How accessible are Google Apps?

NC State University provides Google Apps Accessibility Usage Guidelines.

Technology, often associated with helping to make life easier and more accessible, isn’t always as usable for some as others, accessibility researchers say. And with Google Apps quickly becoming a go-to solution for schools and colleges nationwide, it’s critical to know exactly how accessible these apps are for students with disabilities.

The Access Technology Higher Education Network (ATHEN), a professional association whose purpose is to collect and disseminate best practices in accessible technology for colleges and universities, has performed a number of functional tests on various Google applications, including Google Docs, GMail, and Calendar.

And though researcher and technology accessibility specialist Terrill Thompson at the University of Washington says that many improvements have been made, these efforts largely have targeted screen reader users and have not considered people with other types of disabilities.

ATHEN’s tests show that many people with disabilities are “currently unable to successfully use these applications, and the level of support for assistive technologies ranged from being able to perform many, but not all, of the functions to not being able to use the applications at all,” Thompson said during the EDUCAUSE 2012 conference in Denver last week.

Disability types tested in the reports included visual (via screen readers, screen magnification, and high-contrast mode), mobility (keyboard-only access and speech recognition software), and cognitive (literacy software).

Each assistive technology then was graded (A-F) on how well it functioned with Google Docs, GMail, and Calendar.

According to the report on Google Docs, published in October 2011, some of the major problems include:

  • Speech recognition software users cannot dictate text into, or interact with, the application.
  • Keyboard-only users often cannot access the app menu, and thus, much of the functionality of the app.
  • High-contrast users can’t see many of the toolbar buttons and other user interface elements.
  • Screen reader users can’t always interact with the app reliably and effectively, reach and perform the desired functions, or determine what is being asked in “pop-up” windows.

According to the report on GMail and Calendar, published in February 2012, while there were several positive findings for users with certain types of disabilities, including users of screen magnification software, keyboard-only interactions, and some high-contrast visual layouts, there still were “significant shortcomings, especially for screen reader users,” such as:

  • The inability to navigate messages in a conversation easily;
  • The inability to attach files to an eMail message; and
  • The inability to schedule meeting times between multiple participants.

Because of these and other factors, the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) filed complaints in March 2011 with the U.S. Department of Justice against Northwestern University and New York University, as well as four K-12 school districts in Oregon, for violating Section 504 and the Americans with Disabilities Act by adopting Google Apps.

In January 2012, the NFB formally declared that Google Apps are “not there yet” in terms of accessibility.

“Because of these and many other problems,” says the report on Google Docs, “which prevent entire populations of people from fully or sometimes even partially using the software, Documents and the Document List cannot be considered accessible.”

The report on GMail and Calendar says that while both offer “more accessible” interface options for users of screen readers, “even those prove lacking in some fundamental areas. Other than performing some base-level operations in each application, neither GMail nor Calendar can be considered equitably accessible to all user groups, especially for the visually impaired.”

Yet, since the reports were published, Thompson explained, notable improvement have been made—specifically with High Contrast Mode (Chrome extension), ChromeVox, Keyboard-Only, Read & Write Gold (vendor solution), and Dragon Naturally Speaking (vendor solution).

“There are still a lot of questions we have surrounding accessibility issues and Google, and we don’t really have any answers. Questions like: ‘Why do Chrome solutions work better? Is it marketing or technical limitations?’ We really have no good answers, but hopefully these functions will only improve.”

Currently, there are two online manuals available from Google that can help users navigate accessible functions: “Administrator Guide to Accessibility” and “An update on Apps accessibility in the last year.

Thompson also pointed to North Carolina State University’s guide on “Google Apps Accessibility,” which provides accessibility usage guidelines.