Christopher Patnoe, Head of Accessibility Programs and Disability Inclusion for Google in Europe, the Middle East and Africa. He gave the inaugural lecture at the Faculty of Translation and Interpreting a few days ago. Friendly and eager to get his point across, we interviewed him moments before his speech, in which he was passionate about transmitting the need for people with disabilities to be able to have full access to the internet. He has over 20 years of experience working in top technological companies such as Apple, Sony Ericsson and Disney. He belongs to the Board of Trustees for the American Foundation for the Blind and he holds a BA in Music from the University of California, Berkeley.
–What basic principles are needed to make the internet, and technology in general, accessible to all?
From my point of view, everyone in this world should be able to access all contents found on the internet. Not only people with disabilities, but every person, be that someone living in Africa or someone who is older. Everyone should have equal access to the knowledge and services provided by the internet, such as educational content or professional resources. When we are creating contents to be uploaded, this must be taken into account. For example, you must think of the colours, make sure there is enough contrast, if you want a phone number to be seen, you must make it clickable, etc. Good accessibility in the end comes with a good design.
-It is a lot of work, but I imagine that this is very important.
-Of course. Take the pandemic for example: millions of people working or studying from home, entertainment was also found on the internet, and our relations with banks and stores, as well. Everything happened on the internet. And there is no reason why people with diabilities shouldn’t be able ot do the same. They have the same right, and it is a moral right. When we create something new on the internet we must get into the mentality of thinking that there are people who cannot see, or have problems hearing. And that must be done from the beginning, which is why it is important to train future professionals who will be creating contents, such as here at university, to see it from this perspective. An engineer, an interpreter, a translator, if they work towards this equality professionally, they will be contributing to eliminating these differences. We must put ourselves in the shoes of a blind person to understand their need for a photo to be described, or a deaf person to need subtitles in order to understand an interview in a video, for example.
-What are the main obstacles in making the web accessible? To what extent is money a problem? In other words, is it more expensive to be accessible than not? Or are there other types of barriers?
There are many types of barriers. The main problem is not noticing the need to make new products uploaded onto the internet accessible. I’m referring to when a new version of Snapchat or Instagram comes out and no one thinks of making it accessible, for example. They think it is too expensive or complicated, and therefore they do not make the app accessible. But if they had done so from the beginning, when these applications were just being created, it would have been easier and cheaper to do. In addition, there are technological barriers that also make it difficult, because you end up with non-accessibility all around: in a tablet for example, in your navigator, and then on the page or in the content. Three barriers at the same time! So, in other words, many companies and the people involved did not take any of this into account. Therefore, a global change is necessary, society needs a cultural change to make internet accessible.
-As a head of Google, and in a university environment full of young people consuming countless hours of online contents, what advice would you give them as to how to make a better use of the internet and benefit from it?
My youngest son, who is 13, is a student in California and spends the whole day using Snapchat and other similar apps. Sometimes I am horrified by what he’s watching! In the end, at home we decided that we will not judge what he is watching or not watching, but rather help him become informed about what he is seeing. We cannot spend the whole day spying on him, but we can inform him about what he is watching. From the perspective of these companies, I understand that they must offer options and adequately inform about their products, as happens with movies and series, in order to help the users decide.
-What will your conference be about? What is the message you wish to transmit under the title of Augmented Realities: the intersection of technology and communication.
For me, technology is a a tool, but not the answer. For example, Google Translate can do a good job, but it can’t do everything. The work of someone who translates and interprets is important in this sense because the cultural aspects of each language are essential. There are words that have different meanings and depending on the context, they will mean one thing or another. A professional translator is of essence, even if Google Translate exists!
We must not view technology as the enemy, but rather as an opportunity. I will speak on how a tool such as Google can allow those who are blind to use headphones and follow specific instructions which will take them from one place to another. I will also speak on subtitles on phones for the deaf, and about Google Glass and how it can help people. There is a huge evolution going on right now with subtitles in mobile devices, for example, when a person who is deaf talks online with their family. All these tools definitely allow people with disabilities to connect with the real world.
-What do you think are the challenges encountered when doing research on accessibility?
One of the main challenges for research in this field is funding. Another challenge is reaching a large enough amount of people with disabilities. For example, Google wants to experiment with Catalan speakers who are blind, but it is difficult to find enough people willing to participate. We believe that when creating and designing a new product, it is extremely necessary to have people with disabilities test and use the product in thousand and one ways.
-Do you think improvements in accessibility are created for users, or is it more the need to abide by the laws?
I believe they must be made with the aim of improving access for people with disabilities, and nothing more. And it is a good idea to bring on board people with disabilities and make them part of the team, to discover whether or not the improvements actually make products more accessible. The idea here is not to work on accessibility because such and such law tells us to do so.