Haben speaks at Google: “Designing Technology with Accessibility in Mind”

Designing Accessible Technology | Haben Girma | Talks at Google


FEMALE SPEAKER: Welcome, everybody.
Please join us in welcoming Haben Girma today to Google.
She is a Harvard Law graduate, the first deaf-blind graduate
from Harvard Law School.
And she is a pioneer in everything
that has to do with technology for accessibility.
So she has been helping a very, very in depth
with developing technology that is useful for people
with disabilities.
She is also a Disability Rights Advocates member,
and encourages the development of any sorts of accessible
She’s here today to talk to us about how
technology has enabled her to be where she is today.
And she also encourages all of us, being at Google,
to help with further development of these types of technologies.
And with me, I have [? Umrit ?] who
has gotten to know Haben at Harvard Law School.
So he’ll tell you a little bit more
of a personal story about her.
UMRIT: Yeah.
Thank you.
Thank you all for coming.
I’m sure as the project introduction
kind of foretold, and as you’ve probably seen in Haben’s bio,
and everything else that’s written about her
in many different places.
She’s an incredible, inspiring, influential person.
But a project and– Not but, and.
[INAUDIBLE] asked me just to share just
a quick, personal, anecdote.
And with the one thing I wanted to say–
and the truth is you’ll see this very soon,
is that the Haben is one of the most optimistic,
encouraging, and curious people that I’ve ever met.
And I think that’s one of things that really shines out
about her.
Some of you will I think you hear this in her voice.
But you’ll really sense it in the words that she’s saying.
So as [INAUDIBLE] had mentioned, Haben
ans I went to law school together,
actually quite a number of years ago now, which seems strange.
And we met in our first year law school.
And in that community, in the law school community, actually
also beyond it, Haben and in some ways
actually extended my boundaries beyond the law school bubble
pretty quickly.
She, again, was known for being someone
who’s just absolutely optimistic, absolutely positive
and engaging in that way.
And I feel very lucky that she lives here.
Although, sometimes the East Bay feels really, really far away.
But I think one thing I’ve noticed
even here is that Haben’s friends are all really
fascinating, amazing people.
And it’s no surprise, in a way.

Just the one last thing I wanted to mention
was that I had taken– the one that I recalled
when [INAUDIBLE] had asked if I could just to share
a few words, is that I had taken Haben to the opera,
I guess last year, now.
And by the way, slight plug, all of you should go to the opera.
Because Google gives– the San Jose Opera,
Google gives, like, $30 tickets for front row seats,
which is an amazing perk.
So I used that Perk and took Haben with me.
And one thing that was very clear was at the perspective
that she’s able to, and willing to, and curious enough
to share throughout the experience,
was just in kind of fulfills, and even takes
further my own experience.
She did, during the intermission,
though, get really excited.
Because we’re talking about something that the opera
house could have done better.
And she said, hey, [? Umrit ?], we should sue the opera house.
And I remember thinking in that moment, a note to self,
that I should never bring Haben to Google.

And can then go in a project that did just that.
But all joking aside, I’m actually very encouraged,
and happy that Haben is fighting the good fight,
fighting these fights.
And sometimes that might mean, probably already has meant,
but it almost certainly will mean,
suing Google in some capacity.
Or at least challenging Google to do things better.
And I am glad that someone who has, again,
that optimism, that curiosity, and that encouragement
is the one that’s the challenging.
So, that’s it.
And I should introduce [? Gopi ?].
Are you going to take over now?
[? Gopi ?] is going to take over at some point.
You all know him.
He’s amazing.
All right.
Without anything else, Haben.


HABEN GIRMA: Good afternoon.
AUDIENCE: Good afternoon.

HABEN GIRMA: My name is Haben Girma.
I am so grateful to be here.
Thank you, [? Umrit ?], for the wonderful introduction,
and reminding me of the opera trip.
HABEN GIRMA: So, I work at Disability Rights Advocates.
It’s a nonprofit legal center based in Berkeley.
And we help increase access for people with disabilities.

