AXSChat Podcast

AXSChat Podcast with Christopher Patnoe, Head of Accessibility and Disability Inclusion for EMEA at Google.

February 14, 2022 Antonio Santos, Debra Ruh, Neil Milliken talk with Christopher Patnoe
AXSChat Podcast
AXSChat Podcast with Christopher Patnoe, Head of Accessibility and Disability Inclusion for EMEA at Google.
Show Notes Transcript

Christopher Patnoe is the Head of Accessibility and Disability Inclusion for EMEA at Google. He leads Google’s efforts around the accessibility of product, people, policy and partnerships – with a new focus on Emerging Markets. He has more than 25 years experience in Tech working at companies like Apple, Sony Ericsson and Disney where he’s built hardware, software, and services. His current passion is Accessibility at the intersection of immersive technologies (AR/VR) and consumer hardware. He is the chair for the Immersive Captions Community Group with the W3C, is a co-Chair of the XR Association Accessibility Working Group, and sits on the Board of Trustees for the American Foundation for the Blind and for the GAAD Foundation. Christopher has a degree in Music from UC Berkeley.

This is a draft transcript produced live at the event and corrected for spelling and basic errors. It is not a commercial transcript and will need to be checked if you wish to publish it. AXSCHAT CHRISTOPHER PATNOE Friday, 11th February 2022

NEIL:

Hello and welcome to Axschat. I am delighted that we are joined today by Christopher Patnoe. Christopher, it is great to have you here with us and great to have you with us from the UK because everyone tends to think of Google as being the big US behemoth but you have moved over here to start the competency around accessibility in Europe. Can you tell us firstly how you came to be at Google and then how you came to take a decision to move to the UK in Covid in the middle of lockdown to start up work here in the UK?

CHRISTOPHER:

I think my psychiatrist would have a different opinion than I do in terms of how this goes. But just really quickly my career has been a really strange one. It has not been a typical one. I studied music in school. I wanted to be an opera singer but I wasn't very good. I found tech was a much better day job, so I ended up spending ten years at Apple working on the hardware and software. I worked on the first iPod, the first iTunes. G4 Towers, G5 Towers, Falcon Studio and then I did a couple of years at Sony making phones. Sony Erickson to be precise. A year at Disney making games and now and I've been at Google, it will be ten years come April. So I done and built and broke a lot. But I did not discover accessibility until my second gig here at Google. So 18 years into my career, I had never heard of it. The only reason I heard of it because my product at the time, Google Play Music was not accessible. We had a test Inger come into a meeting and turnover voice on her button, button, button and said what is that. She said, that is Google Play Music for someone who is blind. I said that is stupid, how they use it. She said, that is why I am here. I said all right. So that was my introduction to accessibility and frankly that was my introduction to disability. I have not got this in my family this is just something that I have discovered in the process of my career, so following my heart of what seems like an interesting thing to do. Within a few months I volunteered to take on accessibility for Google Play and I heard that test Inger to become a program manager on my team to teach me what I needed to know because I knew I did not know anything. Did a couple of years in VR, trying to bring accessibility there, too early and then I join the Ascent Accessibility Team about four and a half years ago and my job was to make all of Google's Products accessible. We did this by building partnerships inside Google building relationships with the larger teams. Like Google Search had a team, Amber had a team but others did not. So we built relationships identified doing the work. We helped to make them successful and helped to sing their praises and then built the culture of accessibility around the people who were doing the work and we did really well. I am really; really proud with how Google has dramatically improved it's accessibility in the past five/ten years. It is a testament of the effort and the dedication and the leadership and willingness to accept this recommendation of formal leadership. So our leadership is about them and that made the conversation much easier. Fast forward to Covid. And in mid-2020, I realised I had been doing the same job for a couple of times. If you heard my bio a moment ago, I changed jobs sometimes. I want to stay in accessibility. I want to stay at Google so what can I do? I read something about the European Accessibility Act and I thought, that is really interesting. We have no one really talking about this. So I pitched the job to my boss and she pitched it to her boss and we pitched it to her boss and then they said yes. So last year I am on a plane with my family and our three cats on the same plane and we moved to England and four months later our furniture shows up and I am drinking tea at Fortnum & Mason and having a fun time.

NEIL:

That is expensive tea by the way. .

CHRISTOPHER:

We don't do it often. It was one of those celebratory things.

NEIL:

Absolutely. And they do a nice line of wicker baskets as well. Picnic hamper are the ones to have. So the European Accessibility Act is actually really close to hand now. It is due to come into force in June of this year and it's a big overarching piece of legislation. And all of the Member States have to enact this into their local legislation transpose into their national law by June this year.

