The video transcription has been created as a clean verbatim style transcript to provide a less distracting, and more valuable interview – without detracting anything meaningful from the original.
Nandita Gupta 0:00
Hi everyone this is Nandita Gupta and welcome to the Shakti Collective! Today we have with us, Sara. Sara, would you please like to introduce yourself?
Sure. So thank you, Nandita so my name is Sara Basson. I’m at Google, working in the area of accessibility and disability inclusion, both in my day job and then I’m also the President of the employee resource group associated with disability, which is disability Alliance at Google.
Nandita Gupta 0:31
That is amazing! Thank you so much for being here! We are excited to hear from you. And how would you describe accessibility in three words?
Okay, if I could sneak in a little teeny tiny fourth word. I would say, equity, and innovation for disabilities.
Nandita Gupta 0:56
Thank you. And thinking about, you know, equity and innovation. I feel like I have an idea where you’re going with that but I’d love to your you know why do you care about accessibility like what drives your passion to work in this field?
Right..Well I think basically, we would all agree that it’s a human rights issue. And umm.. I also feel like there are many human rights issues of course, but for the accessibility and disability inclusion, I feel as though, in a sense, the way that you can influence. There are lots of influences you can have without actually turning the world upside down. So this the view of making sure that you’ve provided adequate tools, and access to people with disabilities. So, while there are all these sort of systemic discrimination issues and someone that you would have with any other underrepresented group. There’s also a very clear set of concrete actions that you could take to improve accessibility and therefore change the narrative. And I’m impatient so it’s sort of nice to know that you can do things with with tools and not wait for you know the world to pivot on its access.
Nandita Gupta 2:20
Absolutely! And thinking about you know, when you started your journey and this field.. What was your first aha moment with accessibility?
I think actually my first aha moment is, it was probably a “Oh No” moment and that was, I started out working or studying Speech Pathology with the goal of working in speech therapy. And so my aha moment there was… Well, first of all, it’s very hard to move the needle when you’re dealing say with people with brain damage and so on so I was working with stroke patients. And so one aha was, oh my god, I am so eager to make progress, and I don’t, I don’t feel that I’m making as much progress as I would like. Also the fact that it was very much one on one. So, an aha movement was, how could I have bigger, broader influence on this rather than doing the one on one? So that was actually a very frightening moment because here I was studying it and thinking, I don’t think I really want to work in this, but ultimately became an aha moment because I think I was able to leverage those skills and use them more broadly,
Nandita Gupta 3:37
I love that! .. I love that.. Thank you for sharing that. Thinking about your current role and the kind of work you’re doing today, can you share a little bit more about how you are creating impact within the space?
Umm.. within this space.. so first of all it’s very exciting to be doing this at Google, because two reasons one is, there’s a very big and broad impact that Google has on so many people so when we talk about billions of people with disabilities worldwide and things like that and wow Google really can touch them so if you change processes and practices at Google. It could have that that level of effect. And then also, you know, there’s… and then also just the fact that Google is considered a role model and an icon in the field and so lots of other companies copy and so you sort of feel like if I do amazing things that have greater inclusion for people with disabilities at Google then other companies will will imitate our practices. So we’re working on a number of things. So there is of course the issue around product accessibility itself and my focus is on the internal Google experience there are lots of other teams that are focusing on the external products. So the products that we use internally or even the products that we use externally that are being used as an internal Googler as well. And so how do we ensure that it’s a good experience for Googlers, and then all of the other things that contribute to a positive experience so you know what are our hiring practices like and, you know how are our support tools and accommodations and how is the culture and how is the etiquette and how do we make sure that all of those things are running smoothly and also very much with input from the community, which is one of the very joyous things for me about being so deeply involved in disability Alliance. So the ability to, you know, what is it that one of our, our key activists in the community, or really says often is “Nothing about us without us, and nothing without us at all. “And so, you know, feeling like there’s this really close and direct pipeline into the community and input from the community and all the decisions that we make.
Nandita Gupta 6:06
I love that! Thank you! And thinking about the people and really thinking about the community.. during the course of your journey.. Umm.. know it might be hard to name one person, but is there one person or a couple of people who have really influenced a career within accessibility?
Right, I would call out Dimitri Kanevsky, who is a Research Scientist at Google, he’s a mathematician by training I’ve worked with him. Before coming to Google and now we’re both at Google. And, and he is himself Deaf from the age of one. And I got involved with him early in projects and he was just an engine for innovation and solutions that have ultimately really been game changing for the community. Most recently, if you’re familiar with it live transcribe, which is captioning on Android devices, and the testimonials that we receive are amazing. So it was both … that fed and inspired.. jst a couple of things. One is the…. A lot of things I’ve already mentioned, the ability to have really big impact. The fact that disability itself can be a catalyst for major research and innovation. You know was inspiring and exciting. I mean it’s sort of great to be able to have large impact, but I also come from a research background. So the fact that you’re using the kind of tools and techniques that come from research, just keeps it also scientifically and professionally exciting.