One of the reasons I’m really excited to be here
is that Google has an extraordinary mission
to organize the information of the world,
and make it accessible, and useful.
In honor of the 25th anniversary of the Americans
with Disabilities Act, I want to talk
about what we can do to make information
more accessible for people with disabilities.

So first, I want to talk about communication.

I’m deaf-blind.
So if you have a question, and raise your hand,
it’s going to be up there for a long time.
And if you shout it out, I’m not going to be able to hear it.
So for communication, I use a keyboard in Braille display.

I’ll hold up the Braille display.
On the bottom are mechanical pins
that pop up to form Braille letters.
And when someone types on the keyboard,
it shows up in digital Braille.
Technology helps a lot of people.
And as programmers and technology developers,
you really change the lives of people with disabilities.

The technology I use was developed by people.
And they’ve changed my life, and they continue
to change the lives of others.
And all of you here have the power
to help people, and really change the lives of people.

One in four Americans have a disability
at some point in their life.
That’s a huge segment of the population.
It includes the elderly.
It includes people who are born with disabilities
and people who have experiences, or temporary disabilities.
So thinking about designing technologies
that will reach these communities,
and empower them to gain access to information,
it’s really, really meaningful.

There are a variety of assistive technologies people use.
Screen readers, are one example.
Screen readers are applications that
convert graphical information into synthesize speech,
or digital Braille, like the Braille display I was holding.

These serve as bridges that allow blind individuals
to access information on screens.
So when developers put in hooks for their products,
and services to connect with screen readers,
blind individuals are able to gain access
to online services, and other products.
Another feature is closed captioning.
Closed captioning are subtitles on the bottom
of videos that allow deaf individuals to access
the audio content on videos.

Closed captioning is a feature that helps the deaf and hard
of hearing community.
But it also helps to other communities.
Often places will have videos with the audio turned off,
and closed captions turned on.
So little things like that end up helping everyone.
Keyboard shortcuts are helpful for people
with mobility disabilities that affect the use of hands.
But they’re also helpful for people who just plain don’t
like using mice.
Sometimes it’s faster to use keyboard shortcuts.

So these are all features that people have developed,
that engineers, programmers, technology developers
have imagined creating, and then went through and created,
and have changed how people engage with information,
and engage with each other.

Technology has revolutionized all aspects of our lives
from entertainment, to reading, to shopping.
Online shopping has really impacted the lives of people
with disabilities in the area of physical access.
A lot of stores, physical stores,
have physical barriers, like stairs,
that make it hard for someone in a wheelchair to get in and out,
if there are no accessible entrances.
And online shopping gives people the opportunity
to bypass those physical obstacles.

Chat programs, blogging programs have allowed many communities
to start engaging, and having conversations, that might not
have otherwise occurred.
Individuals on the autism spectrum,
individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing,
are now having conversations, and connecting, and engaging.
And programmers, and technology developers
who have built these programs, like Google Hangouts,
have allowed individuals in those communities
to connect, and share their voices.

So as developers of technology, you have a very powerful tool.
And in some ways, it’s opened many doors.
The vast majority of websites, and apps, are not accessible.
But you can change that.
It’s an incredible gift and tool that you have to change.

The process is about designing products
from the start with hooks for assistive technology,
like screen readers, allowing for captioning, allowing
for keyboard shortcuts.
And when you design it from the start with those features
in mind, you’re able to ensure that it’s
going to be accessible.
Helping people with disabilities participate in the process
by allowing for testing at every stage of development,
those are ways to ensure that products
can help all Americans.

The challenge is continually coming up with ways
to ensure that people can connect.
Sometimes it’s really challenging,
and you get stuck in a comfort zone
where you’re doing something just one way.
And it becomes difficult to imagine new, exciting ways
for sharing information.

But this is Google.
This is Google, with an extraordinary mission
to organize the information of the world,
and make it accessible, and useful.

I’m not a technology developer.
I’m not a programmer.
So I don’t know all the technical details
of the challenges involved.
But I do know how hard it is to continue imagining
new ways of doing things.

