Google Accused of Discriminating Against the Visually Impaired

by Matt Klassen on March 17, 2011

As mobile technology has continued its exponential rise, it’s become an inevitability that products like smartphones, tablets, and even mobile apps will continue to see increased adoption in specialized industries as well.

In fact, not counting the business world, over the past year mobile technology has been increasingly utilized in the medical, educational, and even military markets, offering new tools to the professionals in those fields

While not necessarily intended for such purposes, the versatility of mobile devices like the iPhone, iPad, or even the mobile operating systems allow for developers and programmers to create focused technology for those markets, not only creating another revenue stream for the mobile tech companies themselves, but creating helpful solutions for people looking for technological assistance as well.

But use in such specialized fields comes with a cost, as devices, programs, and applications are held to a higher standard than that of the general consumer market. To that end, the National Federation of the Blind has accused Google’s educational Android apps of being discriminatory, as students with visual impairments are not able to use them.

The details of the story revolve around the official adoption of Google apps at several American schools, notably New York University and Northwestern University. These schools had decided to adopt Google’s Apps for Education as a way of offering its teachers, staff, and students cloud-based email and enhanced collaborative educational resources.

It is this push into the educational sphere that worries the Federation. “This is a simple matter of equity,” Chris Danielsen, director of NFB public relations explained, “it is one thing when a blind person can’t use an app for entertainment, but in an educational setting, you will have situations where a professor is requiring students to collaborate on a project, which may involve working in, say, Google Docs. It’s not fair to the blind.”

Further, the use of Google Apps in an educational setting unfairly discriminates the blind as those mobile applications are not compatible with assistive or screen-access technologies—that is, specialized apps that assistance the visually impaired, such as speech-to-word or word-to-Braille programs.

The point behind all this is simple: while there’s not much a niche community like the visually impaired can say about general consumer products, when those products enter the public sphere they had better uphold the rights of all peoples, lest they be accused of being discriminatory.

Google, for its part, has already committed itself to improving its educational applications, and why wouldn’t it, as specialized fields such as education, the military, and medicine are incredibly lucrative markets.

In my mind, however, this accusation of discrimination against Google is merely the tip of the iceberg when it comes to mobile apps in the public sphere. As far as I know, there are few, if any, regulations governing the quality of such apps, meaning that it’s really up to each institution to decide if the apps work for them.

So the question becomes, who will answer the call when next time it’s not a discrimination lawsuit, but a charge of medical malpractice or a wrongful death suit stemming from misinterpreted results from a mobile medical diagnostic app?

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Abdul G March 17, 2011 at 5:44 pm

Excellent point Matt, who will answer the call if it’s a charge of medical malpractice stemming from misinterpreted results. Or, for that matter, to what level should bloggers and medical web sites be held accountable for the information, or in many cases, misinformation found on these sites? Is it reader beware, or as I suspect will happen shortly, some web site will be sued for medical malpractice misinformation; that will definately spook the market!


Jordan Richardson March 17, 2011 at 9:30 pm

Doesn’t medical malpractice involve, as a defendant, a health care professional, though? And so-called “standards of care?”

In most cases in most jurisdictions, a health care provider of some sort (ie. a licensed professional) is the defendant. So a blogger or a site owner or a medical diagnostic app that isn’t considered a responsible party with a “standard of care” probably couldn’t be cited as a defendant in a malpractice case unless it was some sort of official physician-provided app or blog. And even then, sites like WebMD hysterically include clauses that state “This Site Does Not Provide Medical Advice.” That little “for informational purposes only” phrase is essentially a green light, thus relinquishing any “standard of care.”

I suspect any app would have similar phrasing worded into its terms and conditions.

Matt Klassen March 17, 2011 at 10:00 pm

“I suspect any app would have similar phrasing worded into its terms and conditions.”

But we’re not talking about consumer sites like webMD, which I’m sure no credible doctor would use to make a diagnosis. We’re talking about focused, medical apps, similar to the education specific ones mentioned in this article. I mean, if Google is liable for its app after a school has already adopted it, it stands to reason that the same would hold true in the medical field as well.

Jordan Richardson March 18, 2011 at 1:18 am

Abdul mentioned “medical web sites,” so part of my comment was in response to his post.

In terms of apps, I suspect that they have similar terms and conditions attached. All it takes is the usage of the “for information purposes only” clause to remove any reasonable liability from a malpractice standpoint. “Focused, medical apps” also wouldn’t count in malpractice suits as “medical professionals” any more than a website would qualify as such.

And is Google really legally “liable” for the app in question? There’s a difference, a big one, between liability in a medical malpractice sense and the violation of civil rights that Google Apps potentially stand in violation of.

Jordan Richardson March 18, 2011 at 1:27 am

Also, in the Politico story linked in your article it points out that it’s the educational institutions (not the incompatible Google Apps) that run the risk of violating civil rights.

From the article: “the federation targeted Northwestern University and New York University, as well as four school districts in Oregon, for discriminating against students and faculty by requiring that everyone use the Google products.”

The same logic would run in cases of medical-related apps, I presume, and any malpractice suits would still wind up in the lap of the “professional” stupid enough to rely on an informational app to create a diagnosis. It would be the same as a medical professional relying on a diagnosis from, say, webMD.

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