NFB Targets Google Apps and Northwestern: Time for a Plan B

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In addition to Penn State, the NFB (National Federation of the Blind) is requesting an investigation of Northwestern and NYU (New York University), because they have adopted Google Apps (incl e-mail and Google Docs) and Google Docs is not accessible to screen readers.

The good news for Penn State is that we have NOT adopted Google Apps as an official tool. However it is still worth considering the implications of recommending any technology. For the record, I think Google Docs and Google Spreadsheets are great collaborative tools and I don't want to deny access to those who it can help, but I can't ignore the face that there are accessibility issues.

On the other hand...Google Docs is not the only option out there. Spokespeople for the NFB have recommended Windows Live, but even if you're not a Windows Live fan, there are plenty of other options including:

  • Sharing actual Word files
  • Accessible blogs and discussion boards

To me, the point isn't to ban tools, but to utilize a wide set of tools for a given function and not lock users into one platform. This takes some planning and a little bit of research, but as I'm learning from my students, they often have great tricks for using technology, so why not pick their brains?

(Although I would add that your alternates should be good alternates. A recent note from the Office of Civil Rights regarding the use of electronic book readers)

A college or university may provide an individual with a disability, or a class of individuals with disabilities, with a different or separate aid, benefit, or service only if doing so is necessary to ensure that the aid, benefit, or service is as effective as that provided to others.

Final Notes

Here at ETS, when we investigate new technologies, we have a special responsibility to review tools for accessibility early in the process. To quote again the Office of Civil Rights

It is unacceptable for universities to use emerging technology without insisting that this technology be accessible to all students.

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