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California State U. Report Warns of Accessibility Issues in Google Services

California State University’s Accessible Technology Initiative suggests in a report released this week that universities limit their campuswide use of Google’s free Web services based on what it calls a variety of inaccessibility issues for the blind and those with other disabilities.

The report, “ATI  Google Apps Accessibility Evaluation,” looked at the accessibility of Google Apps for Education, a free software suite available to colleges and elementary and secondary schools. Hundreds of colleges have adopted Google Apps as their official campus e-mail and communication service for students.

Peter Mosinskis, information-technology project supervisor at California State University-Channel Islands, led the research, which looked specifically into Gmail Chat, Google Calendar, Google Sites, and Google Docs.

“The idea and concept of cloud-based apps is very appealing and has so many different applications within higher ed and beyond,” said Mr. Mosinskis, who personally uses Google Apps. “We just can’t support them really at an institution level.”

The report suggests that universities limit the use of Docs, Spreadsheets, Presentations, and Calendar to administration, while generally discouraging use of Forms, Sites, and Gmail Chat. Some 10 professional and student volunteers from California State University took part in the testing process, which began in January, and evaluated the range of apps for interface navigability and screen-reader compliance.

Mr. Mosinskis is now looking into third-party plug-ins like OffiSync and Google Cloud Connect that will allow disabled users to more easily use Google Apps with assistance devices, but he said that such plug-ins, for the most part, are in the infancy of their development and that responsibility for accessibility needs to rest primarily on Google itself.

“CSU is trying to partner with Google, and Google is being fairly responsive toward answering some of our questions,” Mr. Mosinskis said.

He took part in a confidential conversation with Google officials to discuss accessibility issues, and the university released the report to Google before publicly posting the research online.

The university made the campuswide switch to Google’s free e-mail service last fall, but it held off activating additional applications in the Google Apps suite until an assessment could be made regarding accessibility for blind and visually impaired users, as well as other disabled users. The institution’s decision to go with Google Apps was a combination of cost savings and student and staff familiarity with the services, according to Mr. Mosinskis.

Concerns about the accessibility of Google Apps have been raised at other universities that have adopted it. Northwestern University and New York University were the subjects of a civil-rights complaint last March by an advocacy group for the blind, which wanted the Justice Department to investigate whether the institutions’ use of the suite violated the Americans With Disabilities Act.

“There isn’t a single component of that suite that doesn’t contain access barriers at this time,” said Chris Danielsen, public-relations director of the National Federation of the Blind, the organization that requested the investigation.

“We believe universities shouldn’t use inaccessible technology because it’s against the law and it also puts additional pressure on technology developers to make their products fully accessible,” Mr. Danielsen said. The federation recommends that universities avoid the suite entirely until all barrier issues are resolved.

Google officials could not be reached for comment.

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