Happy Global Accessibility Awareness Day (#GAAD)! We are excited to have Sarah Herrlinger of Apple and Christopher Patnoe of Google on Inform & Connect, the American Foundation for the Blind’s podcast. Both Sarah and Christopher sit on AFB’s Board of Trustees.
The conversation, led by AFB Major Gifts Specialist Melody Goodspeed, focuses on AFB’s centennial, technology and inclusion, testing products, and their role as AFB board members. They will also touch upon Teach Access, a collaboration among education, industry, and disability advocacy organizations to address the critical need to enhance students’ understanding of digital accessibility as they learn to design, develop, and build new technologies with the needs of people with disabilities in mind.
“I am thrilled to welcome Sarah and Christopher, especially in light of Global Assistive Technology Awareness Day fast approaching,” Melody said. “Not only are they fierce advocates, they are also fun and engaging! I also love how they are always thinking outside the box and driving innovation through inclusive technology.”
Melody: Thank you so much, John, I'm so excited to be here. We have with us today, two amazing people, and I want to introduce them. They are on our board, the AFB board of trustees, and I'm so excited to have them. They're super fun and do so much in the tech world. I'm so happy to have Sarah Herrlinger and Christopher Patnoe, our AFB trustees with us. Hi guys, how are you doing today?
Sarah Herrlinger Hey, doing well. Thanks for having us.
Christopher Patnoe: Thank you so much.
Melody: I'm so excited. I'm going to kick this off. Sarah, can you talk to us about your title at Apple and how you came into this industry?
Sarah Herrlinger Yeah, I am the senior director of global accessibility policy and initiatives at Apple. Which means that the role is that I basically sit at the 30,000 foot level of looking at accessibility as a core corporate value for the company. Really just making sure that anything we do, whether that's products or services or content or stores or anything at all, that we are taking people with disabilities in consideration in the things that we do and treating them with dignity and respect. And I would say that the way that I came into this role was mostly by luck in that I've been at Apple for 18 years, and I've been working in accessibility for 15 of those.
I started off because when I transferred from product marketing into the education division, I was asked to take on special education. And I will admit at the time I did not know a whole lot about it, but I really embraced it and tried to talk to as many educators and parents and students and everyone that I could. And I just realized really quickly that it was the most important work that I was ever going to do because these kids needed strong advocates to help them get through the education system. And I knew I was uniquely positioned at a company where even the smallest of tweaks, that I can convince people to put into our operating systems could have profound effects for our users. I took it on and ran with it. And now here I am today.
Melody: Thank you, Sarah. We're so glad that you've done that [inaudible 00:03:26] a huge impact. Christopher Patnoe, can you tell us what you do at Google and how you got here?
Christopher Patnoe: Thank you. My official title is head of accessibility programs and disability inclusion. And what this means is, it is I and my team's responsibility to make sure that all of our products are accessible. That we create a culture where people disabilities can thrive because without having these two hands together, you can't really create the culture that makes our products really delightful. So I love the work that I do. And I also fell into this by accident, I was what I termed buttonholed. What I mean by this is, when I was leading Google Play Music as a technical program manager, someone came in, turned on voiceover, and I heard button, button, button, button. I asked, "What's that?" And she said, "This is a Google Play Music for someone who's blind." I said, "Well, that's stupid. How do they use it?" And she said, "That's why I'm here." Like, "Oh, you mean it doesn't happen by itself. Go figure."
It was one of these things where I'd been in the industry for over 15 years at that time, and I'd never heard of accessibility. And I realized that I had an opportunity to do something about it. I took it on as a 20%. Google, we call it taking out of 20%. When you take on a role in addition to the work that you're doing and you're not supposed to spend 120%, though it usually ends up being like that. But I took it on, I hired this test engineer as a program manager to teach me what I didn't know. And then I fell in love with the work, and then a couple of years later, I was invited by Eve Andersson, our director of accessibility to found the team that I'm on now, with the goal of making all of our products accessible. And I ain't looking back.
Melody: I love it. I love that analogy of the button, because I want to say on behalf of everyone who is blind, thank you for fixing the buttons you guys. It is so frustrating to hear button, button, button. There's just use is AFE trustees and you work with freelancers into our 100th. We've kicked that Centennial off. And it's so exciting. What really drew you guys to AFB, to be such an active role and support? I'm going to start with you, Sarah again.