One way I connect with people is through dance.

I’ve been dancing for about 10 years.
And because I can’t hear the music,
and I can’t see what my dance friends are doing,
I had to come up with alternative ways
of experiencing rhythm, and knowing the dance
moves by using my hands.
In over 10 years, I’ve come up with lots
of different techniques for accessing
the rhythm, and the movements.
But I realized that there was still one very important thing
that I just wasn’t picking up.
About two weeks ago I was dancing, and during the dance,
the guy I was dancing with raised his hand to his face
and signed, smiling.
I felt so surprised.
He’s telling me he’s smile?
What a beautiful thing to communicate smiling while
It never occurred to me.
Smiles are visually available information to most people.
And now I know that when I’m dancing,
I can tell people– By the way, if you’re smiling,
and you want to tell me, you could sign smiling.
So sometimes it’s challenging to think of new ways to do things.
But it’s a fun challenge, and very rewarding.

And when you come up with new ways of presenting information,
you reach more people, and it moves
Google closer to its goal, its mission,
of gathering the information, and making
it accessible, and useful.
Features that help the disability community
often end up helping the greater community.
Closed captioning helps people who
are deaf or hard of hearing.

The text associated with those videos
serves as a way to allow for greater,
more powerful keyword searches, allowing people
to access exactly the video, and information, they want.
So a feature like closed captioning, and other assistive
technologies, end up helping the greater community.

I’m really, really excited to see how we all
move towards the mission of making information
more accessible for everyone.
About 25 years ago, Congress passed the Americans
with Disabilities Act.
And it represents our country’s belief that everyone’s equal,
and everyone deserves opportunities in America.

There are challenges associated with technology,
but also, almost unlimited potential.
The World Wide Web Consortium has created resources
to help with technical specifics on how
to make services accessible.
The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0
is an excellent resource.
For mobile applications, the BBC mobile
accessibility guidelines.
But also here at Google, there are many resources,
and many people, who have this information of what it takes
to make services, and products accessible to people
with disabilities.

The disability community wants to access all the information
online, wants too access all the websites and services.
We want to be part of the digital world.
We want to be able to use the apps in the Google Play Store.
And later we want to drive your cars.

I’m excited to see where Google goes,
and where we all go, towards the goal
of making information accessible for everyone.

And now I’ll take questions.
Thank you.
FEMALE SPEAKER: Just raise your hand if you have a question.

AUDIENCE: So my question to Haben
is, you just came back from the White House.
I saw Obama in the photograph, as well as Joe Biden.
What was the experience like?
What did you discuss?
HABEN GIRMA: It was unbelievable.

I went to the White House in celebration
of the 25th anniversary of the Americans
with Disabilities Act.
And there were disability rights advocates
from all over the country gathered to celebrate.
And I gave introductory remarks before Obama’s speech.
And I met President Barack Obama,
and spoke at them briefly.
And he used the technology we have here.
He typed on the keyboard, and I read
what he was typing on the Braille display.
And I voiced my responses.
And we talked about typing, and communication.
And then I thanked him for his work
in helping to increase access for people with disabilities.
What are some of the big commitments
the US administration has made for people with disabilities?
One major thing, the White House was celebrating on Monday,
is increased hiring people with disabilities.
They’re more and more people with disabilities
in all areas of government from working at the White House,
to working in different federal agencies.
In 2010 President Obama and the Department of Justice
announced rule making that they plan
to release that would set regulations for website access.
And those are just two of the things.
But there’s a lot that the US has
been doing to increase access for people with disabilities,
both in the physical world, and in the online, digital world.
AUDIENCE: Eunice is asking, do you
know how the situation is in other countries?
How do, for example, non-Latin people use Braille display?
HABEN GIRMA: So do I know about the situation
in other countries, and how they use, for example,
Braille displays?
There are many different types of Braille displays,
and they have the ability to present
Braille in other languages.

So Braille is supported in many different languages, including
Spanish, German, and French.
And when I’ve traveled in Europe,
I’ve encountered Braille in other languages.
Like in Spain, a lot of things at stores,
like shampoo bottles, will have Braille labels in Spanish.