Nandita Gupta 8:00
Absolutely. And that’s really amazing! I definitely do use that feature so I do love that.[laughter]
Nandita Gupta 8:09
And thinking about I guess barriers or frustrations.. umm.. what do you believe is one of the greatest challenge that we face in really making accessibility part of a more common everyday practice in that industry?
So some of the barriers, is what you’re asking about or..?
Nandita Gupta 8:31
Yeah barriers and I guess what what do you think is the greatest challenge we face and really making accessibility like an everyday practice? So, you know, oh this person is doing there are some people are doing it I think how can we all get into it?
Right… the this issue is always prioritization. And so, especially in, and tech companies where prioritization is often counted in terms of how many people are impacted and if I put in this feature how many people will be using it. And so, shifting the mindset so the prioritization looks at more than just the raw numbers. And so we’d like to talk about the fact that you can look at impact as a billion people are using this new feature, and it’s, and it has improved their lives by little teeny tiny increment versus a smaller number where the impact has been profound, and so it’s a 100% impact or a smaller community versus teeny tiny impact for a billion users, and just getting that mindset adopted. Also I think within the disability community. Probably the truth is probably true for all underrepresented groups but I think particularly in the disability community.. is there’s such diversity of needs. So as much as we say you need to make this accessible, there are so many sub parts to it it’s not you can’t just, you’re not just driving through a single community and so you don’t want to talk about the billion people, there’s something a little bit disingenuous about it because that billion people… each of them, that, you know, each of them or each community needs a very different set of, you know, modifications, implementations enhancements. Then another challenge is, it’s hard. I know we sort of like to say things like, well if you bake it in the beginning it’s just natural with that they can nail that products, you know software engineering practices, and yet I have seen teams that are eager to build an accessibility and it just doesn’t come out right. I’m not myself a software engineer. .. so… it’s sort of something when you’re thinking, this is not a question if you need to evangelize and convince them it’s important they believe that it’s important. And yet, it’s still taking multiple iterations and so ideally it would just be easier to build it in and then all you need to do is the, you know, once they know about it, it happens but that’s not quite the case, they know about it and then it takes work and then it takes ongoing work and. So, umm you know, that’s…
Nandita Gupta 11:21
It sounds like it’s not just you know you do it and you can put your hands up and your’e done.. you have to just be able to bake it. like you said, normally bake it in the process but make sure you continue to bake it, almost. [laughs]
Right, right. And that everybody’s trained in it.. and everybody is skilled and that you have all of the resources available and, you know, including beyond just the software engineering skills also all of the user experience skills, and, you know, and does your company prioritize the UX, the user experience as highly as they do, you know, just check the box accessibility.
Nandita Gupta 11:57
So how do you even… Because that’s. That sounds obviously that’s a huge challenge right? But i mean especially with a company like Google like how do you even scale accessibility across such a large enterprise? What are some ways in which have worked for you that you know other organizations can adopt and learn from?
Right, right. I don’t think that we have a secret sauce. And I think that we’re using all the methodologies here, critical that you have it as top down because there are people who say if it’s part of. There are people who say I’m going to do various things just because I know it’s the right thing to do and then there were others will always say I will do it if it’s listed as one of the company key objectives, so you need to make sure from the top down, that your company is making all the right statements and commitments. You need to make sure that there is training available but you actually hire people that are already savvy about issues in inclusion and accessibility so the burden is not entirely on your company to do all the training. I know we’re involved in this initiative called teach access. Just a consortium of companies that work with universities where universities agree to include accessibility in their curricula and then companies agree to include it as some priority in their hiring plan. So it’s sort of bottom up and side to side and how do you just make sure that you know there’s a.. there’s a drumbeat. I know we have various days that are associated with accessibility and disability, how do you make it much more pervasive really much more of a drumbeat, you shouldn’t have, you know, a week of events or a day of events and then you should that’s great because that gives you immersion but how do you just sort of keep it going? Make sure that every month there are presentations and talks, how do you make sure that those presentations and talks are imparting the messages that you want to impart? I think also when we do these presentations and we’ll bring in people with disabilities.. we bring in superstars and heroes and Paralympians and that’s wonderful in terms of imparting the message of… umm.. look how much people in this community can achieve given that I have been asked things like, “Can blind people actually use a computer?”
