Tag Archives: accessibility

Blind veterans kayak the Grand Canyon, with Street View along for the ride

Editor's Note: Lonnie Bedwell is a blind U.S. Navy veteran who led a team of four veterans to kayak 226 miles down the Grand Canyon. Today, he shares more about this feat (which was documented on Street View).


5 blind veterans kayak the Grand Canyon, documented in Street View

Let me start out by introducing myself: my name is Lonnie Bedwell and I’m from Pleasantville, Indiana, population 120. I’ve been blessed with a full and amazing life—raising three daughters as a single father, serving in the U.S. Navy, and perfecting my chicken noodle soup recipe.


I lost my vision over two decades ago, and was frustrated by how little people come to expect out of a blind person. Fortunately, I benefited from a tight community who supported and challenged me to learn more and do more. Since then, I’ve pushed myself mentally and physically—from climbing and mountain biking to writing a book to dancing with my daughter at her wedding.


I believe we can’t abandon our sense of adventure because we lose our ability to see it, and it has become  my goal to help people who live with similar challenges, and show them that anything is possible. In 2013, I became the first blind person to kayak the entire 226 miles of the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon But, I always felt it didn’t mean anything unless I found a way to pay it forward. So I joined up with the good folks at Team River Runner, a nonprofit dedicated to providing all veterans and their families an opportunity to find health, healing, community, and  purpose. Together we had the audacious goal to support four other blind veterans take a trip down the Grand Canyon.

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[Lonnie lines up to surf the entrance wave of Georgie Rapid Gallery]

Google was keen to support our wild idea of a journey by capturing our exploration in 360 degree Street View. Each member of this journey felt strongly that we must share our experience to inspire and invigorate others—and Street View is a far-reaching platform that can be accessed by anyone, anytime, and from anyplace.    


A question I often get is “How do blind people kayak the Grand Canyon?” Well, it starts with grit. And a lot of preparation. Our other visually-impaired team members—Steve Baskis, Kathy Champion,Brian Harris, and Travis Fugate—practiced hundreds of rolls (flipping yourself back up if you go underwater) and ramped up on big rivers all around the country to prepare. From there, it was all about teamwork and trust.  Team River Runner pioneered a system in which a guide in front makes a homing noise that the blind kayaker then follows, as you can experience for yourself in this 360 video. Just like we relied on our squadron the military, we relied on each other out there in our kayaks.  Our deployments in Afghanistan or Iraq reinforced our ability to work together and survive as a group, which came to life again on this river.


Every single person challenged and pushed themselves on a daily basis. When the earthy warmth of the desert day cooled during the starry nights, delicious cooking smells filled the air, and sounds of music and laughter replaced the roar of the whitewater. I’ll never forget how I felt our last night in the Canyon—so humbled by our team and their devotion to each other. I mean, very few people ever kayak the Grand Canyon, let alone five blind people! We reveled at how far we had come together, but most importantly, how far we could go if set our minds to it.  We may have lost our sight, but we didn’t lose our vision.

While we no longer have the ability to see, we still have the power of our senses. The transformative and healing power of exploring wild and natural landscapes like the Grand Canyon can be experienced, felt, and sensed. We are elated to be able to share it with the world in Street View. You may not be able to feel, smell, and touch it like we did, but experiencing it in 360 seems like a good way to start.

Find out what motivates the Googlers building technology for everyone

There’s a common belief that having a disability means living a life with limits.  At Google, we believe that technology can remove some of those limits and give everyone the same power to achieve their goals.

Building products that are accessible and work for everyone is important to us, and it starts with understanding the challenges that the more than one billion people around the world with a disability face every day.

As we come to the close of National Disability Awareness Month in the U.S., we’d like to introduce you to a few Googlers dedicated to removing those challenges and making technology more accessible.

Making creative tools more accessible for everyone

Before I got into the accessibility field, I worked as an art therapist where I met people from all walks of life. No matter the reason why they came to therapy, almost everyone I met seemed to benefit from engaging in the creative process.  Art gives us the ability to point beyond spoken or written language, to unite us, delight, and satisfy. Done right, this process can be enhanced by technology—extending our ability and potential for play.

