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.
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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.
“Because of the actions pending at other universities and Google's very public statements about their values and commitment to accessibility, we thought that all accessibility issues would be resolved by the time we completed our migration,” she wrote.
As a result of this ongoing conflict, Patterson wrote that the University will now require full accessibility or a contractual commitment to full accessibility when acquiring technological services in the future. She added that it is not clear if Microsoft’s services would have been any more accessible than Google.
Rackham student Katie Frank, president of the Graduate Employees Organization, spoke at both CSG meetings regarding issues with Google services. She said in an interview Thursday that GEO has a responsibility to its members to ensure universal accessibility, especially after several graduate students contacted the union about the issue.
Frank said graduate students who had initially communicated with GEO were “frustrated” by of a lack of response from the University on the issue.
“It’s a little disappointing that the University right off the bat didn’t make sure that these technologies were going to be accessible,” Frank said.
Frank added that the conflict at hand should make the University think twice about how it works with technology companies in the future.
“We need to make sure that in the future, emerging technologies that we’re wanting to use are going to be accessible to everyone,” Frank said. “(So) we don’t have to necessarily fight for so long to make sure that things like the Americans with Disabilities Act and basically just general respect for everyone on campus are being followed.”
Frank said for now, GEO has been working on raising awareness about the lack of accessibility. However, she noted that the issue could be placed on the bargaining table when GEO negotiates its contract with the University in spring 2013.
“We’re working on platform development right now, so that could definitely be something that members might be interested in talking about,” Frank said. “But it’s hard to say until we’ve really kicked off that process.”
Rackham student Katie Pethan, a member of the Council for Graduate Students with Disability Issues, has also spoke regarding issues with the Google transition. She said in an interview that the University should have at least alerted disabled students to gaps in accessibility.
"I'm just surprised and shocked that they wouldn't have known better to warn students (about the inaccessibility),” Pethan said.
Pethan, who identifies as a disabled student, said the council was informed in February that the Google services were not accessible, and immediately expressed its concerns to University President Mary Sue Coleman and the Board of Regents.
However, Pethan said suggestions made by the council were unheeded, despite the fact that the council was simply asking the University to negotiate with Google, as it is doing now. She alleged that University has only responded to this issue when significant public pressure from organizations like GEO and CSG was applied.
"I expect more (from the University)," Pethan said.
Pethan said the lack of response from the University in regards to collaborating with disabled students on this project and others makes her feel “like a second class citizen.”
"I never felt like a person with disabilities as much as I do here at the University of Michigan.”
Correction appended: A previous version of this article misstated the types of disabilities that some Google applications are yet to fully accommodate.
Clarification appended: A previous version of this article did not make clear the University Provost's directive toward faculty and administrators regarding required use of Google services.