So when there’s that level of of ignorance in the community overall and then I love to point out well so and so on our team has, you know is blind from birth and he has his PhD in computer science from NYU so I guess it is possible to use a computer. So it’s so the Paralympian type the the heroics and look what I’ve overcome is wonderful, but I think it needs.. we need to do this more thoughtfully and have a range of topic. Have topics also that show… this is really hard, not just I overcame it and I’m actually more accomplished than you with my multiple disabilities, that’s sort of that’s inspirational. But then, what does that person walk away? I mean, indeed it as an engineer watching that you conclude, “Well, they’re doing just fine don’t need my help here”, which is clearly not the message that you have. So, really making sure that you have the messages on an ongoing basis, making sure that not just from the top down that all of your management and senior leadership, understand it, prioritize it support people who say, you know, we’re not going to advance unless we have this or that accessible even if that means missing some deadline. So you need kind of the middle management and their management support and the individuals being trained and, you know, lots of cultural messages and another thing is that is key…. and this is interesting because if you think about what comes first and what comes to you know what comes second here. The more you hire people with disabilities, the less work, everybody else needs to do in terms of evangelism evangelizing and teaching and training because it just becomes natural. And I remember one group saying that, you know, had to say of you know a blind employee on the team. It just became part of their culture as we’re not done until Joe can use this product and I’m thinking, “Great, I don’t have to say anything..” and then it just becomes sort of natural and can Joe use the product, they could they could figure it out as they’re building it so it’s not like we just built the most accessible thing in the world and then you discover that users don’t actually like it… So the hiring things but on the other hand you also want to have a culture that’s welcoming and inclusive before you bring in people and, and where they have to have a difficult experience rolling boulders uphill. Just so the rest of us can get trained so there’s a balancing act…
Nandita Gupta 16:36
For sure! I agree and I think it goes to ties back to your previous point of really making it part of everyday practice because if you have a more inclusive culture like you said you have more people that are being inclusive and representative, then that’ll also reflect in your products which is amazing! For sure! And so thinking about those people who may be in, you know, slightly different cultures, or who are trying to really, you know, not just create this like accessibility from the top down but really from the bottom up right where there are people who are trying to be champions on their team. What is some advice you can give to them so we can be effective change agents, for accessibility, in their community?
in our organization where people you’re talking about people in different companies? in our organization people.. different companies..?
Nandita Gupta 17:23
Companies not not necessarily Google, but just different companies where you know like companies like Google really prioritize accessibility right where if you join Google you know it’s important for them. But what if you’re in a company that may not be the case but you may be that “lone wolf” or you may be that person trying to really build accessibility into the culture. What are some ways in which they can be more effective change agents?
Right. So if you are working in a smaller setting and others don’t know about it. So the first part is knowledge and so you need to be the one. If you are able to do this do the trainings yourself or bring in the trainings, make sure that this is part of the discussion. Small company.. basically you need, you know everyone on board with you. So, it’s not just going to be one presentation and then cross your fingers. It’s, going to be, you know, presentations and you know trainings and you know signage and experiences and, then also get into it through the things that excite your company so how small the company we’re talking about but for example if the company has hackathons. And so they really value, you know how creative and innovative can we be, let’s make disability themes the topic of a hackathon, which will both, you know, potentially create innovation within your company but also, you know, kind of in the background, create, you know, awareness and commitment, and people will pick up on that and perhaps take that knowledge to their day jobs.
Nandita Gupta 19:05
Absolutely. And I guess thinking about the other side, where you know people don’t know about accessibility but are starting to think .. become involved., what advice would you give to those who are thinking about you know jumping in and getting involved with the digital accessibility?
Right. Right. Well I mean there are the, you know, the NGOs out there to help you. So we’ve become very involved with Disability: IN. as you know, a key engine in disability inclusion in the workplace. And so I would recommend that people just get exposed to that , participate in some webinars, they have a lot of resources, especially again if we’re talking about a small company that created itself and that’s by the way also another thing I love about being in this community. We work closely with Microsoft with Amazon with Salesforce with Apple, and we all have this view of our company’s competitors. Sure. let them compete on something else on this everyone. They’ve all been extremely, sort of, generous and sharing and working together in terms of how can we solve this problem. So you can reach out to, in addition to entities like Disability: IN, it’ll give you access to all of these other companies and perhaps other companies are at the same size and scale as your company, but maybe a little bit further along in the journey and they can mentor you along.
Nandita Gupta 20:34
Absolutely. Thank you. Thank you so much, and one parting question is, what is that one thing you know, thinking about, you know, getting overwhelmed because there’s so many resources, there’s so much knowledge out there. If we started small right what is the one thing you would tell someone else that they could go today, right do immediately in the short term, to start thinking about accessibility and really baking that into their life?
So, if it were say, you know, a leader in the organization. So that they have actually really just a larger scale of influence… I’ll cheat and I’ll go a little bit more than one. So, you know, I’m a a strong proponent of become part of an ERG, you know, create an ERG if you don’t have one, not hard to do. Join the ERG. If you do have one and that will automatically and immediately give you more exposure to people with disabilities if you haven’t had that before. And then another thing… somebody in leadership and we advocate to our leaders, especially our executive sponsors for Disability Alliance, our ERG.. is talk about it, you have, you know, a big pulpit view, you know you do all hands meetings with lots of people. Make sure this is always part of your conversation. I know one of our executive sponsors, you know, whenever he has a leadership meeting with all of his managers and directors, he actually has an event.. and has been brought in Special Olympics New York with athletes, and then gotten other people involved in it. Even if you’re giving a talk at somebody else’s event, you know weave it in, as, as part of something that is important to your company something that is important to us and the audience can do even if the talk and whatever it is that you’re there, promoting is something else that’s another thing about accessibility I should have brought in it earlier and that is, it fits into everything. It doesn’t matter what it is that you’re talking about, there’s going to be some element if you’re talking about people issues if you’re talking about technical issues. So, leave it in so that just becomes part of the narrative.
Nandita Gupta 23:04
Absolutely. Thank you, thank you so much.