One of my first sessions as a therapist was with a middle school student on the autism spectrum. He had trouble communicating and socializing with his peers, but in our sessions together he drew, made elaborate scenes with clay, and made music.

Another key moment for me was when I met Chancey Fleet, a blind technology educator and accessibility advocate. I was learning how to program at the time, and together we built a tool to help her plan a dinner event. It was a visual and audio diagramming tool that paired with her screen reader technology. This collaboration got me excited about the potential of technology to make art and creativity more accessible, and it emphasized the importance of collaborative approaches to design.

This sentiment has carried over into the accessibility research and design work that I do at the NYU Ability Project, a research space where we explore the intersection of disability and technology. Our projects bring together engineers, designers, educators, artists and therapists within and beyond the accessibility community. Like so many technological innovations that have begun as assistive and rehabilitative tech, we hope our work will eventually benefit everyone. That’s why when Google reached out to me with an opportunity to explore ideas around creativity and accessibility, I jumped at the chance.

Together, we made Creatability, a set of experiments that explore how creative tools–drawing, music and more–can be made more accessible using web and AI technology. The project is a collaboration with creators and allies in the accessibility community, such as: Jay Alan Zimmerman, a composer who is deaf; Josh Miele, a blind scientist, designer, and educator; Chancey Fleet, a blind, accessibility advocate, and technology educator; as well as, Barry Farrimond and Doug Bott of Open Up Music, a group focused on empowering young disabled musicians to build inclusive youth orchestras.

Creatability keyboard

The experiments explore a diverse set of inputs--from a computer mouse and keystrokes to your body, wrist, nose, or voice. For example, you can make music by moving your facedraw using sight or sound, and experience music visually.

The key technology we used was a machine learning model called Posenet that can detect key body joints in images and videos. This technology lets you control the experiments with your webcam, simply by moving your body. And it’s powered by Tensorflow.js—a library that runs machine learning models on-device and in your browser, which means your images are never stored or sent to a server.

Creating sound

We hope these experiments inspire others to unleash their inner artist regardless of ability. That’s why we’re open sourcing the code and have created helpful guides as starting points for people to create their own projects. If you create a new experiment or want to share your story of how you used the experiments, you can submit to be featured on the Creatability site at g.co/creatability.

Tools that aim to reach all types of learners, wherever they are

Editor’s note: Before joining Google’s Education team, Morgan Weisman was a kindergarten teacher. Today she is sharing how one of her students inspired her to help build products that aim to meet the needs of all types of learners.

The first time I met six-year-old Jeremiah, he clung to his mom’s leg as he peeked into my kindergarten classroom. Soon he came alive as he talked about his favorite superhero: Spiderman. He ran around the colorful classroom, touched everything in sight and chatted aimlessly. However, when he realized my attention had shifted to his mom, he threw himself on the floor in a tantrum. That’s when his mom told me that they suspected he had autism, but were hopeful that the routine of school would help him focus.

This began a year long journey of giving Jeremiah the educational support he needed, while also teaching 24 other students with 24 different learning styles. Seventy-two percent of classrooms have special education students, and teachers have to work to keep them all engaged and invested in school. For me,  I leveraged technology to create differentiated lessons and support each student, especially Jeremiah.

Jeremiah lit up when he had a computer in front of him and headphones on. He could listen, engage and learn without distractions. We had him fitted for glasses, and he learned how to use the screen magnifier to make the words pop on his screen. He learned sight words, numbers and simple addition through songs and videos. Best of all, his social skills developed as he learned to share and take turns with devices.

As I learned what worked for Jeremiah, I started using the same strategies with other students. As my instructional coach used to tell me: “What works for kids with special needs works for everyone. The strategies that work, just work.”

Since joining Google, I’ve seen even more ways that educators use technology to help students succeed. We strive to support teachers, and one of the ways we are doing that is through built-in accessibility features in our products that aim to support the diverse needs of all students.

