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University CIO: Google has not met accessibility standards

By Giacomo Bologna, Daily Staff Reporter
Published October 12, 2012

Laura Patterson, the University's chief information officer, made appearances at both Central Student Government and Rackham Student Government meetings last week to address concerns with the University’s transition to Google services, which have been criticized for a lack of accessibility for disabled students.

At an RSG meeting on Thursday, Patterson reaffirmed a statement she made to CSG leaders earlier last week: the University knew Google — which beat out Microsoft for a 10-year contract with the University — and its services were not completely accessible when it agreed to a contact last year.

Patterson said Google has made some progress in accessibility, but its services are still not totally accessible to those with disabilities such as visual or learning impairments.

“We reported back to Google, ‘not enough progress guys. We’ve tested and you’ve failed,’” Patterson said. “And their response was, ‘Gosh, we thought we’d done so much. Tell us what is most important to the University of Michigan.’”

Patterson addressed CSG Tuesday after the assembly passed an Oct. 2 resolution criticizing the University’s partnership with Google, alleging that the services were not yet fully accessible to students with visual impairments, some learning disabilities and other impairments.

Patterson told RSG that Google has asked the University to prioritize what services it wants to be improved first. However, she said that’s not a fair solution.

“Google has a lot of resources. We want a team working on docs, we want a team working on calendar and we want a team working on mail,” Patterson said. “So don’t make us choose among those.”

Patterson said she met with University Provost Phil Hanlon on Wednesday. Hanlon told her that he would advise professors and administrators to make the use of Google applications beyond mail and calendars optional until full accessibility can be reached for those services.

One example of a program not up to the University’s accessibility standards is ChromeVox, a Google-developed screen reader application that reads text aloud for visually-impaired users. While screen reader programs for Microsoft Outlook and Apple Mail do meet University standards, Patterson said those programs only work with e-mail and calendars, not documents or other Google applications.

Patterson noted that the previous e-mail system, Blue Mail, was fully accessible, but only offered e-mail. Google offers e-mail, calendar, documents, chat, contacts and other services that also must be made accessible to disabled students.

“One of the things that I have heard, is that there is a concern that a faculty member might say ‘I’m not holding office hours anymore, just in Google (chat)’ … and right now, chat is not accessible,” Patterson said.

Patterson pointed out that the University wouldn’t take a significant financial hit if it ended the Google contract. However, she assured RSG leaders that the University still holds significant influence over Google, and that administrators are working closely with the company to resolve issues.

“We do have a lot of public attention, so we are trying to leverage that,” Patterson said. “If we said we’re pulling out of Google — and it would be very public — then we think that might mean something.”

Though it appears Google is currently struggling with accessibility to its services, Patterson wrote in an e-mail interview Thursday that the company appeared dedicated to accessibility when it initially agreed to provide services for the University.