So there are different things in other countries.
And every country approaches access slightly differently.
In China, for example, on the sidewalks
they have raised to paths, tactile paths
in the middle of the sidewalk, so that a blind person
can feel with their feet the path
in the middle of the sidewalk.
And I believe both China, and Japan, and Hong Kong,
have made an effort to have audio signals at intersections.
I’ve also heard Hong Kong has Braille labels at street
So when you get to a street corner,
you can read what intersection that is.
Here in the United States, we have
a little bit of that in a few places, but not as much.
I’ve also been to Ethiopia.
And I know that the University of Addis Ababa
has a program that supports students with disabilities.
And they’re working on getting more technology.
But there’s a huge need for funding for technology
like Braille displays, Braille printers, Braille books.
So every country has their own challenges, but also
their own unique solutions.
AUDIENCE: The question is, thanks
so much for telling us your story.
I was wondering if there are any Google
products that you like using.
Also, I was wondering if you use an iPhone, or Android?

HABEN GIRMA: Great question, RJ.
So, Google has so many products and services.
It’s unbelievable.
And I mentioned chat computer conversation applications.
And I’ve been using Google Chat, which
I believe is now called Google Hangouts,
for many, many, many years.
And that has been an amazing way to connect with people, since I
can’t really hear on the phone.

A lot of people like using it, even people
without disabilities.
But for me, it’s been an amazing way,
and I know for other people with disabilities, people
with hearing loss, people on the autism spectrum,
it’s facilitated so many connections.
And it has allowed a lot of communities
to grow, and connect.
And then for your last question, I happen to use an iPhone.

AUDIENCE: [? Umrit ?] is typing, hey Haben,
I have a quick follow up.
Which Google products do you not like?
Which ones could, or should, be improved?
HABEN GIRMA: That’s an interesting question,
and a really good one.
Thanks for encouraging me to be honest about that.

So one product that is actually really, really cool,
and I would love to see improved,
is audio captioning for YouTube videos.
The idea is fantastic of having computers automatically
caption videos.
That creates so many opportunities,
so many potentials, for the deaf community,
but also for the hearing community,
to allow for greater interactivity, greater searches
for video, and information.
So improving audio captioning for YouTube videos.
It would be great if people could prioritize that.
AUDIENCE: The question is, I was wondering
if you could tell us a little more about your experience
transitioning from Harvard after being
in school for many, many years.
HABEN GIRMA: I graduated from Harvard Law School in 2013,
and then immediately started as a Skadden fellowship attorney
at Disability Rights Advocates.
And the transition was actually not hard,
because during law school, I participated in internships.
And those internships gave me an idea
of what to expect in the work world.
And because Disability Rights Advocates
is all about supporting people with disabilities,
it was– it is a very supportive environment
in getting the accommodations I need for work.
So we worked out having a communication assistant who
would transcribe phone calls, transcribes meetings,
and if there were presentations, or if I go to court,
and there’s hearings, to get someone
to type that information, so I can have captions in Braille.

So the transition was helped by the fact
that I had internship opportunities
while I was in law school.
I’m also from San Francisco Bay area.
I grew up in Oakland.
And my family’s still here, and I had friends here.
So moving back here after school,
I already had a support network.
So that helped a whole lot.
AUDIENCE: The first question out of two questions she has is,
what do you have to say to people
who do not have disabilities, and who make excuses
for not following their dreams?
And her next question is, do you also Amharic?
I watched your videos, and I learned that your parents
are from Ethiopia, and Eritrea.

HABEN GIRMA: My family is from Eritrea, and Ethiopia.
My mom grew up in Eritrea, and my dad grew up in Ethiopia.
And they both speak Amharic, Tigrinya, and English.
So growing up, they taught me English
so I could succeed in education, and work.
They taught me Tigrinya so that we could talk in public,
and no one would understand us.
But they saved Amharic for themselves,
so they could have secrets, and I wouldn’t understand
what they were saying.