Morgan's kindergarten classroom on graduation day

My students on kindergarten graduation day... all decked out in gear from my alma mater, our class' theme.

The ABC’s of Chromebook accessibility

Accessibility settings are built in to all Chromebooks, and more are available through Chrome extensions and apps. No need to change settings when you switch devices because they sync to each student by default. Here are a few useful accessibility settings to get you started:

  • Visual aids: Increase the size of browser content by pressing Ctrl + Plus to increase, Ctrl + Minus to decrease, Ctrl + 0 to reset. The rest of the desktop is unaffected. You can enable high contrast mode by pressing Ctrl + Search button + H on the Chromebook keyboard. Adjust your font face and size, and install Chrome extensions for custom color support.

  • Mono Audio:For users who have limited hearing in one ear, there's a Mono Audio option to play the same sound through both speakers. Turn this feature on in Accessibility settings.

  • Spoken feedback: For users who need synthesized speech on occasion, we offer Select-to-speak. When enabled, press and hold the Search key, then click or drag to select content to be read aloud, and press Ctrl to silence. Change the word-by-word highlight color in Select-to-speak settings. We also have the ChromeVox screen reader that reads all text aloud, a free, browser-based screen reader that users can access from any device and built directly for ChromeOS.

  • Acapela text-to-speech voices: Now you can purchase and use more than 100 Acapela voices to read aloud text in 30+ languages on Chromebooks, including a variety of childrens’ voices.

ChromeOS Accessibility Features

The 123’s of G Suite Accessibility

G Suite is a set of tools that help students and teachers collaborate in real time and give personalized feedback. It’s also paperless and accessible from anywhere. Built into our G Suite tools are many accessibility features:

  • Slides: Turn on closed captions in Slides to support students who are deaf, hard-of-hearing or ENL. Simply use  Ctrl + Shift + c in ChromeOS/Windows or⌘ + Shift + c in Mac.

  • Voice typing, editing and formatting: Use the mic and enable the feature to use voice typing in Docs and Slides to write and edit without a keyboard.

  • Visual aids:Enable high contrast themes in Gmail and browsing, and use powerful keyboard shortcuts for those who can’t or don’t want to use a mouse.

  • Collaboration:G Suite works on all different platforms including Windows, Android, iOS devices and even multiple devices at one time. You can all be on different devices and still collaborate in real time.

  • Braille: Use a Braille display to read and edit Docs, Sheets, Slides and Drawings.

  • Screen reader & magnifier:Turn on the features in accessibility settings to zoom in or use the screen reader in Docs, Calendar, Sites, Classroom and even in other browsers.

Braille in Docs Editors

What else is new?

We’re supporting teachers through our own tools as well as strong partnerships with organizations who share our mission. One such organization is Don Johnston, a company that builds tools for people with all types of learning styles and abilities. We’re excited to announce them as a Google for Education Premier Technology Partner, with new integrations using our Drive API, Classroom API and Google single sign-on. Try out their core products in Chrome, Co:Writer, for word prediction, translation, and speech recognition, Snap&Read for screen reading, & their newest product, automatic quiz generator Quizbot with Google Forms. See how one Indiana teacher uses Chromebooks and Don Johnston tools to improve reading independence in her classroom.

Quizbot

Ready to make your teaching more accessible for all learners?

We have many resources to find out what’s new, and how to turn on and use features included in our Chrome browser, Chromebook settings, and G Suite products:

At Google for Education, we're passionate about building tools that make teaching and learning better for everyone. We love hearing stories of how technology is changing students’ lives, so please share ways that you’re using accessibility tools to support all types of learners.

Source: Google Chrome


Building a more accessible map thanks to Local Guides from around the world

Navigating the physical world is one of the most challenging problems for the more than one billion people who have disabilities. It is also a hard technical problem to solve. Google Maps is trying to make the world more accessible with the help of Local Guides, a community of more than 50 million people around the world helping to contribute information to Google Maps.

