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Google Kicks Off Global Disability Initiative

By John M. Williams

Being true to its commitment to making accessibility a core consideration for its products, Google has started a program to address the needs of a billion people with disabilities worldwide, and it’s putting $20 million behind the effort.

Google.org is the company’s charitable arm. According to Google, the money is being offered to nonprofits “using emerging technologies to increase independence for people living with disabilities.”

Google has formed a central accessibility team with a mandate to monitor the state of accessibility of Google products and coordinate accessibility training, testing and consulting. Product teams will be offered training to help incorporate accessibility principles into the design and release of products. The company claims that it strives to cultivate relationships with a variety of users and advocacy groups to solicit feedback.

The initiative, Google Impact Challenge: Disabilities, will seek out nonprofits and help them find new solutions to some serious issues facing the disabled community. The company is asking people with disabilities to suggest problems that they would like to see addressed with the grant money.

“We will choose the best of these ideas and help them to scale by investing in their vision, by rallying our people and by mobilizing our resources in support of their missions,” Jacquelline Fuller, director of Google.org, said in a blog post.

Some of the “what if” questions Google is asking include:

What if stairs were no longer an obstacle?

What if everyone could afford the prosthetics they need?

What if blind people and those with visual impairment could cross the street more easily?

What if people with tremors could eat more independently?

What if public transportation never left anyone behind for lack of accessibility?

What if everyone knew how to be comfortable with people with disabilities?

The program has its critics. One man, who wished to remain anonymous, said: “One seventh of the world’s population has a disability. Google thinks 20 million dollars will solve the problem. Fifty times that number still won’t have a significant impact on the world’s disability population.”

Fuller disagreed.

“Historically, people living with disabilities have relied on technologies that were often bulky, expensive and limited to assisting with one or two specific tasks,” she wrote in a blog post. “But that’s beginning to change. Together, we can create a better world faster.”

According to its website, Google actively promotes an accessible World Wide Web by serving on standards and advisory committees, including the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), one of the most widely accepted international standards for accessibility, and the Video Programming Accessibility Advisory Committee (VPAAC), a panel created by the FCC to develop recommendations for increasing accessibility to video content in various forms.

Google has already committed funding to two groups: the Enable Community Foundation, which links people needing prosthetics with volunteers who use 3D printers to create them at no cost, and World Wide Hearing, which will use the funds to develop a low-cost kit to detect hearing loss using smartphone technology.

In addition to its monetary commitment, Google said it will work to ensure accessibility of its own products and add new offerings that benefit people with disabilities.

To make it easier for companies, educational institutions and government agencies to comply with accessibility standards, Google uses the Voluntary Product Accessibility Template, which provides transparent information about how its products currently work for people with disabilities. Google continues to update this site as additional VPAT documentation is available.

Advisers for the new project include autism self-advocate Temple Grandin and Catalina Aguilar, the United Nations’ special rapporteur (reporter) on the rights of persons with disabilities.


John M. Williams can be reached at jwilliams@atechnews.com.


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