A national advocacy group for blind people is suing Epic Systems, the massive Verona-based electronic health records company, over the accessibility of its software.
The National Federation of the Blind, which purports to be the oldest and largest organization for blind people in the U.S., filed their civil action lawsuit against Epic in December in a Massachusetts state court. They claim that Epic has violated the state's employment discrimination laws by not making its software for health systems, clinics and hospitals compatible with screen readers, tools that convey visual information on a screen through synthesized speech, sounds and Braille.
Chris Danielsen, the director of public relations for the federation, said that the issue isn't the side of Epic’s software that patients see. Rather, it’s the various software that health care workers use, said Danielsen.
“Epic knows how to do this. It just hasn’t on the non-public facing side of its software,” said Danielsen.
Danielsen said that there are many blind people working in the health care field, from transcriptionists to "higher-level positions." He said that the federation has received a number of complaints from such workers over the years about Epic's inaccessibility.
Previously, the federation provided support to a blind hospital dispatcher who sued both Epic and his employer, Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, over the inability for the software to integrate with screen-reading technology. The parties in that case reached a settlement on undisclosed terms.
In the new lawsuit, the federation has requested for a judge to block Epic from selling or installing its software in the state, and to require the company to make its software more accessible.
When asked for comment, Epic Systems public affairs director Meghan Roh supplied a company statement saying that Epic values industry workers who use screen readers "and other assistive technologies" to do their job.
“We work closely with our customers to tailor specific workflows and integrate with existing and emerging assistive technologies that support their employees with disabilities," the statement said.
The company's statement also said that it strives to make its web-based content compliant with online accessibility standards.
Epic’s court filings say that the company disputes the merits of the federation's allegations. The filings also acknowledge the limitations to the software's accessibility. Epic senior vice president Sumit Rana filed a declaration saying that “while much of Epic’s software is compatible with screen reader technology … its full suite of software is not ‘independently accessible to blind persons.’”
He also wrote that the company’s software can be configured by end users to improve accessibility, and that Epic “continues to take efforts to work with its customers to improve the accessibility of its software for blind and low vision users.”
Danielsen noted that screen reader compatibility is a widespread issue beyond the health care industry. As various industries become computerized, it adds to the struggles blind people already have with finding and retaining employment.
“You used to be able to do your work without reference to software,” he said. “You were taking dictation, you were typing up paper records. Now that’s not the case.”
Meanwhile, Epic has moved for the case to be taken up in a federal court, given the inter-state nature of the lawsuit and the amount of damages that would potentially be involved.