Since launching our campaign one year ago, Local Guides worldwide have worked tirelessly adding accessibility information to Google Maps. Using local knowledge, they answer questions like "Does this place have a wheelchair accessible entrance?”, “Is there an  accessible restroom?” and many more.

In that time, seven million Local Guides answered more than 500 million of these questions. Thanks to their hard work, we can now provide accessibility information for more than 40 million places on Google Maps. (And to help people get to those places, our Maps  accessibility team launched wheelchair accessible public transportation routes this Spring.)

Accessibility_flags.jpg

151 Local Guides from 59 countries pose for a photo with their home flags during Connect Live 2018 in San Francisco.

For both Google and Local Guides, this is just the beginning. At last week’s Local Guides Connect Live, Local Guides from all over the world shared their insights and thoughts on how the program could be improved to promote ever more inclusion in their home countries.

Here some ways leading Local Guides were discussing accessibility:

  • Ilankovan Thushyantha, this year’s Meet-up Superstar award winner at Connect Live, is a top Local Guide from Sri Lanka. Ilankovan recently hosted his 48th meet-up, teaching millennials in Batticaloa, Sri Lanka the importance of mapping tools (You can watch Ilankovan's journey or check out his recap report here). He also created a Worldwide Meet-up for Local Guides to host accessibility-themed events this month. During Connect Live, Ilankovan shared that in rural areas, existing questions about places (like if there are elevators) can feel irrelevant, leading us to discuss how upcoming features will allow Local Guides to submit free-form accessibility information more effectively.

LocalGuides_Accessibility_Ilankovan.jpg

Ilankovan Thushyantha receives the  Meet-up Superstar award.

  • Emeka Ulor won the award for Outstanding Accessibility Contributions, and he even organized an accessibility meet-upduring his trip to San Francisco. At Connect Live, he shared that accessible entrances in Nigeria are often poorly marked—even at government buildings. In addition to improved signage, we brainstormed ways to indicate alternate entrances.

LocalGuides_Accessibility_Emeka.jpg

Emeka Ulor receiving Outstanding Accessibility Contributions Award from Googler Brittany Miller.

  • Paul Gerarts, a retiree from Belgium who is currently living in Malaysia, shared insights from his work in creating audio descriptions of videos and tours for people with vision impairment. Paul challenged us to explore adding questions that help those with “invisible” disabilities such as blindness and hearing impairment.

LocalGuides_Accessibility_Paul.jpg

Paul Gerarts (on the left) with Google Software Engineer Sasha Blair-Goldensohn.

With the help of transit agencies around the globe, Local Guides like these and 50 million more worldwide are contributing local knowledge and making progress toward a more accessible world for everyone.

Learn more about the Local Guides community, sign up to be a Local Guide and help answer accessibility questions within Google Maps today.

Robbie Ivey’s story: how technology removes barriers

At Google we believe in the power of technology to make a difference in people’s lives. And for 19-year-old Robbie Ivey from Michigan, that certainly rings true.


Robbie has duchenne muscular dystrophy, which has left him able to control only his eyes, head and right thumb joint. Among the many challenges Robbie and his family face, nighttime is one of the key ones. For years, Robbie’s mom Carrie has set her alarm every few hours to get up and change his position in bed so he doesn’t get bed sores or infections. Earlier this year, a sleep-deprived Carrie put out a message to the Muscular Dystrophy Association asking for help to try and find a better way.  She got a response from Bill Weir, a retired tech worker, who thought he could set up Robbie’s bed to be controlled by voice activation. While working on the bed, Bill had an epiphany: if he can control the bed this way, why not everything else in Robbie’s bedroom universe?


As part of our efforts to spotlight accessible technologies throughout National Disability Awareness Month, we hear directly from Robbie about how technology has helped him gain more independence in his life as he starts off on his first year at Oakland Universityin Rochester.

Laura Allen, leveling the playing field with more accessible technology

Editor's note: The She Word is a Keyword series all about dynamic and creative women at Google. 

