently puts the student at a disadvantage. Separate is not equal,” he said.

Director of the Academic Resource Center Jane Holahan declined to comment and referred any further questions to UIS.

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