CHRISTOPHER:

Harmonisation starts this year. It's 2025 is when everything is pencils down everywhere.

NEIL:

Yes. Exactly. So it's going to be interesting because there is still a lot to be determined in terms of standards and because although though we have EAN 301549 which is the European Accessibility Standard. There are still...

CHRISTOPHER:

Roles off the tongue.

NEIL:

Absolutely. It is not entirely all completely defined yet. But it could have a really profound impact on accessibility and my hope is that it will have a similar kind of global spread that GDPR did, that if you want to do business in Europe or with Europe you're going to have to make your products and services accessible.

CHRISTOPHER:

Enforcements.

DEBRA:

It makes it right.

NEIL:

Yes, it does but and part of this compared to the Web Accessibility Directive, which was the other far reaching piece of legislation was that the enforcement was written into the Act so that there is a requirement to enforce in a way that was not necessarily fully there in the Web Accessibility Directives. We still need to see what that enforcement will be like. And I think that the jury is out on that. But it's going to be interesting. What is the sort of things that you're thinking about with your Google hat on?

CHRISTOPHER:

So the areas I am most interested in are the media services because I think it's a place where people on the ground are impacted and in particular, I am concerned about the lack of qualitative metrics. Like how good it has to be. And how, for the 200 languages, 200 somewhat languages in Europe how much of each language do you need to have. The call media captions, you need sign language, Interpretation and you need Audio Description. That is great, but we don't want a Nelson Mandela funeral situation where some schmuck is up there making fake sign language because they think they've sign language. This is not what we want. How to you create these metrics of quality and quantity. It's not there. And this is something that I am poking in to see if I can help break some clarity towards it.

DEBRA:

And you know Christopher. I was going to ask you a different question. But I found your answer so fascinating because I remember many years ago, I think it was like 2005 or something, a group of us Americans went over to the EU and we were talking about accessibility and how no, the corporations they got it. They are going to instead, but anyway it is just so interesting watching it all unfold. And one thing, I have two questions, and I don't know if you're going to know the first question. But my first question is okay we are talking about Europe. I hear that. But then I get very confused about the UK. So is the UK part of Europe now? Are they going, that confuses me? And then the other question and I don't know if you have an answer but the other question is, I am very curious about, in the United States, the way we talk about accessibility, the way we put pressure on people to be accessible, you know our litigation, our accessibility rock stars that like to call each other out openly. I just am curious how the accessibility scene is now with you living in London. Do you see some differences between what all the fighting that is going on in the US with accessibility which I believe a lot of it needs to be done, but I was just curious about that as well from those two perspectives?

CHRISTOPHER:

I will give my two cents or two pennies and let Neil correct me. The way I look at it is England is a part of the European Union. So the physical proximity does not change, the politics does. But you can't help the winds of change certainly blow across the channel. So the things that happen there will be certainly impacting us here. I think in England here we are probably a little farther ahead in many ways compared to many countries in Europe. Certainly not all. So I think there is only room for inspiration and compromise on all sides. When it comes to the lawyer thing. I think the US has all the lawyers because there are not enough barristers here to really push the agenda. So things change in America through lawyers but that is not really the right way to cause the change. What that does is it turns the conversation of accessibility of one of compliance and that is a third of the effort what it takes to really make something useful and that is the goal. Accessibility is a means to an end. The end is fully delightful user experience for truly everyone. We may never get there but it can't be a conversation of compliance just because you might be afraid to get sued.

DEBRA:

I agree. Well said.

NEIL:

So I think that this is true, what you said, you are here on Covid Island, we are now separate from the rest of civilisation and things are slightly different. But we still trade with the European Union and we'll need to meet their regulations if we wish to trade with them. In that respect the European Accessibility Act with have a profound impact on the UK.

CHRISTOPHER:

Business.

NEIL:

Absolutely, in terms of business, particularly if what I'm hearing that you need to have a CE mark which is the quality mark that you need to be able to sell your product into Europe then it must be meeting the accessibility requirements. So for you to get the basic standard of it being an acceptable product it's going to need to meet the accessibility requirements. So for things like hardware, then accessibility is absolutely in play. I think that some of the challenges for businesses like Christopher's, like the one I work for, is the interpretation and the lack of clarity at the moment as to what constitutes good accessibility and also the fact that each of the Member States interpret this into their own national laws. The intent of the legislation is for harmonisation and easy cross border trade of accessible products and services. The reality may be a lot more confusing. Because here different countries add little bits to their legislation because they believe it's important to them. What you will end up with is not harmonisation but fragmented markets.