In honor of National Disability Awareness Month in the U.S., we’re talking to Laura Allen, a program manager for Chrome accessibility. Laura shares how technology changed everything for her, and how she is working to level the playing field for everyone with more accessible technology.

How do you explain your job at a dinner party?

I help make Chrome and Chrome OS more accessible to everyone, including our users with disabilities.

How does that show up in Google products?

I work alongside product managers, designers and engineers to integrate accessibility into our processes and develop assistive technologies like magnification options, Braille support and dictation in Chromebooks.

Image of Laura sitting on a couch using her Chromebook

How has technology been a force for good in your life?

I have a rare visual condition that caused me to lose central vision in both of my eyes right before I started high school. All of a sudden, I couldn’t read textbooks, see the classroom board or recognize my friends’ faces in the hallway.

After school my family would read my classwork out loud to me, and my dad would teach me math. It was the definition of dependence, but at that time, there was no other way. Eventually we started stripping the pages out of textbooks and scanning them, so I could use text-to-speech software to do my classwork. The process was messy, but it changed everything for me. It was then that I realized the true value of technology and how it could pivot the trajectory of someone’s life.  

What advice do you have for women starting out in their careers?

Pay attention to what makes you tick. Take note of what makes you excited, then try to add more of that to your life. Initially, I worked in sales at Google and focused on accessibility as a 20 percent project. Working on accessibility filled me up with a different kind of energy that I hadn’t experienced before. I had to listen to those signals to get to where I am today, and I’m so thankful to be here.

What motivates you in your career?

I was so lucky to have my family to help me overcome those initial hurdles and navigate the world of assistive technology to regain my independence, but not everyone has that kind of support system. We can’t leave the opportunity for success and fulfillment up to chance. I see technology as a great equalizer—if we can improve access to the world’s information and build with accessibility in mind, then we will be that much closer to creating a truly level playing field for all.

Photo of Laura talking with young students in a classroom at the California School for the Blind

Photo of Laura talking with young students in a classroom at the California School for the Blind

What’s one habit that makes you successful?


I write down what I want to create space for each week, then I block time on my calendar to dedicate to those things whether it’s something I want to research or an old friend I want to reconnect with.


Who has been a strong female influence in your life?


This might be sappy, but I have to say my mom. She has always led by example and focused on the positive. She is a physical therapist for newborns and young children with developmental disabilities. The level of impact that she has had in her life is truly unbelievable. I always think of her dedication to people as individuals, and the amount of heart she puts into her work.

From design to development, user feedback shapes Google’s approach to accessibility

It’s a hot day in Jakarta, Indonesia, and the Google Accessibility User Experience team is being shown around the city. Their goal for the next 10 days is to understand the daily experience of various people living with disabilities in this city of more than 10 million people. Notebooks are out, cameras are rolling and Rachmad (a pseudonym), a student who is blind, is eager to share some of his experiences with the team to help us build products that help solve everyday obstacles for him and others.

jakarta research study

The Google Accessibility team's research study in Jakarta was aimed at understanding the experience of people living with disabilities there

As the group approaches a bus stop, Rachmad begins asking for help from passersby. A Jakarta local tells him which bus stop he’s at and where it will take him. He turns to the Google Accessibility team and says “Yeah, I kind of have to trust them and hope they are telling the truth.”

After a short bus ride and a long walk, the team returns to Rachmad’s home, where he shows them the four mobile devices he owns, each running different versions of operating systems depending on the task. A researcher notices he’s active within multiple online accessibility support communities and asks him about it. “Sometimes it can be difficult finding help for assistive tools. We try and help each other any way we can,” says Rachmad. 

This is a user research field study and it’s demonstrating one of Google’s key values: Focus on the user and all else will follow. User research is core to success throughout a product’s life cycle, and fundamental to creating a product that works for as many people as possible, including people with disabilities. From defining product vision to development and onwards, here's how the Google Accessibility team uses research to ensure our products are more inclusive:

Define the product vision

No matter what the product or service is, it’s important to first understand what problems need solving and how the current solutions could be improved. Observing and talking to a diverse set of users with and without disabilities about their challenges, needs, and workarounds can provide richer insights and drive designs that all users may benefit from. Identifying these insights during early brainstorms and design sprints can help approach problems from different perspectives and lead to more creative solutions.

