Accessibility complaint against universities points to larger business issue

Filed under News, Technology

By Ann Meyer

— As a sculptor who has been blind since birth, Chicagoan Stephen Handschu can weld steel and cast bronze. But using common software applications is often another matter.

“The more the world switches to interactive technology, the less accessible the world is to me,” said Handschu. He surmises it’s an even greater problem for college students who are blind because so much of university life relies on technology.

That’s why the National Federation of the Blind has requested that the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division investigate civil rights violations at Northwestern University and New York University, stemming from their use of Google Apps for Education, which the federation said is not accessible to the blind.

Drawing attention to a bigger issue

While the problem would affect any of the nation’s 1.3 million blind people who might use Google Apps, the federation focused on universities because they have a legal obligation to accommodate students with disabilities, said Chris Danielsen, director of public relations at the Baltimore-based federation. “We’re not trying to pick on anyone per se, but we’re trying to draw attention to the issue,” Danielsen said.

Northwestern University will be reviewing the complaint, a university spokeswoman said in a voicemail message.

While some collaborative software products use voice synthesizing to verbalize what’s on the screen, Google Apps doesn’t currently provide a way for blind users to fully use the software, Danielsen said. For example, users who are vision-impaired can type into Google docs, but won’t have a way to edit because the software is not capable of reading the text back to them, he said.

The federation hopes the civil rights complaint will spur universities to switch to software that is accessible to the blind, while also encouraging Google to improve its applications, Danielsen said. Google is working on improvements, a Google spokesman said in an e-mail. 

Computer technology often is a problem for the blind, Handschu said. “Something as simple as texting is either far less efficient for blind people, totally inaccessible or much more cumbersome,” he said. But the issue of accessibility extends far beyond technology to most products and services as well as physical buildings, said Patrick Hughes, chief executive officer at Inclusion Solutions, a provider of accessibility solutions based in Evanston.

Awareness is the first step

Often businesses simply don’t think about making their products or services accessible until people make them aware of the problem. “There’s a sink-in effect, and people will eventually change,” Hughes said. A large part of marketing his accessibility solutions involves educating business owners on the market they stand to gain by making it easier for people with disabilities to access their products or services.

Kevin Weasler, who owns Culver’s franchises in Buffalo Grove and Schaumburg, said he never gave the hearing impaired community a thought until Hughes approached him about adding a simple push-button device to his drive-throughs to allow deaf customers to ask for assistance. It’s also useful for people who have a language barrier, Weasler said.

The restaurants also added small bells on their front doors to provide a way for people in wheelchairs to seek help getting inside, he said. Those who use the devices appreciate them and tend to return to the restaurant, Weasler said.

The restaurants have picked up sales as a result of adding the devices, but Weasler said he also installed them because he wants to do right by customers who are disabled.

Accessibility solutions often come after a product has been introduced to the market and businesses learn of associated problems, Handschu said. “People think about the bottom line,” he said. “And we’re not a large enough population for them to think about except proactively later.”

Updated March 20, 2011

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