CHRISTOPHER:

Yes and that is a particular problem for hardware and then you has a skew problem, they'll make one version of one printer, for example. HP could make one printer that meets the Lithuanian skew. It's the only one that they can get because it's the only one that makes the thing proper. But if everyone can agree on the same metrics there can be multiple versions of products that meet lots of people's needs.

NEIL:

So we have these strange plugs in the UK with the chunky three pins and it may be a bit like that you will need multiple plugs for your accessibility. So that is the danger that we foresee in having legislation that is transposed without the proposed standardisation already being in place. So I think where, as a representative of industry I am focused on, we need those standards because essentially you have the local legislation references standards then we are on fairly solid ground. It's when there is lots of stuff that is open to interpretation or the standards are not all written clear, then we are in a difficult situation. And I really want it to work because if we create legislation that is not implementable, that is not enforceable then we are going to be actually taking a step backwards on accessibility rather than forwards because you have to create legislation that works because otherwise it losses all credibility. If you can't implement the law, you can't enforce it then everyone will ignore it and then we are back to goodwill.

CHRISTOPHER:

That works so often.

NEIL:

Yeah, that works so well. Absolutely. So I think that it's a pivotal moment for accessibility in terms of, if we get this right it will push a lot of organisations to do the stuff that they have been dragging their heels on for a long time. If we don't define it well then it's going to be a bumpy ride. So I think that that is probably my view on that. But at the same time, I am keeping my fingers crossed and I think that it's still a positive thing that we're making this overarching legislation. I just hope we implement it well.

DEBRA:

Christopher, this is direct to you too, but since I see leadership from corporations like ATOS and like Google, I am really caring about these laws, I am actually a little bit more hopeful than I have been in the past because I know that corporations have been engaged in these conversations for a long time but I also believe sometimes the accessibility community confuses corporations. We could just say the word overlay for example.

NEIL:

Gesundheit.

DEBRA:

Yes.

NEIL:

Which turns into a sneeze because every time somebody says overlay, you say Gesundheit.

DEBRA:

I am going to totally do that, that is a good idea. Right. It is so confusing for the corporations. One thing that I am grateful to ATOS and Google and Microsoft, I can go on and on, that they care enough about it to put leaders in the roles that can help navigate this because legislation isn't go to do us any good, if we don't comply with the legislation. We can go to the States where we sue the hell out of each other but is that really the right way to do it? I don't know that is what we do but at the same time you noted, Christopher that it also causes a divide between the community and you know the field and that is not good and just corporations are trying to do the right thing but listening to the wrong people or just making things worse. And I will give you an example and this is a long time ago example, but I remember I met somebody in a transportation agency in one of our States and they were so proud. They said one of our board members is blind and so what we did, we took our bus schedules and made them braille. It cost us $25,000. We brailed it and I said how did that work, and they said well it did not work well. A lot of people are complaining because a lot of people that are blind, don't read braille. All you had to do was make the document accessible. Bus schedules change daily. There are so many things wrong with them trying to do the right thing but having the wrong data. So let me be quiet and turn it over to you, Christopher but its just interesting dynamics.

CHRISTOPHER:

Just to your last point, there is nothing about without us. The right data comes from working with people. And that is a real challenge that we have is that there are a lot of people who want to represent their community but then we have this interesting situation. We've this interesting situation that we have communities that represent different communities that have sometimes opposite goals and then what do you want to do. So that is an interesting thing that we need to get around this realisation is that we are all in this together. We truly nothing without us as a disability community. To the first point I think easier for an ATOS, a Google, a Microsoft to be able to commit these resources to accessibility because we are big and we have resources that we can spend. And once you make the commitment you are there. What concerns me is that it's not us. It's the mid cap and start-ups, the small companies; these are the ones that actually do most of the work. These are the ones that have most of the impact. These are the ones that have all of the storefronts that aren't accessibility or they are the ones that are using the sneezing. There are so many ways that this can be better. But it is for the platform companies to try and figure out ways to make it easier to do the right thing. I talk about Legos a lot. Where if you want to build a building, you buy Legos and the Legos are all designed to stack together properly and sometimes even look good. But if you have to make it all Legos, mine would be these whacky deformed things going off this way, you want to make it easy for people to make beautiful functional, delightful products and I think this is really the goals of any designer. But those of us who are building platforms, we need to have one these as one of our goals. I mean material design, flutter, these are things that design with accessibility and usability in mind but it has to be easier or it's not going to happen, regardless of the lawsuits.