Design with accessibility in mind

The insights gained from observing users can influence all aspects of design including interaction, visual, motion, and writing. Google’s Material Design Accessibility Guidelines and Designing for Global Accessibility principles summarize fundamental principles that help create more accessible products. For example, ensuring there is good contrast between text and the background will help people with low vision or people trying to read a phone screen in the sun. Tools like the Material Color Tool can help make choosing more accessible color palettes easier.

GoogleMaterialdesign_accessibility guidelines.png

Google’s Material Design Accessibility Guidelines provide guidance on accessible design, such as ensuring enough contrast between text and background

Our team often says that "accessible design is just good design." Indeed, if you look at the bigger picture, the goal of creating products is to help people create things, find things, watch things—in short, to accomplish things. Why would any product team want to make it more challenging for a user to accomplish their goals? That's why we encourage teams to use the accessibility design guidelines to influence early design choices. Like most things worth doing, designing with accessibility in mind takes practice and work. But it's key to designing a robust user experience for all.

Develop and iterate

Throughout the design and development of a product, there are many opportunities to get additional input from diverse users. Any type of evaluative research, like usability studies, can be made more inclusive by testing with people with and without disabilities. At this stage, teams can gain more specific insights on the actual experience for the user. For example, an application could present a notification for a longer period so that it doesn’t disappear too quickly for someone with a learning disability or someone who was simply too distracted to read it. While design guidelines can help a product with fundamental accessibility, nothing substitutes for actually watching a person using a screen reader, switch access device, or other assistive technology to truly understand the quality of the user experience.

After a product launches

Once a product launches, teams can use feedback surveys, app ratings, customer support calls and emails to get a wealth of qualitative input. And filtering this feedback by users with accessibility needs can continue to paint the picture of their full experience.

This is also the perfect time to stop and understand what benefits were gained from designing inclusively from the beginning, and to apply lessons learned to the next product development cycle. Over time, it can become second nature to design inclusively.

Products are a product of user feedback

Returning to our researchers in Jakarta: After they came back from their trip, they worked to bring awareness to their findings by sharing insights and solutions with other teams at Google, including the Next Billion Users group to help them think about accessibility for people in emerging markets. Rachmad’s comments about how it can be difficult finding help for assistive tools informed the creation of a new Google support team dedicated to helping people with disabilities who have questions on assistive technology or accessibility within Google's products. On a product level, the Jakarta team provided valuable input for the group behind Lookout, an app coming soon to the U.S. that helps people who are blind and visually impaired learn about their surroundings. Once available, people like Rachmad will hear cues from their Android phones, helping them gain more independence.

Focusing on accessibility from the beginning can influence product direction as well as develop robust insights that teams can learn from and build upon in future work—all in an effort to effectively build for everyone.  If you’re interested in helping shape the future of accessibility at Google, sign up to participate in future user studies.

What’s that you say? Present with captions in Google Slides

Years ago in a Long Island doctor’s office, four-year-old Laura was fitted with her first pair of hearing aids, customized to compensate for her specific hearing loss. However, they didn’t work very well, particularly in noisy backgrounds, so she eventually stopped wearing them.


A few years later on a school bus in Bethesda, MD, nine-year-old Abigail sat next to a classmate who taught her how to communicate using American Sign Language. In high school, she worked in a biology lab at the National Eye Institutewhere she researched retinitis pigmentosa, a genetic disorder that causes loss of vision.


Flash forward to today where we, Laura and Abigail, work at Google, building products with accessibility features that help billions of users across the globe. We met earlier, through the accessibility community at MIT, where we studied computer science with the hopes of using our technical skills to make a difference in people’s lives.


