Braille Monitor                                             October 2015

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A Growing Partnership for Accessibility: Google and the Organized Blind Movement

by Kannan Pashupathy

Kannan PashupathyFrom the Editor: Readers of the Braille Monitor will remember that we did an in-depth article about Google in the June 2014 issue. That article began with generally accepted criticisms of productivity tools being offered by Google to state governments, colleges, and universities. It explained how this mass deployment of products would be almost irresistible to those organizations, and therefore Google’s products must meet a higher bar and be accessible since the result would be lesser opportunities for blind people if they could not be used. That article ended with a positive interview featuring Eve Andersson and Kannan Pashupathy. In it they promised many positive changes in Google products, and this report confirms that they are as good as their word and have made major strides in making their products usable by blind people. Here is what Mr. Pashupathy said:

I was really taken by deputy secretary Lu's speech, and frankly I have forgotten what I was going to say. [Laughter] Fortunately I have some written notes here.

A very, very good morning to all of you, and thank you for inviting me to speak at this gathering. When Mark sent a letter to me, he said this was the largest gathering of blind people in the United States and some people said maybe in the world. I heard that you set a record—a Guinness World Record—congratulations on that. [Applause]

As was said, my name is Kannan Pashupathy, and for the last couple of years I have had the pleasure and the honor of leading Google's accessibility efforts globally. I know that you've heard from Alan Eustace in years prior, and Alan decided that we clearly weren't making the kind of progress that we needed to make as a company and asked me to step in and take charge. This has involved ensuring that all our products work well for people of all abilities, creating a culture where designing for accessibility is baked into our DNA and engaging with organizations such as the NFB to make sure that we're meeting and exceeding your needs.

As many other speakers have mentioned, it's particularly a great time to be talking to you here on the important milestone of the seventy-fifth anniversary of the NFB. I also want to congratulate Jim Gashel on the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act. As you all know, his role was pivotal in the creation and the passage of the ADA, and I happened to share a ride with Ray Kurzweil yesterday on the flight over from San Francisco, and he was telling me stories about back then when they used to talk a lot while the passage of the ADA was in progress.

It was two years ago, and I had just taken over this role at Google that I just mentioned. At our very first meeting Dr. Maurer invited me to the convention to experience what you all go through every year here in Orlando. So I came, and boy what an experience it was. I'd never seen anything like this before, so I went back extraordinarily inspired. I was here, of course, to learn: learn about the community, learn about your hopes and aspirations, and learn about how well we were or were not serving the community. My goodness, as I said, it was a great experience along so many different dimensions, and I was so glad to have come.

At the end of that, while I was sitting at the banquet, I resolved that I would not only work hard to make our current products accessible but that we would also undertake to make fundamental changes in the way in which we approach the notion of accessibility right from design to implementation to launch. I vowed that we would make a positive impact on the culture of the company with regard to accessibility.

To do this we started training programs in accessibility for every new engineer, product manager, and user experience designer who joined the company. As you probably know, accessible product design is not something that is taught in universities. This was a big surprise to me—I thought that this would be something that would be part of the standard curriculum in computer science, but it isn't. By the way, this is something that I'm trying to fix on the side.

We also developed programs for engineers who are already in the company and even non-engineers. We have created online courses for developers both inside and outside the company as well and have set each product area of the company on a path to address all of the critical issues, whether they be bugs to fix or features that we needed to develop.

You may not know this, but throughout this entire process we've had regular meetings with the NFB. Throughout this process we were guided by the NFB and in particular Dr. Maurer, Mark [Riccobono] here, Jim, of course, and Anne Taylor, I know is here, who encouraged us when they knew that we were trying our best to make these very large and critical changes at the company. They scolded us when they thought that it was not enough, but, most importantly, I think they inspired us to innovate in this important area, and I really feel privileged to have had a chance to work with such strong advocates for the blind and just such fantastic human beings. So thank you.

As I mentioned, we were also fortunate to have a pioneer and a friend of the NFB, Ray Kurzweil, [applause] as a key advisor to us in our efforts, along with Vint Cerf, who many of you know is often called the father of the internet. Both of these folks are Googlers—my colleagues—and people who kept us honest and played a pivotal role in making sure that what we were attempting to do was not a flash in the pan but built to last.

