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Many higher education institutions are either currently using the Google Apps for Education Suite or are considering adopting the suite for use on their campus. Recently, because of actions of the National Federation of the Blind against New York University and Northwestern University, Google has been improving the accessibility of its applications. Google has made significant accessibility improvements to Google Apps, especially in regards to users with visual disabilities. However, it has not made similar improvements for users with other types of disabilities, including mobility impairments and learning or cognitive disabilities. In response, the Access Technology Higher Education Network (ATHEN) formed the Google Apps Accessibility Interest Group (hereafter, Interest Group). ATHEN has a long history of establishing such groups to provide feedback to, and work collaboratively with vendors toward improved accessibility of their products. The Google Accessibility Interest Group consists of accessibility experts from a variety of higher education institutions (Appendix A) who performed a set of functional evaluations (Appendix B) to assess whether people with various types of disabilities could perform the functions necessary to effectively use these applications.

Disabilities and Assistive Technologies Tested

Frequently, making a Web page or application accessible to people with visual disabilities will also make it accessible to people with other types of disabilities; however, it does not guarantee that it will. These evaluations considered a variety of disabilities and the corresponding assistive technology used by those populations. They include:

  • Visual Disabilities
    • JAWS with Firefox
    • ChromeVox with Chrome
    • Zoom Text with Internet Explorer
    • High Contrast Mode with Internet Explorer
  • Mobility Impairments
    • Keyboard-only access with a variety of browsers
    • Dragon Naturally Speaking with Internet Explorer
    • Sticky Keys with a variety of browsers
  • Learning or Cognitive Disabilities
    • Read and Write Gold with Internet Explorer

This set of assistive technologies and browsers is not exhaustive, but it represents some of the most common combinations used by people with disabilities. Also, ATHEN did not test all the major screen readers because Google has already stated it only officially supports ChromeVox in Chrome and JAWS in Firefox. While this does not abdicate Google’s responsibility for supporting these other screen readers, ATHEN took Google at its word that other screen readers would not work.

Applications Tested

This particular functional evaluation solely examines the Document List and the Documents Application within Google Apps. While the Document List and Documents do seamlessly work together, for purposes of this evaluation it is helpful to consider them as two separate applications. Each one has unique characteristics in how the user interacts with it. Additionally, Google separates the accessibility instructions for them into two different documents.

ATHEN will conduct evaluations on the rest of Google Apps in future work but decided to focus first on Documents and the Document List for two reasons. First, one of the areas of Google’s recent accessibility enhancements has been on these applications. This allowed the group to evaluate the point where Google is working the most on improving accessibility and to also see the direction Google is going in its implementation. Second, these applications are some of the most used tools in the Google Apps suite. While GMail and Calendar are also highly used in educational settings, they have not received the recent attention to accessibility that Documents and the Document List have.

Through this evaluation, the group has set up a set of protocols to use for testing other applications in the suite for the next phases of the project.