During our time at university, Abigail built a solution that helped a blind man use his touch-screen oven, led a team that enabled blind individuals to sign legal documents independently, and co-founded an assistive technology hackathon. Laura researched a new signal processing algorithm for hearing aids in noisy environments, built an app for residents in a neurological disease care facility to call for help in a more accessible way, and worked on a hands-free page turner for individuals unable to use their arms. This work not only made us see what an impact technology can make on people with accessibility needs, but also motivated us to focus our careers in this area when we graduated.


When we landed at Google, we both independently joined the G Suite accessibility team. As part of this team, we've improved screen reader, Braille and screen magnifier support on Google Docs, Sheets and Slides, and we have represented the Google Accessibility team at external conferences. We’re also involved with the American Sign Language community at Google, which promotes inclusivity among all Googlers through shared language.


Recently, an internal hackathon led us to work on a project that is deeply personal. Upon observing that presentations can be challenging for individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing to follow along, we both teamed up with the idea to add automated closed captions to G Suite’s presentation tool, Google Slides.


This work has moved from a passion project to our full-time job, and today we’re officially launching automated closed captions in Google Slides. The feature will gradually roll out to all Slides users starting this week.

Google Slides Closed Captions

An example of closed captions in Google Slides

How it works

The closed captions feature is available when presenting in Google Slides. It uses your computer’s microphone to detect your spoken presentation, then transcribes—in real time—what you say as captions on the slides you’re presenting.  When you begin presenting, click the “CC” button in the navigation box (or use the shortcut Ctrl + Shift + c in Chrome OS / Windows or ⌘ + Shift + c in Mac).


As you start speaking into your device’s microphone, automated captions will appear in real time at the bottom of your screen for your audience to see. The feature works for a single user presenting in U.S. English on a laptop or desktop computer, using the Chrome browser. We’re looking to expand the feature to more countries and languages over time. The captions are powered by machine learning and heavily influenced by the speaker's accent, voice modulation, and intonation. We’re continuing to work on improving caption quality.


Closed captioning in Slides can help audience members like Laura who are deaf or hard of hearing, but it can also be useful for audience members without hearing loss who are listening in noisy auditoriums or rooms with poor sound settings. Closed captioning can also be a benefit when the presenter is speaking a non-native language or is not projecting their voice. The fact that the feature was built primarily for accessibility purposes but is also helpful to all users shows the overall value for everyone of incorporating accessibility into product design.


You might think that the experiences we had growing up are the reasons we were inspired to work on accessibility at Google. That’s partly true. But we really got into this work for its potential to improve the lives of people with disabilities, for the interesting technologies and design constraints, and because of our desire to use our skills to make the world a better place. We’re excited to contribute to that effort with closed captions in Google Slides, and we’re eager to share it with you. Visit our help center to learn more.

Vint Cerf on accessibility, the cello and noisy hearing aids

The Internet is undoubtedly a transformative technology, changing how people all over the world live and work. One of the key figures responsible for designing the architecture of the Internet is Dr. Vint Cerf, who along with Robert E. Kahn is known as one of the “fathers of the Internet.” Dr Cerf also been Google’s chief internet evangelist for last 12 years. This Disability Awareness Month, we sat down with him to learn more about the impact of technology on the more than 1 billion people with disabilities and why building accessible products matters to him on a personal level.


Many people might not know this, but you have a hearing impairment.

Vint: I was born six weeks prematurely in 1943. In those days, they put babies in oxygen tents to help them breathe with immature lungs. It’s thought that this treatment led to a progressing nerve loss which continues to this day—at about 1 dB loss per year. I’ve been wearing hearing aids for over 60 years.

Most kids hate to be different and just want to fit in. Wearing hearing aids must have been hard. How did you deal with that?

I began wearing dual hearing aids at age 13, in junior high. It was pretty noticeable. On the other hand, I was already a self-proclaimed geek and went on to high school wearing sports coats, slacks and ties. If I was going to look different, I decided to do it with style!

What advice would you give your younger self about how to get comfortable with your hearing impairment?

