Does Use of Google Apps Discriminate Against the Blind?

Google’s tools don’t easily translate into synthesized speech or Braille. Now the National Federation of the Blind has issued a federal complaint with the Justice Department, alleging that university use of Google Apps for Education amounts to discrimination.



The National Federation of the Blind (NFB) has filed a federal complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division concerning colleges’ use of Google Apps. The NFB claims that since Gmail, Calendar, and Docs contain “significant accessibility barriers” for blind people who use technology-converting websites into speech or Braille, for educational institutions to outsource to Google is tantamount to discrimination.

Marc Maurer, the NFB’s president, minced no words in a statement issued yesterday:

“Given the many accessible options available, there is no good reason that these universities should choose a suite of applications, including critical e-mail services, that is inaccessible to blind students. Worse yet, according to recent data more than half of the American higher education institutions that are outsourcing e-mail to third-party vendors plan to deploy this suite, even though they know that it cannot be used by blind students.  Nor can these universities claim ignorance of their legal obligations, since the United States Department of Justice and the United States Department of Education have specifically warned all university presidents against the adoption of inaccessible technology.  The National Federation of the Blind will not tolerate this unconscionable discrimination against blind students and faculty and callous indifference to the right of blind students to receive an equal education. We urge these higher education institutions 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.”

Northwestern and New York Universitities, which have adopted Google Apps, are specifically named in the complaint. Many other universities, including Brown, Notre Dame, Arizona State, Utah State, and the University of Southern California, use the technology. Those are just a few out of the many big names from a Google site touting its Apps for higher education. For each university, there is a blurb of praise from the relevant information officer or technology chief. Many have YouTube testimonials shilling for Google Apps; here’s one (posted back in 2007) from Northwestern’s Wendy Woodward, Director of Technology Support Services:


In the Northwestern case study featured on the Google page, Woodward is quoted as saying, “We are gaining tremendous service advantages at literally no cost to the university.”

If universities have been using Google Apps for years, why has it taken so long for a complaint like this to emerge? I put the question to the NFB, and the federation’s Chris Danielson responded to say that this was a “last resort”:

“We have grown increasingly concerned with the rapid adoption of various technologies by educational institutions in the past few years. There are a lot of pieces to the puzzle, from inaccessible e-books and e-book readers to course management systems to products like Google Apps. We tackle these problems as we become aware of them and as we have the resources to do so. We do this through a combination of direct advocacy in the academic community; through direct contact and collaboration with technology companies to help them make their products more accessible; and, as a last resort, through civil rights complaints or litigation.”

He sees a more just future ahead, even if it may take legal action to help get there:

“Our ultimate goal is to make institutions aware that they must obey the law and treat their blind students and faculty equally, and to make companies who are entering the education arena understand the needs of blind students so that they can design their products in a way that serves all students, not just the sighted. Technology has the potential to truly level the playing field for the blind and others with disabilities, but if not properly designed and implemented it will put us further behind than we have ever been. With respect to Google, we have been advocating for better accessibility for some time now but results have so far been unsatisfactory. Meanwhile, universities have continued to adopt Google’s technology even though the accessibility issues are obvious–at least if an institution bothers to investigate the matter, which too many do not do. (As a contrast, George Mason University did investigate the accessibility of Google Apps and decided not to use it.) As a result we decided to take the action we took yesterday. Hopefully it will result in improvements in Google Apps and other educational technologies, as well as cause universities to factor accessibility into their consideration of new technologies.”

Google‘s gambit to win the hearts and minds of educators across the country had been going very well up until now, it seems. In at least one state, Oregon, Google Apps for Education is open for use to public schools throughout the entire state. The NFB’s complaint is a reminder that even companies that we think of as the most forward-thinking appear to be far behind when considering those with disabilities. Advocates for the deaf recently claimed that hikes on Netflix rates amounted to a “deaf tax,” since not all streaming content has subtitles.

Neither Google nor Northwestern immediately responded to e-mail requests for comment. We’ll update when they do.


Update, 11:35 AM: Google’s Alan Eustace, senior vice president of engineering and research, said the following in a statement: “Last week 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. We left the meeting with a strong commitment to improving our products.”

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About the author

David Zax is a contributing writer for Fast Company. His writing has appeared in many publications, including Smithsonian, Slate, Wired, and The Wall Street Journal