Sarah Herrlinger Yeah, so I would say my first interaction with AFB was actually around research. AFB was doing a lot of great stuff for many years on looking at issues that were of importance to the blind community. And the first one that I came to find out about was one that was on digital screens, and who was doing good work to ensure whether it was for the low vision community or the blind community, how to make screens more accessible. And at that stage they were coming to me saying, "Hey, we've done this research and we want to give you some information on where Apple stands in all of this," which thankfully was better than many. It was an eye-opener to me to be able to see the type of work that was being done by the organization.
And so it really found a place in my heart to look at how much this type of research, even in things that to others might seem quite simple and mundane, but have really strong importance here. This was really something that was a priority to the organization. As I look at some of the stuff that's been done this summer around COVID-19 and such, there really is such a strong base of research and trying to provide the community with thoughtful information and not just the blind community, but the community at large, so that others understand the impacts of certain things on the blind community itself. And so when I was asked to join the board, to me, it was just a no brainer. I really wanted to be involved in this organization.
Melody: Thank you, Sarah. We're so glad, means a whole lot. And I agree, research is so critical and I thank you for bringing that up. Christopher, what about you?
Christopher Patnoe: For me, I grew up admiring the Helen Keller story, but I have to admit, I didn't recognize the connection of it with the AFB until actually I started working with the AFB in my capacity at Google, but once I learned more about the AFB, I was really fascinated with the innovative history that the AFB has with the talking book machine and the program. I just really appreciated and loved the innovation of the AFB in its lineage, and I've been impressed with the dedication of the team that's working with it today. I've spent a lot of time with Matthew and the tech side, and he's amazing. And I've really enjoyed learning about the company, learning about the technology, learning how we fit in. And I just hope to be able to contribute in some small way to the future success.
But I also want to say one of the reasons I'm here is because of Sarah. Because Sarah and I, it's probably a public secret, but even though Apple and Google as companies compete a lot against each other, as people, especially when it comes to the disability community, we really have a lot to help ourselves. And we do a lot of cooperation that's behind the scenes and some things that are more out in the open. But there's a huge, genuine affection and efforts to try to help each other. And when I first had this opportunity, I was told, "Hey, you should go talk to Sarah." And Sarah was glowing about the team, realistic about the opportunity and the challenges. And I just really appreciate her mentorship in this and thank you all for giving me the chance.
Melody: Oh, I love that story because it's a huge kumbaya moment right there.
Christopher Patnoe: No, I'm not going to sing.
Melody: I really wanted him to sing you guys.
Sarah Herrlinger Well, that is one of the things I think that is really important about the work we do in accessibility, is we all really like each other. I was thrilled when I was told Christopher was thinking about it, I remember reaching out to him and saying, "Hey, we should talk, this is awesome, I'm so excited at the prospect of you joining too." Across all of the accessibility world, we all really enjoy each other and think highly of each other. We're always willing to try and pitch in, and wherever we can collaborate to do so. And to really see this as being about the bigger picture. I think for all of us, we see this as accessibility first, and what are the things we can do to help any, and all of the communities that we support.
Melody: I'm so glad you brought that up because we had talked about this earlier, about what we're [inaudible] COVID like an AFB we went, I'll say industry-wide for us and partnered with, I believe 15, Penny, please tell me if I'm wrong, so don't quote me on the number. Talking about COVID and coming together and really putting that research so we could get all different facets of it. I know that you guys do a lot of industry-wide work as well, and where you have that collaboration, especially when it comes to Teach Access, and with global accessibility awareness day, that's coming up here. Can you guys talk about what that's like, doing that industry-wide work? And tell us about a project you've done industry-wide that you've really enjoyed. Christopher, you want to go first?
Christopher Patnoe: Sure. I'll just go ahead with Teach Access, because this is something that's close to my heart that I've been more engaged with. For those people who don't know Teach Access is an organization that tries to bring accessibility into the mainstream education within computer science. The goal is, if you only talk about accessibility for one day, at the end of the quarter, people aren't going to recognize the value and the challenge of it, and that's something we got to do with the word accessibility. So the idea is if you make it part of the curriculum from the beginning, the same way you would build a product, you bring people into the process from the beginning. You can create a holistic view of the challenge, the opportunity and appreciation of the work that it takes. And like with the accessibility, it doesn't happen by itself, we've tried, it doesn't work. So Teach Access was created and Google's been a part of it, Microsoft, Apple has joined recently. It's a really powerful program that has the potential of making a huge impact on this industry.