There was no hiding those bulky, behind-the-ear hearing aids. Now I’m very open about it, even though the hearing aids are less noticeable. My advice to my younger self would have been to try to get more matter-of-fact about my hearing loss. One awkward problem—especially with behind-the-ear aids—is that they squealed when you were making out. Wrecks the mood. On the other hand, taking them off made me incommunicado. Tough choices!

vint cerf in 1956 and in 1973

Left: Vint in 1956. (Look familiar? We've shared this photo before.) Right: Rocking an ascot circa 1973.

Did you ever feel your hearing impairment held you back?

I don’t think I ever felt “held back,” although fast-talking comedians are often frustrating because I miss the too-fast punch lines. But I have learned to adapt my practices to diminish the effects of deafness. For example, I do Q&A on stage by roaming around with a microphone so I can get close enough to lip read if I have to.

How would you say your disability has shaped your own interaction with technology?

While at UCLA for my Ph.D., I got involved in the ARPANET project. Around 1971, Ray Tomlinson developed the idea of networked electronic mail, which was hugely attractive to me because it replaced uncertain voice calls with the clarity of text. The development of the Internet was undertaken in the context of heavy use of email.

The rise of video conferencing has actually been a huge challenge for me as it reintroduces some of the uncertainty of voice calling and I look forward to real-time, automatic captioning to overcome the limitations that medium poses for me.

postel crocker cerf 1994 copy.jpg

Vint Cerf (right) with Jon Postel and Steve Crocker in 1994. The three were part of the team working on the ARPAnet, which eventually became today's Internet. 

Was accessibility something you were thinking of when you and Bob Kahn were developing the protocols for the creation of the Internet?

Not at the time. Today, however, given the huge advantages of computer applications, it’s a high priority to ensure that disabilities do not prevent people from gaining the full benefit of online and offline digital environments.

In an interview with “The Washington Post” you said, “I traded in my cello for a keyboard.” What would life would have been like if you hadn’t made that switch?

I wish I had not treated this as a binary choice. It is entirely possible to have both but I didn’t fully appreciate that at the time. I did get to attend a masters class led by Pablo Casals at Berkeley in 1958. It was truly inspiring but computers grabbed my attention even more dramatically at that time. Perhaps it is time to go back to see whether I can regain that skill. The cello is a magnificent instrument.

You’re married to someone who has a hearing impairment—but she got cochlear implants that really changed her life. You have quite a funny story about that.

Sigrid was born with normal hearing but lost it at age three after a bout with spinal meningitis. She was profoundly deaf, and functioned in a hearing world through lip-reading.

At age 53, she received her first cochlear implant. It functioned spectacularly well. After that, she was eager to make and receive phone calls—even from solicitors. She got one call from an AT&T salesperson in India and asked "oh, which part of India are you from?" The conversation went on for quite a while. Finally the poor salesperson asked, "So you're going to switch to AT&T?" and Sigrid said, "Oh no, my husband is SVP at MCI but thanks for calling!"

Vint Cerf and his wife Sigrid circa 1969

Vint and his wife Sigrid circa 1969

What lessons have you learned from others with disabilities?

Jack Chen is a lawyer at Google who is blind and does stuff that I think is nuts (like bicycle riding) but he’s wonderfully open to discussing blindness and his coping mechanisms. It is from my interactions with Jack that I refined and reinforced my own comfort with talking about the challenges of deafness. I remember asking him whether he cooked. He said, “Yes!” Then I asked him, how can you tell if the food is cooked? He said, “I touch it with my fingers.” That’s when I said I wasn’t going to eat steaks that he pan fried. We both had a good laugh. It’s incredibly important to be able to laugh about some of the situations disabilities put you in.

What message do you have for people creating technology today and how they should think about accessibility?

It must be thought through during the design phase of any product. Accessibility and ease of use go hand in hand. Many people experience temporary disability (broken arm, leg, finger, blocked ears…) and appreciate the value of accessibility features from that experience. There is no excuse for making products that are not accessible.