Transcript: Tech disability community meets for conversation and connection

This is a transcript of a podcast about The Tech Disability Project’s first in-person gathering held on Oct. 7.

IRENA FISCHER-HWANG, HOST: On a warm autumn evening, a crowd of tech workers gathers at Adobe headquarters in San Francisco. They’re attending a panel discussion and mixer about disability in the tech industry. The event is an opportunity for both people with disabilities and non-disabled people to get together and discuss: what does accessibility in tech look like? What does it sound like? And who is it for?

HARSHIL VED: My name is Harshil Ved. I work for Google. I am a Product Support Manager for accessibility.

IRENA FISCHER-HWANG: Ved leads a team at Google that helps customers use their Google products with assistive technologies.

HARSHIL VED: We have trained agents who are trained on assistive technology that can help answer users for those questions and give them support, like on a one to one basis. So we do support through email, phone chat, Be My Eyes.

IRENA FISCHER-HWANG: Be My Eyes is a free app that connects blind and low-vision people with over 2 million sighted volunteers around the world to help users on any kind of simple task over video chat.

GOOGLE BE MY EYES PRESS RELEASE: Hey Google, open Be My Eyes for a volunteer

IRENA FISCHER-HWANG: For non-disabled people, Google Assistant might be just another fancy bell and whistle in their smartphone. But partnerships like the one with be My Eyes turn convenient features into effective tools for many people with disabilities. American Sign Language, or ASL support in tech devices would be a great benefit to deaf users of technology. According to the World Health Organization, over 466 million people – 5% of the world’s total population – have disabling hearing loss. ASL assistance might also benefit tech workers, like deaf software engineer Neil Marshall.

NEIL MARSHALL: Whewph. It’s always challenging with accessibility.

IRENA FISCHER-HWANG: Marshall, who is speaking through an interpreter, is a software engineer at Indeed, a job site that helps connect employers with people on the job market. In collaborative settings, like most tech companies, Marshall needs to work with an interpreter. But that can be especially challenging in Silicon Valley.

NEIL MARSHALL: There’s not enough interpreters locally. The cost of living is expensive so they move away and so that causes a shortage for me and that forces me to have to use like video relay interpreting.

IRENA FISCHER-HWANG: Video relay interpreting connects deaf individuals with an interpreter on video — through a computer, mobile device or videophone — who relays information between parties on a call. But it’s not a perfect solution for Marshall.

NEIL MARSHALL: If I’m in a room full of people and everyone’s kind of popcorn, talking back and forth, it’s really hard to facilitate. You know, I’m just looking at one little screen and I can’t really tell who’s talking and then when the interpreters done there’s no opportunity for me to network afterwards.

IRENA FISCHER-HWANG: Marshall’s experience as a deaf software engineer drives home the need for accessibility services not just for customers, but also the people who design and create the technologies we all rely on. And in the case of Harshil Ved, the product manager at Google, his own experience shaped his career trajectory. When Ved arrived at Google eight years ago, he was working on a different team.

HARSHIL VED: I have been working for Google for eight years now. For the first seven and a half years, I worked in the ad sales team at Google. But I have I have a visual impairment since birth. So I’m legally blind. I use assistive technology to do my day to day job. So I’ve always been very passionate about accessibility. And that’s why like, I was like, okay, you know, I would love to give a shot to working on accessibility and in a way, give back to the community, you know. So that’s why I moved to a product support manager role for accessibility within Google.

IRENA FISCHER-HWANG: Ved has been in his current role for only four months. But he’s excited for the changes his team can make.

HARSHIL VED: Thinking 20 years back when I would be a kid, no screen reader technology, no Uber, I don’t know how I would survive in a place like San Francisco, like I’m so independent today, it’s primarily driven by technology. It’s definitely not 10 on 10 but we have this opportunity to make, make it so that no matter what the ability of people is, they still have the same shot as everyone else in the world.

IRENA FISCHER-HWANG: For the Peninsula Press, I’m Irena Fischer-Hwang.

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