Sarah Herrlinger Yeah, I think Teach Access has been a really fun program. We've been in it for a while now. And one of the cool things is, I believe it was started by someone from Yahoo and someone from Facebook, and they just had a great idea and went out to all the rest of us and said, "We want to do this." And we all joined in and have now turned it into a large program with a lot of educational institutions involved. As Christopher was saying, it's great to be able to get to students when they're still in that process of learning, because then it makes it so that, upon getting into even their first job, they can already know what accessibility is and make that a foundation of the work that they do. That one for me as well, has been a lot of fun.
Another thing that I think was a great one that I loved being a part of a couple of years ago, was the braille human interface guidelines that we created. This was probably about 2018, maybe, yeah. Just had an idea around the fact that there were so many different braille displays, and manufacturers, and then different device manufacturers, and operating systems, and screen readers and all these different disparate elements out there, all trying to figure out how to make braille work in all of those different scenarios.
We all got together actually at CSUN in a big room with everybody who was engaged in this and just sat down to hash through, how do we set some guidelines that everything, and everyone can follow so that it becomes much more plug and play. As the end user of a display, you know that regardless of what you're trying to connect to, it will seamlessly do that. So that there aren't just different protocols, or commands, or things that you have to learn one way or another, it all just works. And we got that out into the industry. It took a little bit of time for people to implement along the way, but it feels like we finally hit a stage where braille displays that are coming out are going to start to just seamlessly work. It was another one where it wasn't about one company having a better braille system than anybody else. It's about the end user just having simplicity.
Melody: I love that. I think it ended the day of just making sure that somebody can fire something up and it's ready to go. That is awesome. So when you, when you guys do [inaudible 00:15:46] things move so incredibly fast. Where do you see things going as far as accessibility and spreading the word with advocacy? Who wants to take that one? I'll let you guys pick.
Sarah Herrlinger I think in terms of where is it going? I don't know. I guess one of the things that I love right now is that the biggest thing is that we're past, where is it going in terms of how do we build assistive technology for someone to connect, and moving on to how do we make sure that anything that's super cool can be made accessible. By having had tools like voiceover and talk back and such, foundationally built into products for a while now, it's less about, is this operating system going to be accessible? And now you start looking at what are the cool things that are buzzwords for the general public that now we start looking at as, it's just making those accessible, just like everybody else. When I get this question, I don't feel like it's about saying it's all about AR, VR, AI, or ML, or fill in your acronym. It's about, how do we take something that everybody else is saying, "Wow, that's so cool," and working to make that accessible, just like we would for any other customer.
Christopher Patnoe: Yeah. I think for me, what's really exciting is more often than not, I'm no longer hearing the question of why do we need to do this? It is, "How do we need to do this?" This is the maturity that I'm hearing across the industry. Maybe it's the filter of people with whom that we speak, but more often than not, I'm hearing, "What are the best practices for making this better," at least internally, I'm hearing a lot more how, as opposed to why. And that for me, is a really interesting sign. But again, taking this externally, I see this as almost a silver lining for what's happened with regards to COVID and work from home. Because of the access we have with regard to things like zoom and webinars, advocacy is actually going faster and being more broadly announced.
We're doing panels with thousands of people instead of tens of people, conversation of access has really changed dramatically in the past year. Again, it's the silver lining, so many horrible things have happened, but there are some benefits if you're able to see it. I was speaking with some friends at Texture pro and they're so excited for the next generation of the conference, because they were thrilled with the reach that they had for their conference and looking at Axe-con a couple of weeks ago, I think that was one of the largest accessibility conferences ever.
There is an awareness in society, in technology that I think, we're not going to go back. And I'm really excited to see both mainstream products just be accessible because it's what you do. But also there gets to be this exciting point where these companies like Apple and Google and Microsoft compete on accessible technologies. Because I think in that competition, there's an excitement? There's a cool factor to it and it pushes all of us to go forward better.
Melody: I completely agree with you about the reach. That's one of the silver lining that we really found incorporated in AFB is that... I think we all can agree, it's opened up our minds to different possibilities and has fostered an amazing amount of creativity, I think in any space you're in. We've had to learn to adapt. And I think in that time is come a place of finding new ways to connect and how important those connections are. I have loved this. Before we move into question and answers, I'm sure people are going to have questions. Too fast. If you could give somebody a tip just about... There's still work to be done. And I love how you said that Christopher about, it's how do we do it. If we have something that we have questions about, getting that or advocating for ourselves where it's the product or, even in our work, jobs, maybe give one tip.