I recall that when I came two years ago a journalist had written at the time that Google had begun to listen but that listening was not enough and that we would be judged by our actions and our results. [Applause] While I would be the first one to acknowledge that we continue to have a lot to do, and you have my word that we’ll stay on it, I'm proud of the work that we have done so far to make meaningful improvements in our products and innovating across a number of areas to go beyond current notions of accessibility and to have fundamentally changed how Google the company now looks at accessibility. Our teams are passionate, they are driven, they are inspired to do the best for all of you. Some of them were actually here until a couple of days ago—you guys have dueling conventions, so they had to spend part of their time here and go off to the other convention that is also happening this week. I hope that many of you got a chance to meet them. One of them, Astrid, was even working hard over the last couple of days in doing user experience research with many of you on our hangouts and Google cross products. I'm here to tell you that this is only the beginning and that there's a lot more to come, and I hope that one day we will not only have earned your respect but your love of our products and our efforts. [Applause]

The product-related efforts that we're doing at the company are too numerous to mention—I won't bore you, and I believe that you're running a little late, so I'll cut it short. But, let me go through a few things—particularly those where I know you've experienced some positive changes because I've gotten that feedback and also because most of these were prioritized based on input from the NFB. To begin, let me mention the innovations and accessibility improvements in Google Docs, Sheets, and Slides, including Braille keyboard input and output on Docs. I know we need to do more work here—lots of improvements coming—but we're really happy to have made the progress we have on that in the last year. We have seen lots of improvement in Google's Chrome OS Operating System (which you may know is the one that runs on our Chromebook laptops) including touchscreen gestures like you would use on a phone, Braille keyboard input, Unified English Braille support, and other features. Roger Benz, who is a blind Google employee who was here earlier in the week, has narrated many “Getting Started with Google Docs” videos that you can take a look at on YouTube. Those are a great way to get started if you haven't had a chance to see all of the improvements that we've made.

In addition, on Android we've worked on features like color inversion to help people with low vision, color correction for people who are colorblind, and something new called Switch Access to help people who have motor impairments actually use the phone effectively. Earlier this year we won the FCC Chairman's Award for advancement in accessibility for our reCAPTCHA improvements. This is one thing Dr. Maurer complained about at the very first meeting I had with him. We're actually going a step further—we've been able to replace most CAPTCHAs with something called no CAPTCHAs. This is where the user just has to hit a checkbox and say "I'm a human; leave me alone." Yes, we did test it with screen readers, and it works.

As Secretary Lu mentioned in recounting the story of the company he saw, we've also been working on various automated and manual and testing tools to allow developers both inside and outside Google to automatically test their software for accessibility issues like missing image descriptors or unlabeled buttons that I know you've been very frustrated about. These tools should really simplify how people develop and test accessibility features in their applications across all of these different platforms that I've mentioned, and these are only some of the improvements that we've made in the past year.

You may have heard that Mark and Jim were at Google I/O, our annual developer’s conference, a few weeks ago. At that meeting Mark inspired a large gathering of developers about why they should be thinking about accessibility early and often and exhorted them to innovate in this space. He even showed us a video of him driving one of the cars, which I believe is a research project that has been going on at NFB for a while. This talk by Mark was done in the context of a larger session on accessibility, where we spoke with developers about how to do a great job of making products fully accessible on all of our platforms. At this event we also launched a very important initiative which was a $20 million grant funding from, our philanthropic arm, for a first-of-its-kind Google Impact Challenge focused entirely on disabilities. [Applause] This challenge will last a year, and throughout the challenge we will identify, fund, and support nonprofits working to increase access to opportunities for people living with disabilities. We are looking for big ideas here from nonprofits with technology at their core that show serious potential to scale the impact on people around the world who are living with a disability. You can learn more by doing a Google search for Google Impact Challenge. I know the team here at NFB is working on coming up with some great ideas; I'm looking forward to hearing about them soon.

Finally, I was very heartened to hear from Jim just a few minutes ago that you've actually passed resolution seventeen this year, which acknowledges our efforts and improvements that we've made in Google Drive, Docs, Spreadsheets, and Slides. That vote of confidence is a real inspiration for me and our team, and I really thank you for your support in acknowledging that.

As I've already said, I know that we have a lot more work to do, particularly on Braille support, and we will continue to work on it; you have my word. With that let me thank the NFB leaders and the members for working with us to make the internet and its vast array of products and benefits fully available to all blind people, and we look forward to a long and continuing partnership in the years to come.

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