DEBRA:

I agree, and that is what we have seen.

ANTONIO:

One of the issues that we have in Europe and to one of the points that Debra is saying is that we don't really have a community in the same sense that we have in the United States. The countries are very divided and besides some focusing groups that work close with the European Union, you can't really say that there is a community that is bringing together Italians, French in one place that does not really exist. And even in the countries, some of them are stronger in terms of focusing than others. In some cases people with disabilities are represented by organisations in many in the media so they don't really have a kind of a voice when they talk or they are not present in society as advocates. So it would be very interesting to see how this is going to evolve because every community is going to play a stronger role in the way this legislation is going to be applicable in their different countries. Some countries might move faster because they might be a little bit ahead than the legislation of the European Union. Others might move faster because society and the advocates are stronger than the others. So I see this going in a kind of divide. So this is how I see things going. We'll see this moving at different speeds in different countries because after all, if we look also in terms of the scenario in terms of digital technology. It's also the same case where every country is at a different speed in terms of the different stages of evolution and I am sure this will impact the European Act.

NEIL:

Goodness. How to follow that.

DEBRA:

I know.

NEIL:

I guess. But we see this within our own organisations too. So there is multispeed progress. Our internal programs are looking at the levels of maturity in different countries and the attitudes and everything else and they are varied and our levels of maturity are varied. We had to take a view as to which model of disability that we would apply to our program. How we would address it how would we conceptualise it. And at a global level we followed the U.N. and went with the bio psycho social model because there are parts of our organisation where the norm is the medical model, parts where it's the social model, at the same time. And we met in the middle, with the bio psycho social which recognises a bit of both and tries to remove barriers. I was really interested in some of the stuff you were talking about in terms of the differences in the disability communities, the differences and something I have been thinking about a lot, Christopher was actually how do we do this at scale? How do we achieve this without being burdensome? So I create media. I create images. I post them on the web. I add Altext. I am dyslexic. That actually puts me through my disability pain point to serve another part of the disability community. It also means that the efforts and the spoons that I am using up to be accessible stop me from doing other things and detract from my enjoyment of life. So we have a really difficult balance to strike and I think this is where we ought to be looking at, how we can use and apply technology to make it much easier for people because I am committed, I am making that effort, I am using those spoons. At the same time most people aren't. So how are we going to make it so easy that people have no excuse to be accessible, because I think that that is where when are using those automated tools, finding that level that is acceptably good, because you raised and so maybe you can come back to me on this one. You raised the issue around how good is sign language, how are we going to get sign language good enough in some of these small languages. What technologies can we apply to create the learning models to help build automatic sign language translation and all the other things we will really need to do to make it scale?

CHRISTOPHER:

I think we need to start by first solving it in one language because we have not even done that. We don't have a good interpreter for sign language in any language. The data collection, the reliable data collection is really tough. Even in English we have N number of different English sign language and then in a country you have different signs for regional. I am sure here in the UK there are different regional signs as well. So getting authoritative set of sign is critically important to even get one. How are we going to do this in a language like Catlin, which is a smaller language, really rich and really beautiful but there's not much content there for you to really build the model. So there's really interesting linguistically challenges in terms of computer science of how to create that model. Just because getting qualitatively good reliable data is hard. And I don't have an answer to that but I think the legislation and enforcement helps drive the conversation to make it somebody's problem. So coming to the WAD there was not as much enforcement there as there could have been. Many countries never even responded. Within the EAA, you've got the quality mark but that's for hardware. Digital products don't have that. So what is the driving force? Who is going to enforce it? What is the punishment? Is there punishment? Is it embarrassment? There is no clear answer of how these things are going to work and without that answer no one is going to make the effort to solve some of those hard challenges. Now let me say something here but we always need to realise there's a sacrifice when you do something like this, when you standardise something as dynamic as sign language. You cut off a lot of the variation because it becomes a standard language. This is what Google understands. This is what Microsoft understands as an official sign language and that means a lot of the beautiful variations of sign goes away because it is not recognised in these tools. So for me one of the most important things as we develop these technologies is the ability to customise them and expand them for people's needs because only by doing that can we create something robust enough to meet both your need and Debra's need and Antonio's need and my need. We all need something different. We all need the same tools. So for us to do that, there has to be a level of customisation that is allowed and is done in partnership with the community otherwise we are not going to want to change but that takes time and effort. It's the only way we can have these things work together is by having each of us participate in us and having these solutions be robust enough to allow my funky sign because maybe I don't have good sue of my hands. There is a reason why I can't sign like somebody else. But I should still be understood. Google has a really cool technology and I don't want to be a Google person here but the Project Uphonia is one of the most exciting things we have been doing in quite some time. It's a really interesting way of creating voice models or just general models that allow people with non-typical speech patterns or even facial movements to engage with technology. So you can use the same tools and you can have it customised to you. So you have the same tool as everybody else. You don't have to have any extra expense anything else you need to schlep around. No batteries you need to charge. It's your phone. You talk to your phone and you take a selfie, you talk to your phone and you send it off to Twitter if you want to. These are the things that make technology exciting but these are the things that can only be built by working with the community because we don't otherwise know what's broken.

