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Google seeks to increase accessibility to disabled community

By Cece Zhou, Daily Staff Reporter
Published February 6, 2012

As the University prepares to transition to Google web services beginning on March 5, officials are working to ensure that programs will be fully accessible to all members of the campus community, including disabled students and staff members.

Jane Berliss-Vincent, assistive technology lead for Information Technology Services, said that while certain University web services catered to the disabled community are not currently compatible with certain Google applications, University officials are committed to increasing accessibility and fixing flaws in the system.

"The accessibility issues that we’ve found so far are caused by incompatibility between Google Apps and assistive technologies — (computer) programs that many people with disabilities use to augment or replace the standard computer interface," she said.

Vincent specifically noted that programs like Dragon NaturallySpeaking, software that allows users to input information using their voice instead of using a keyboard and mouse, isn’t fully accessible using the Google system.

“What we’re finding is that Google has coded some parts of its apps in a way that won’t accept speech input,” she said.

Bill Wrobleski, director of infrastructure projects for NextGen Michigan, said the University decided to work with Google to establish better online collaboration tools for students and instructors. NextGen Michigan invests in efficient technologies that allow the University to facilitate a better relationship among students, faculty and staff, he said.

The transition will allow students to sign into their University e-mail accounts through Google and access programs like Google Docs, Google Calendar and Google Talk. The project also allows access to the Google Apps for Education program, which provides K-12 schools and universities with a variety of applications and online tools to continue interactive learning outside the classroom.

Rita Girardi, marketing communications specialist for NextGen Michigan, said the program is working to combat issues for the disabled community with help from the James Edward Knox Center Adaptive Technology Computing Site — an organization committed to helping students with temporary and permanent disabilities cope with the technological demands of the University.

She added that Google continues to make its applications accessible to all users, and the University is monitoring these improvements.

“We are aware that there are accessibility challenges with this move to Google and are mindful of our responsibility to balance the wider benefits of this initiative with the needs of the disabled members of the U-M community,” she said.

As the University continues to work with Google to increase accessibility of services, Berliss-Vincent said officials are developing an online forum for students and faculty to list issues that arise and offer alternatives resources.

“Ultimately, Google bears responsibility for products that are fully usable by students, staff, and faculty with disabilities,” she said. “Until Google implements full accessibility, the primary solution will be to post information about known problems and any identified work-arounds.”

Wrobleski said the University held a series of meetings, online surveys and product tests from student volunteers to gather input on what the campus community preferred as part of the process in choosing Google.

“It was clear that we need to provide a broader set of tools to students and faculty in particular, but also our staff,” Wrobleski said.