So I don’t know Amharic, just a word or two here and there.
And I think being Eritrean has helped a lot in my need
to pursue dreams.
Eritreans worked hard fighting for 30 years
to gain independence from Ethiopia.
And I grew up hearing those stories.
It doesn’t directly have to do with disabilities,
but it taught me that perseverance is important.
And it’s important to keep trying, even for 30 years.
So growing up, I didn’t exactly know all the answers
to how to do things, as someone who’s deaf-blind.
Often, I was the first one trying something.
Harvard University had Helen Keller almost 100 years ago.
And back then the technology we have doesn’t exist.

She’s an incredible role model for pursuing your dreams,
and doing things even if you don’t have the technology.
So I knew that one way or another, I could do it.
She did it without computers, without digital Braille.
So I could absolutely do it.
I didn’t know exactly how.
She hadn’t gone to law school.
And she hadn’t utilized the technologies
that are available.
But I knew I had to try and make it work somehow.

And your first question, Susanna,
what do I tell people who don’t have disabilities, and yet,
have excuses for not doing something?

You live only once.
Your dreams are your dreams.
And if they mean something to you, keep trying.
Keep trying to make them happen.
If it takes 30 years, it’s better
you tried and win after 30 years, then not trying at all.
If you don’t know how you’re going to do something,
because you’re unique, and your experiences are
different from others, take a deep breath,
and start brainstorming.
Use the skills that you do have.
Network with other people, and get advice from other people.
Everyone has dreams.
And it’s up to us to make them happen.

FEMALE SPEAKER: [? Umrit ?] is letting Haben
know that her jokes were a hit.
The whole room was laughing.
And [? Gopi ?] was signing with smiles.

HABEN GIRMA: Thank you.
FEMALE SPEAKER: Daniel is typing,
I’m deaf, functionally hearing impaired.
I’m very impressed with your enunciation.
My question is, how does the situation in the US
compare to other G10 countries in terms
of disability legislation, and also good faith
adherence to the law?

HABEN GIRMA: That’s something that a lot of people
have been researching.
Every community has different attitudes towards disabilities.
Some communities celebrate difference a lot more.
In China, where the emphasis is on being the same,
it’s a lot harder to be different.
And it’s a lot harder to get accommodations,
such as interpreters, captioning, digital Braille.
But in other cultures, the individual’s uniqueness
is more celebrated.

So you asked specifically about laws and legislation.

I haven’t studied the disability laws of other countries.
So I can’t offer an answer to that right now,
but I’d be happy to look that up.
FEMALE SPEAKER: Kenneth’s saying,
I’m also impressed with your speech.
It’s usually very hard for a deaf person
to learn to speak so well without audio feedback.
Can you describe your own educational process?

HABEN GIRMA: I will talk about my education.
But I also want to talk about my speech,
since people seem to be interested.

So, I identify as deaf-blind.
And the deaf-blind community is very, very diverse.
And that includes everyone with no vision, and no hearing,
to a little vision, and a little hearing.
And I have a little bit of hearing
and a little bit of vision.
And my low frequency is terrible.
I have a really hard time hearing low frequency sounds.
Or I just don’t hear them at all.
High frequency I can kind of hear.
And my voice is high frequency.
And I think I may have somewhat trained myself
to speak at a higher voice to make it easier
for me to hear myself.
So that’s part of the reason that I speak the way I speak.
My education, I grew up in the Bay Area,
and I attended mainstream schools.
And the school had a program that
made sure students who were blind or students who were deaf
were taught the skills they needed to know.
So I would take my mainstream courses with other students,
and then take an hour each day to learn Braille,
learn to use assistive technology,
learn to use a cane, learn to do life skills,
like cooking non-visually.
It’s all about finding alternative techniques
that allow you to succeed, and pursue your dreams.
FEMALE SPEAKER: Bethany’s saying, your story about dance
was wonderful.
What other types of visual, or oral information,
would you like to know about from the physical world?
HABEN GIRMA: So usually people will type visual information
from the physical world.
So when someone’s typing, they might use an exclamation mark,
or type colon, right parentheses,
or just type S-M-I-L-E.
Friends will also describe what someone is wearing,
or interesting artwork on the wall.
Lots of descriptions.
There’s also something called Pro-Tactile,
which transfers some of that information physically.
So someone could draw smile on my arm, or signal laughter.
There’s sign language.
And I could put my hand on someone’s hand
and feel what they’re signing.
So there’s that whole world of communicating
visual information in an alternative format.
And I knew that.
But until two weeks ago, it never occurred to me
to do that while dancing.
So for 10 years, people have been smiling at me on the dance
floor, and I didn’t know.
But I learned.
And I’m really grateful to have that additional information.
And I’m excited to use it the next time I go dancing.

