by Sean Whalen
From the Editor: Sean Whalen is the president of the National Association of Blind Students, is a first year master in public policy student at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, and will be pursuing a law degree in a concurrent program. Here is a note he has written to encourage students to advocate for accessible software at colleges and universities around the country:
We have a wonderful opportunity to use our status as students to help further the work of the NFB. Dr. Maurer called me yesterday afternoon and advised me that we are in continued conversations with Google regarding the accessibility of Google Apps, which are frequently used by schools and universities. Unfortunately, Google Apps have many features that are inaccessible. We need to change this, and this effort is building momentum. The Provost of the University of Michigan has recently circulated the two communications that appear below to faculty and students at U of M. As you can read after this message, Michigan will not be requiring, and is in fact discouraging, the use of Google Apps for coursework, class projects, or communication between students until Google Apps are accessible and fully useable by disabled students, including the blind. This is a strong message, but we need to increase the pressure on Google. They need to hear this message from other colleges and universities, and they need to hear it now.
Does your school use Google Apps or is it considering it? Show your administration the principled and courageous stand that the University of Michigan has taken, and urge them to do the same. Educate your school's administration about how Google Apps leave blind students out, how they detract from our full participation in the classroom, and how they degrade our educational experience. I personally have run across inaccessible Google products here at HKS and will certainly be sharing the message below with my dean. I urge each of you to do the same. This is one of those instances in which we as students can step up to make a difference for all blind students and shape the future. Please take a few minutes to communicate the importance of accessibility in all aspects of education, and show your school that it is possible to take a stand. Technology can either open doors for the blind or seal them shut. I know which I prefer. So, please, take a moment and help show Google that accessibility matters by getting your school to communicate its commitment to accessibility.
Please call or write if you have any questions, and share this with anybody committed to equal access in education for the blind. Many thanks.
Below is the letter from the University of Michigan.
As you know, the University of Michigan has transitioned to Google Apps for Education for email, calendar, and collaboration tools. The university has been in regular contact with Google over the past year about the accessibility of their products, and we have conducted numerous tests to measure their progress. While Google has demonstrated definite improvements, much work remains to make the experience acceptable and equitable for individuals who have disabilities. Because Google Docs and Drive, Chat, Sites, and other collaborative technologies in the Google suite do not work well with standard assistive technologies, you should not require students to use them in coursework. In other words, you should not assign work where the only option to complete the work involves use of these tools, and, even if their use is optional, you should be extremely sensitive and avoid situations in which students who have disabilities may be disadvantaged if the Google suite is the preferred alternative.
I am also writing to our students to ask them to be cautious in their informal use of this suite of applications, avoiding them whenever their use may disadvantage students who have disabilities.
Google email and Calendar are accessible with standard assistive technologies when used with the client interface for Outlook or Mac Mail. Students, faculty, or staff may call 4-HELP for assistance in setting up the client interface, or they may visit the Knox Center Adaptive Technology Computing Site on the first floor of the Shapiro Library. Generally, if you need assistance in making your courses or technology accessible to students who have disabilities, don't hesitate to work with the Knox Center or the Services for Students with Disabilities.
We will continue to work with Google to address the accessibility issues in their software systems, and we expect that changes will be made so that they meet the needs of all our students.The university is committed to equal opportunity and equal access, and we are continually working harder to find ways to make the tools we use, facilities we access, and methods we apply accessible to our entire community. Please visit the sites below to learn more about how to support our community members with disabilities.