Google's pioneering $20 million bid to help disabled feel empowered

The Google Impact Challenge: Disabilities project aims to promote emerging technologies that increase independence for people living with disabilities. 

Tony Avelar/AP
A passenger sets out of the Google's self-driving Lexus car drives along street during a demonstration at Google campus on Wednesday, May 13, 2015, in Mountain View, Calif.

Google says technology can help people with disabilities live more independently, and it is offering $20 million to help prove it.

On Tuesday, Google announced the launch of its Google Impact Challenge: Disabilities project, an initiative to fund nonprofits that use emerging technologies to help people living with disabilities become more independent. The company will donate $20 million from its nonprofit branch

The challenge is a pioneering attempt by a private company to promote the inclusion of people with disabilities, experts say.

“I think it’s a very big deal. People with disabilities rarely get a lot of attention from any sector, and Google is taking a rights-based approach to promote the inclusion of people. This is a global company focused on global solutions,” says Diana Samarasan, founding director of the Disability Rights Fund.

Many of the estimated 1 billion people living with a disability rely on others to help them perform basic day-to-day tasks. Google's aim is to help organizations that help overcome these barriers.

One of the grant recipients, World Wide Hearing, uses smartphones to make hearing assessments affordable and available for people living in developing countries. It will receive $500,000.

Another recipient, the Enable Community Foundation, connects people who need prosthetic limbs with volunteers who use 3-D printers to design, print, and assemble the new limbs free of charge. The organization aims to make these devices more accessible for people who can’t afford them, and to make it easier to replace prosthetics that would otherwise be costly. It will receive $600,000.

The Enabling the Future website notes that there are people worldwide "3-d printing fingers and hands for children they will never meet, classes of high school students who are making hands for people in their local communities, hundreds of Scout troops working together to assemble hands for children in underserved areas around the globe, a group of people that are risking their lives to get these devices onto people in 3rd World countries and new stories every day of parents working with their children to make a hand together."

Google’s initiative has the potential to be successful because the company went out of its way to consult with experts and put people with disabilities in charge, Ms. Samarasan says.

“The way Google has gone about this is important. It was a process-oriented approach. They reached out to many people in the disabilities community, in the US and abroad,” she points out.

Samarasan also notes that Google has gone far to ensure that its own internal policies on hiring people with disabilities are inclusive.

“What Google has done is not only set up this challenge, they’ve looked at their own internal human resource strategy and their own internal barriers," she says.

Aside from the disabilities project, some of the other technologies supported by the Global Impact Challenge are a DNA barcoding technology to identify endangered wildlife and prevent illegal poaching, and a voice and image recognition technology that assesses gender inequalities on screen and promotes balance in children’s media and entertainment, among others. 

Meanwhile, in September, the company purchased a small startup called Lift Labs, which invented “liftware” utensils and other kitchen devices that help people diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease to eat more easily.

Google is also working on a self-driving car that could increase the mobility of people living with visual impairment.

“Asking the right questions is the first step towards real change,” reads the Google Impact Challenge Website, where users are asked to submit their own “what if” question.

“What if everyone could easily get from place to place, regardless of their ability to drive?” asks one of the site’s users.  

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