Sarah Herrlinger In terms of advocacy for yourself? Well, in the broader scheme of things, I think there is social media, certainly, advocating for yourself is... It's great that the community has found a voice, much like many other communities out there in the world. So it's always nice to see people doing more, communicating out their thoughts. But I think also in terms of communicating with us, we as companies both have prioritized accessibility for a long time and have developed things like customer service support, arenas to be able to provide, to receive feedback and also try and then help individuals as well.
Sarah Herrlinger For us, it's firstname.lastname@example.org, that is our customer facing email address that we've had now for well over 15 years. And I want to say, it's probably going on 20. At least I'm not even sure when it officially started, but there's a group of individuals whose job it is just to support that account and who get a hefty amount of email on a daily basis from people, whether that be people asking questions or providing feedback, reporting bugs. We love having that dialogue with our communities and being able to really ensure that whatever we are doing right now, or whatever we're thinking about for the future, that we're aligning with what's going on with the community at each stage.
Christopher Patnoe: To piggyback on that concept of advocacy using social media. I think if you take a look at the gaming space, for example, there's been a significant amount of change in terms of accessibility of games in the past year, two years. And it's because people feel they have a voice and these voices are coming together and making statements. So you take a look at The Last of Us 2, it's not my kind of game. It's a first person shooter, but is a AAA game put up by Naughty Dog. But it's the first AAA game that has ever completed, without assistance, by someone who was blind. It's a shooting game, it's just a stunning achievement in terms of inclusion and accessibility. This wouldn't have happened if people hadn't raised their voices together and say, this is important for me, and this is important for our community. The self-advocacy is really, really important.
Melody: That is awesome because I think sometimes people tend to feel like their voices aren't heard, so thank you for reminding us that they are. And we're already at question and answer, and I'm super excited, and I also love it. Christopher, that you brought up Apple products too, that accessibility just is not in the workplace. It is in entertainment and it's an art. And there's so many things that I know that you guys are working on moving that too. And I just want to say, thank you so much on behalf of myself and from everybody in AFB and everybody who's going to listen to this podcast because it's so fun.
Christopher Patnoe: Oh, [inaudible].
Melody: Some questions for us, I'm going to hand it to you, buddy.
John: Thank you, Melody. And thank you, Christopher and Sarah. Okay. Technology is changing so quickly, where would you like to see tech be utilized in the area of arts and entertainment?
Melody: Oh, wow. Hey…
Christopher Patnoe: Honestly, I would love to be able to consume... As a musician, I consume music in a very particular way. I use my ears or use my fingers when I play. I love to be a synesthetic, so I would love for technology to be created that allows us to consume music in different ways. I'd love to smell music, I'd love to feel the pattern of music in different ways. So I'd love to expand my own horizons and senses using technology.
Melody: That is awesome.
Sarah Herrlinger Yeah. And I think that there's a lot more for tech to be doing in the area of visual arts. We've been working a lot on image description. Can you imagine if there were an app that walked you through the Louvre and it clearly laid out what every single piece of art inside that space might be on another one- sorry?
Christopher Patnoe: With description.
Sarah Herrlinger Yes, with really good solid description that were in there. And part of that could be, not even just something that it is the app that does, but the technology could just do for every image out there so that it gives that insight. Obviously you'd want probably a little bit more of the backstory, so hopefully the app will do that, but I think there's a lot we can do to make that more visual. Looking for other types of things. I'm just excited for apps, for what something like VR could do to take someone who might otherwise never have the opportunity to travel there, to be able to move through that space and experience art in other places. And then once again, be able to have those descriptions or whatever it might be just to change the feel of how you're experiencing that art.
Melody: I loved both of those you guys.
John: Fantastic. Okay. As we ask these questions, there'll be for both of you and Melody you can pick whoever gets to answer first I guess. What has been your favorite project or projects at Apple, Sarah and Google, Christopher? What sort of projects real or imagined would you like to tackle in the future?
Melody: I just say jump up, whoever's feeling excited.
Sarah Herrlinger Yeah. You first, Christopher, if you want.
Christopher Patnoe: Sure. For me, it's what I call the accessibility object model. And it leads directly into the work that I've been doing around VR. How do you describe something in three-dimensional space in a way that it can be consumed by say, a screen reader or reduces necessarily for people with cognitive impairments. Describing a three-dimensional space in that way, for me, it remains an unsolved challenge, an area of huge impact of the real world. Because once you understand how to describe a three-dimensional space in virtual reality, then you can take these same principles. And then you take the advances like Sarah was talking about with computer vision and description, then you can start describing the real world, then you have good way finding and you have a real way to describe what's happening around you. So coming up with that language of what it means to describe three-dimensional space, is something I'd love to be able to tackle.