DEBRA:

Right and since you are already hiring the community, the community does get to participate, which I really appreciate from a both of your brands and you know, it's a one time I said something to a friend of ours, QR Loom. I made a comment about Google glasses and she said, don't say that Debra, we are so embarrassed about the failure of Google glasses and I was like No Google, you all showed such innovation and sometimes with technology we fail and Oh that is right, always with technology like the first two billion times but I am very grateful that Google showed the leadership with things like smart glasses and now you are doing so many cool things, but you're right you have to do it with the community but you all are and I really, really appreciate that about Google. ATOS is very good about that, creating a program so that people can become accessibility and yeah, it's good for ATOS. But it's good for all of us. So how do we get more Christopher's and Antonios and Neils into these conversations? I know Dr Caroline Casey is away with the Valuable 500. Christopher, I know you're heavily engaged with Access reel, I know that Neil has been there, so how do we encourage others because this is how we change the world by doing exactly what we are doing here. I know that is a hard question, but I did want to just say that we appreciate the effort you're making and we appreciate the failures that you have done as well. Thank you.

CHRISTOPHER:

We all learn through failures. We don't learn to do anything without them. How do we change the world?

NEIL:

Well partly through changing the conceptual models. So the one thing that I have tried to do is to help people conceptualise in accessibility in the same way that we conceptualise pollution. So the whole sort of sustainability concepts. Because we have got to and this is how we structured our program inside the organisation is to follow those decarbonisation models to look at the various different scopes. Because essentially what I am trying to do is weave what we do into standard business processes to the stuff that we are already part of our change programs. Part of all of these other business and metrics. So they can be properly measured, they can be enforced where necessary and encouraged and also if we apply the right models, we can actually take the penalties that do get applied if people transgress. And we should be reinvesting them into RND to do the stuff to create the sign language models, to do all of the community consultation then the work we need to do to make stuff not only scale but scale well and to be easy and good quality and all the rest of it. So also, yeah, it's about that whole kind of communication piece, getting out there, creating network effects. I am really hopefully actually because there are more and more people engaged in the topic, there are the champions networks, the conversations about accessibility that are happening now, are not in the far corner. They are out in the open and there is energy to it that there was not before. But we also need to create career paths and remuneration and make sure it's valued and embedded into education. So it's a massive systemic view. I am not saying any of this is easy because you can make you know one website accessible. But to make a business accessible or how we do business as a whole or how societies are, that is a change movement and that requires lots of people, that requires many thousands and millions of Davids and Christophers and Debras and Antonios and Hectors and Jennys and can I say more, Ian Hamiltons and Tara Zalkers and Bryces of this world you know, it takes a village. And it takes a village full of younger bright engaged people, the Marks and the Kendra's and the Alexanders of this world too. We want to be able to pass it on. I want to be able to sit on the beach with my feet up at some point. Not thinking about this. Not right now. But at some point.

CHRISTOPHER:

To your point, someone helped me. Someone taught me what I needed to know and I think that if we all take that personal responsibility to try and help someone else, that network effect that you talked about makes a big difference. I make a point, whenever people on LinkedIn, not as much as I used to but when people on LinkedIn say, hey can I talk I say yes. I have conversations with people that I have never met before and they are some of the funnest conversations I have ever had and I learn things constantly. So if we are here for each other. If we are all here for all of us. We'll all raise the conversation together. We are better together than apart. We don't need to yell at each other. We need to support each other. Everyone is at a different part of their journey and they are all valid and they are all right and they're all doing the same thing. So let's do this together. And thank you so much for giving a chance to come here and talk, not stop talking for half an hour. But this has been really a lot of fun. Excellent. Thank you Christopher because we are on time. And I need to thank our friends My Clear Text for keeping us captioned and accessible. We'll see you on Twitter on Tuesday. Thank you, very much. Page | 1