Does Google Apps for Education discriminate against the blind?

No, NYU and Northwestern aren't discriminating against blind students. At least not by using Google Apps.

According to the National Federation for the Blind, schools like Northwestern and NYU should stop using Google Apps for Education immediately because it discriminates against the blind. Maybe the IT folks at those schools should wave their magic wands and just whip out an alternate communications and collaboration platform. That shouldn't take more than a weekend, right?

I'm not saying that Google's use of technologies like splash screens within Apps that interfere with screen readers is the best possible practice. Obviously, US schools need to be in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act, which includes the use of accessible software. However, filing a complaint with the Justice Department accusing both NYU and Northwestern of discrimination because of their choice of collaboration suites once again strikes me as extreme.

Here's the thing. I'm not blind. I've never had to use a screen reader to access the Web. I've never experienced the frustration of hitting a critical site or service that I couldn't access because it wasn't compatible with JAWS or another bit of accessibility software. I do, however, live in a poor community. This rural mill town moved to Google Apps for Education some time ago while I was the technology director for its public schools and students, teachers, and staff had access to state-of-the-art communications and collaboration software for free.

Can you choose money over accessibility? No, of course not. It's completely inappropriate to say that free is more important than accessible. However, to make Live@Edu (Google's biggest competitor in this space) fully accessible, it takes licensed software (meaning that in its free form, it isn't accessible either). And to ask schools to give up what can truly be powerful, transformational, and certainly mission-critical software that is also free is a mistake.

Google, for its part, has affirmed a commitment to meeting the needs of all users. According to PC World,

Alan Eustace, senior vice president, engineering and research at Google, said that the company had "a productive discussion" last week with [Marc Maurer, the NFB's president].

"He shared a powerful message on the importance of accessibility. We left the meeting with a strong commitment to improving our products," Eustace said in an e-mailed statement.

Lip service to make this complaint go away? Perhaps, but wouldn't it be nice if we could have our proverbial cake and eat it too? Accessible and free (as in beer) - two great tastes that go great together, right?

Yes, Google should work towards ensuring that its services are accessible, although, as the Washington Post points out, Google, as a corporate entity, does not have the same ADA obligations for its software that schools do for the services they provide. However, when the NFA talks about the many accessible options available for schools, they fail to recognize that Word doesn't really cut it anymore.

Put Word in the context of Live@Edu or full-blown SharePoint and then we can have a very different conversation about accessibility (since this combination is highly accessible). That conversation, though, won't involve the word "free".

Google, if you're listening, make sure to keep up your end of that "productive conversation". Build those accessibility features into your services. And for everyone else, can we please remember that online productivity applications aren't exactly long in the tooth yet? It took a long time for Office to reach its current level of accessibility.