Sarah Herrlinger And for me, in terms of favorite projects, I guess there are two that I'll quickly talk about. The first one was the launch, the made for iPhone hearing aid program, which was a project we did. It's now been about seven years I think, that they've been out there, but it was the first time that anyone had made a direct Bluetooth connection between a hearing aid and a cell phone, allowing for crystal clear sound. It was a really fun project to work on that. I remember talking to a friend of mine afterwards, who I had told him about it right at the start. And then I hadn't seen him for a couple of years, ran into him at a conference. And he said to me, "Sarah, this is the difference between the earth and the stars, I never understood why anyone listened to music prior to getting these hearing aids. And now I just walk around the halls of my office with opera playing in my ears all day long, and it just makes me happy." And so it's ones like that where you really have that profound effect.
The other one is a really recent one, which is a feature called people detection that came out in iOS 14 on our pro models of the iPhone 12 and the iPad. Which was just a great project because it was really cross-functional. We had to get a bunch of different teams to all align to do this, because it was really something that could only be done by really working through some complex problems in hardware and software. But it started off as the kernel of an idea when one of our blind employees said, "There's so many things I can do with my iPhone, but one thing I still struggle with in my day-to-day life is I never know when a line moves. And that can be as simple as the grocery store or, going into a stadium for a sporting event or a rock concert or whatever. I just feel like I'm never sure when to move forward or what's happening around me."
And so we started working on this project, and then 2020, and COVID became a thing. And so we really worked to try and fast track it and get it out there because obviously this is a year where it might not be just standing in line at the grocery store, but just knowing where people are in proximity to you suddenly became incredibly important. And so just being able to work on this project in the first place and then be able to really push it out and fast track it so that we could help try and support things like social distancing, it really was something I loved.
Melody: All of that is incredible. Thank you guys. I want to end this with, may I ask this one John? So what does Christopher and Sarah do for fun? Christopher, you may go.
Christopher Patnoe: Sure. So other than make bad jokes about music, I end up taking walks for time alone. I try to take a walk with an audio book, one for exercise and two, it's a really great way for me to transport myself physically and mentally into different worlds. So that's what I do for fun.
Sarah Herrlinger Yeah. And I would say in a non COVID world, travel has always been one of my biggest hobbies. So I have always appreciated that the work that I do has me going to a lot of different places around the globe. And my favorite thing is when I get asked to speak in a place I've never been to before, because then it's a pretty sure yes on taking up that offer. But in this COVID world, I would say I'm getting a lot of walks in as well, also love to cook. I think one of the things I've tried to really embrace over the course of this last year is really refining my cooking skills while trying not to gain the COVID-19.
Melody: We're all there on that one. You guys, thank you so much for taking time out of your schedule and being here with us today, it really means a lot to me. Sarah, if people want to follow your work or see what's up and coming, where could they go?
Sarah Herrlinger Well, so we tend to try and use our website as our main place that we talk about the work that we're recently launching. So if you go to apple.com/accessibility, that's the overview of the depth and breadth of the kind of work we do across disability areas. But we also try and put out some materials through our Apple support handle on Twitter and YouTube, and do a bunch of how tos and things there. Also, if you want to reach us email@example.com is our email address. Definitely write in and we'd love to hear from you.
Melody: Awesome, Christopher?
Christopher Patnoe: Yeah, ours is quite similar. google.com/accessibility, firstname.lastname@example.org. We take a look at these places or a Google blog for announcements that we're doing. I also am pretty active on LinkedIn. So if you want to see what we have there, just follow me on LinkedIn. I'm happy to share my insights in terms of what we're doing, but also things across the industry.
Melody: I love it. Okay, Christopher and Sarah, thank you so incredibly much for being here with us today. Thank you for being on our board. Thank you for all that you do. I'm so excited that we have you guys at AFB and thank you everyone for our guests, because you guys make our day to hang out with you. If you want to check out our new Centennial events that are coming up, just go to afb.org/100, and we have our archives there if you need to go see those, and we also have a bunch of fun coming up all year long. So we thank you guys for being with us. We adore you, and I hope that everyone has an amazing week. And thanks for stopping by. Thank you Christopher Sarah and again.
Christopher Patnoe: Thank you very much.
Sarah Herrlinger Thank you so much. Loved being with you.
Melody: Take care everybody.
John: Thanks everyone. Bye-bye.