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Feast honoree, Google, puts empathy at forefront of accessible and inclusive design

Updated: Jun 30, 2022

Google shares views on accessibility in Q&A

Dimitri Kanevsky, Google Research Scientist
Dimitri Kanevsky, Google Research Scientist

All of us at the Center for Hearing and Communication (CHC) were thrilled to host our signature fundraising event, the Feast, at Pier Sixty, Chelsea Piers Monday, November 4th.

Conceived as a celebration of The Power of Communication, this year’s Feast honored Google with the Eleanor Roosevelt Humanitarian Award for its dedication to ensuring that people with disabilities are not left out in accessing the world’s information. The occasion was an opportunity to put a spotlight on the Google app Live Transcribe, an important advancement for people with hearing loss because it accurately transcribes speech in real time.

Sara Basson of Google shares views on accessibility and inclusion
Sara Basson, Google Accessibility Evangelist

Accepting the award was Dimitri Kanevsky, Google Research Scientist, who spoke on behalf of his colleagues at Google, many of whom were in attendance, including Sara Basson, Accessibility Evangelist at Google. Sara and Dimitri provided meaningful insight into the development of Live Transcribe and how important the use of technology is to Google in supporting accessibility in this Q&A conducted by email prior to the event.

Building a more inclusive world

Laurie: What inspired Google’s commitment to building a more inclusive world?

Dimitri and Sara: Google’s mission is to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful. Accessibility is core to our mission. We build products and services for everyone—and that means the nearly 1B or 1 in 7 people on the planet who have a disability.

Laurie (for Sara): What has your experience been like as Accessibility Evangelist?

Sara: We think that working for Google in any role is a privilege. And working to make Google maximally accessible for Googlers with disabilities is an even greater privilege. We aspire to create a fully accessible and inclusive environment, but there are always challenges. Teams need to be trained and savvy about accessible product development and inclusive cultures. There are always competing priorities in any workplace, and we need to make sure that accessibility remains in the forefront despite other pressures. We also need to drive higher standards of accessibility across our partners and suppliers. As you can see, a role like this has few boundaries. I am not responsible for building a single product or process; I feel responsible for the end-to-end experience of every Google employee, which has more piece parts than there are hours in the day.

Part of what makes this role awesome is that Google can identify issues for user—such as difficulties for hard of hearing employees to communicate in the workplace. Google can take these challenges, envision solutions, and use the most sophisticated technologies in the world to make these solutions a reality. You have seen this recently with Live Transcribe. These magical moments, and the opportunity to benefit so many people, make a demanding and consuming role enormously rewarding.

Laurie (for Dimitri): What has your experience been like helping advance the state-of-the-art for a technology like automatic speech recognition for the last 30 years, and what perspective do you bring as a user with deafness?

Dimitri: For me this means many things. But the most important thing is to understand where technological breakthroughs are big enough to make an impact for people with disabilities and advocate to explore these wonderful technological changes to help people! This opportunity to  help people through technological advances is especially great at Google with its access to so many technologies and its open communication culture between all workers there. This makes it much easier to find specialists who are sympathetic to a situation for people with disabilities and those who are eager to use their technological skills to help them.

Laurie: How does the process by which you develop new products put accessibility at the forefront?

Sara and Dimitri: Empathy is at the forefront of accessible and inclusive design. As product designers, we have to do more than step into the shoes of our users—we need to build products in direct collaboration with them. This requires long-term and in-depth relationships and partnerships that over time yield the result of products that work better for the users and communities they serve.

Google Live Transcribe for people with hearing loss

Laurie: What is Live Transcribe and how has it impacted the lives of people with hearing loss?

Sara and Dimitri: Live Transcribe is a transcription app for Deaf and hard of hearing people for use in everyday situations which turns speech into text on a smartphone screen. Using Google’s state-of-the-art automatic speech recognition technology, Live Transcribe performs real-time transcription of speech and sound so people can more easily participate in conversations going on in the real world. Users can keep the conversation going by typing responses on the screen if they cannot or choose not to speak.

Laurie: What other technology is proving to be a game changer for people with hearing loss?

Sara and Dimitri: We don’t want to over-promise or over-hype technology. What’s useful for one user may not be for another. Our philosophy is that we try to build products for everyone and make as many choices available as possible.

With that in mind, there are two promising technologies:

  1. Sound Amplifier enhances audio from your Android device using headphones to provide a more comfortable and natural listening experience. You can use Sound Amplifier on your Android device to filter, augment, and amplify sound in the real world. Sound Amplifier makes audio clearer and easier to hear. It works by increasing quiet sounds while not over-boosting loud sounds. With two simple sliders, you can quickly customize sound enhancement and noise reduction to minimize distracting background noise.

  2. Euphonia –  Automatic speech recognition (ASR) can greatly improve the ability of those with hearing loss to understand what’s going on in the world around them. ASR systems are most often trained from ‘typical’ speech, which means that underrepresented groups, such as those with speech impairments or heavy accents, don’t experience the same degree of utility from the product. Project Euphonia is able to help understand individual users’ speech and provide customized ASR models so that products like Live Transcribe or the Google Assistant will be able to work better for everyone.

Laurie: What message do you have for companies that have yet to embrace inclusion as a core value?

Sara and Dimitri: Accessibility is a human right. We don’t build buildings without elevators or curbs in cities without curb cuts. When we build for accessibility, we build for everyone. We hope that all companies realize that the reward of building accessible and inclusive products upfront is not just the value of doing the right thing, but also the result of better usability for all users at a lower level of investment.

Click below to view 3 Apps for Better Communication with Hearing Loss

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