What’s up, Docs?
Screen reader technology is keeping Columbia from adopting Google Documents when it changes email clients, technology and disability experts say.
Columbia’s transition from its outdated CubMail to the more current Gmail will incorporate most Google applications, but it will not include Google Docs because of its incompatibility with screen-reading technology that assists the blind.
“Google Docs uses advanced HTML that does not function well with most screen reader applications,” Melissa Metz, director of systems engineering, email, and databases with Columbia University Information Technology, said in an email.
Screen readers often have difficulty with Google Docs because they are unable to read toolbars and text that is being loaded while the page itself is being loaded simultaneously, leading to questions of whether the program is compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
The University’s negotiations with Google lasted a year, largely because of concerns over the ADA compliance. The transition, announced last month, comes on the heels of a complaint filed in March by the NFB against New York University and Northwestern University. The complaint claimed their use of Google Apps, which includes Gmail, Google Calendar, and Google Docs, placed blind students and faculty at a disadvantage.
“While using Docs might be possible for students with disabilities, it would be challenging compared to, for example, opening desktop documents like Microsoft Word or using collaboration tools like New CourseWorks,” Metz said.
Ed Morman, library director at the National Federation of the Blind, said that Google Docs presents a tremendous difficulty to the visually impaired.
“We have a special access tech team that works on this, and they would know any trick to make Google Docs accessible,” Morman said.
NFB press officer Chris Danielson said, “The reader may not voice things like checkboxes or title fields when someone is trying to fill out a form, or it will say that there is a button without actually telling you what that button is.”
The infrastructures behind CubMail, Gmail, and Google Calendar are fully compatible with client software, such as Outlook, Thunderbird and Apple Mail, which can be used with many screen reader devices, Metz said.
The new email system will be gradually rolled out, with all undergraduates getting access by December.
Google Docs is already widely used on the Barnard email system, gBear, which was launched in 2010.
Carol Katzman, vice president for information technology at Barnard, said in an email that “at Barnard, Google Docs is simply an option for online collaboration and not meant to be required for coursework. In addition, the software most commonly used at Barnard, by those with disabilities, is compatible with Google Docs.”
Metz said the software’s level of compatibility is not high enough for Columbia’s new system but added that the University is still open to the possibility of including Docs in the future.
“We will continue to evaluate Google Docs’ accessibility, and if it changes, we will consider adding Docs to our environment, as the application would certainly add some great functionality.”