FEMALE SPEAKER: Boston says, it’s
really awesome to see Haben speak for the first time,
in person.
He has two questions.
The first one is, are there any suites of apps on your iPhone
that are tailored for a blind-deaf person?
And the second is, do you follow any medical innovations
that help blind-deaf persons?

HABEN GIRMA: I feel like I’m so busy living, and working,
and dancing, and talking with friends,
that I don’t have time left over to follow medical research.
But I ask friends and family to let
me know if they’ve heard of something exciting,
or something new.
Because I’m open to new possibilities.
And I love new research, and new developments,
and learning new things.
I have an app on my phone called BlindSquare.
And BlindSquare is a travel tool.
And it’ll tell you how to get from point A
to point B. What’s the nearby intersection?
What’s your approximate address?
It’s designed to be 100% compatible with a screen reader
called VoiceOver on the iPhone.

I would love to have Google Maps be 100% accessible because that
has so many features, and so many potentials.
But it’s not at that level yet.
So Boston, if you know people working on Google Maps,
could you share this message for me?
It’s actually not that difficult to make these services
accessible with screen readers.
there a guides here at Google.
So, Google has accessibility guidelines.
And there’s information on how to make
most services accessible.
I think people maybe just don’t know, and need
to be reminded, that people are out there excited to use
these services, and are waiting to make them happen.
Thanks to [? Gopi ?] for making this happen,
and, [INAUDIBLE] and [? Umrit, ?] and Grace.
FEMALE SPEAKER: Christy was thanking Haben for coming
and talking to us today.
Christy’s asking, I have a family friend who’s disabled,
and studying to be involved in disability advocacy.
Do you have any advice I can pass along to her?
HABEN GIRMA: It’s really, really helpful
to connect with the disability community.
So when I was thinking about going into law school,
I reached out to the blind, and the deaf community.
And I talked to a bunch of deaf lawyers.
How did you make it through law school?
What advice do you have for me?
And I reached out to the National Federation
of the Blind and asked, all their blind lawyers,
what advice do you have for me for going to law school?
What are the alternative techniques
you use for getting your books?
For doing online research?
So every disability experience is very unique.
So my advice would be connect with that specific disability
community, and get advice from people who have tried that,
or have done something– who have done
something in a related area.
FEMALE SPEAKER: Sarah’s saying, you’ve inspired us all.
You mentioned that Helen Keller went to Harvard 100 years ago.
Following your tremendous success,
are you seeing more people that are deaf-blind modeling
your success?
Going to Harvard, and law school?

HABEN GIRMA: I need to correct something I said earlier.
So at the time of Helen Keller, Harvard, strangely,
with only men.
And the equivalent for women was Radcliffe College.
Later Harvard opened its doors to women,
and Radcliffe College became part of Harvard University.
So technically, at the time, it was called Radcliffe College.
But it’s now part of Harvard University.
And more, and more people with disabilities
are going to law school, and are getting educations.
I don’t know of any other deaf-blind students at Harvard.
But I do know, currently, there are
other blind students, and other deaf students at Harvard Law
And I know of deaf-blind students
who are going to other law schools throughout the country.
A lot of this is because the technology,
and because people like you are taking the time
to make sure that services are accessible to people
with disabilities.
I can’t imagine trying to have gone to law school at a time
without all the services we now have available.
So thank you.