Episode 330: The Future of the Workplace and Accessible Technology With Christopher Patnoe from Google

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Episode 330: The Future of the Workplace and Accessible Technology With Christopher Patnoe from Google

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Welcome to the Workology Podcast, a podcast for the disruptive workplace leader. Join host Jessica Miller-Merrell, founder of Workology.com as she sits down and gets to the bottom of trends, tools, and case studies for the business leader, HR, and recruiting professional who is tired of the status quo. Now here’s Jessica with this episode of Workology.

Episode 330: The Future of the Workplace and Accessible Technology With Christopher Patnoe from Google

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:00:26.46] This episode of the Workology Podcast is part of our Future of Work series powered by PEAT, the Partnership on Employment and Accessible Technology. PEAT works to start conversations around how emerging workplace technology trends are impacting people with disabilities. Today, I’m joined by Christopher Patnoe. He’s the Head of Accessibility and Disability Inclusion for EMEA at Google. Christopher is passionate about building technology products for people with disabilities while also maintaining an inclusive hiring process and diverse workforce. Christopher, welcome to the Workology Podcast.

Christopher Patnoe: [00:01:02.34] Thank you so much for having me here.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:01:04.47] Awesome. Well, I want to talk about your background and how you began working in the accessibility inclusion space.

Christopher Patnoe: [00:01:10.89] It’s a kind of embarrassing story. I started off as a failed musician. I studied music in school and realized that with the talent that I had either is that the computers are waiting on tables. So computers were much better day job. After 10 years at Apple, three years at Sony, here at Disney making games, I found myself at Google, and even several years into Google, I discovered accessibility for the first time. I was a lead program manager for an application service called Google Play Music, and we were having a test meeting and a tester came into the room, turned on voice over and I heard button, button, button, button. I asked, What’s that? And she said, Well, this is a Google Play Music for someone who’s blind. So, that’s stupid, how do they use it? She said, Well, that’s why I’m here. And after all that experience like this is the reason why I told you that first part of the year is that Apple, Sony, et cetera. I never heard of accessibility. I didn’t even know it was the thing. I can’t even say I thought it was, it was automatic. I had never even heard of it. And I realized within a few weeks that this is something that I wanted to do something about. So I hired her as a program manager on my team, her name is Karen. She’s amazing. And she taught me what I needed to know. And together we let accessibility for Google Play. And then, after a dalliance with the AR/VR team called Daydream, I joined the central accessibility team, and my mission when I joined the team was to make all of Google’s products accessible and to make Google a place for people with disabilities can thrive.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:02:44.33] I love that. Such a great story. From failed musician to the voice behind or the, your team, you help leading your team to really drive amazing change not just to Google, but for so many other companies, because they’re going to follow what you and your team and Google does.

Christopher Patnoe: [00:03:06.11] It seems to be true. I’m really honored to be, to be at a place where people will listen to something that I have to say. And may I use this, this limited power for good and help people do the right thing for all.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:03:19.19] Agreed. Well, one area I did want us to dive into, because it’s not something that we’ve talked about on the Workology Podcast, but, and it needs to be discussed is immersive captioning. Can you explain what that is and the benefits of immersive technologies in general?

Christopher Patnoe: [00:03:37.20] Yeah, so this is why I give that little mention about Daydream. Daydream was Google’s VR platform and I’ve been fascinated with, with virtual reality ever since I was a kid. I remember at UC Berkeley spending $5 to spend like two minutes in a VR headset that was probably like 10 feet wide with a headset that would drop onto your head. And it was like Tron. The first Tron, not the second Tron. And it was amazing. And I’ve always loved VR. And when I got a chance to do VR with, with, with Google, I jumped at the chance. My goal was to actually to try to bring accessibility and disability into it, into it. And I learned there that there’s a time and a place to have the conversation around accessibility. And it helped me realize you have, that you need to change your conversation with leadership. You have to customize your conversation with leadership when trying to have the conversation around accessibility and disability inclusion. But I’ve continued this passion and I’ve, since joined, I’m a co-chair of accessibility for the XR Association and I was a part of the XR Access Symposium, the very first one. So I continue to do this work even though I’m no longer working on it as my day job, and there, inspired by Larry Goldberg, I volunteered to try to drive a conversation around the immersive captioning.

Christopher Patnoe: [00:05:00.63] What this means is creating a captioning standard or recommendations that is designed in conjunction with the community. So what we’ve done is we’re taking captions and I’ve brought together a bunch of academics and professionals and content makers at the office of the W3C. We have the immersive captions community group and we are trying to not take the captions you see on television today and just apply it towards VR because there’s such a different way of experiencing information in virtual reality. Things happen behind you. Things happen above you. And if you can’t hear them, you don’t know that they’re there. So we collaborated with Gallaudet and the NAD and RIT, and we’ve come together with some really exciting new ways of sharing, captioning style information. And one of my favorite ones is, is, it’s currently called aggregated captions. And what this is, it’s, it’s a way to accommodate captions that happen really, really quickly. You know, if you’re having a David Mamet-style conversation, these words come out really quickly, captions can go go really, really fast, and we realize that we want to have the ability to show them more than one capture at the same time, more than even two or three.

Christopher Patnoe: [00:06:19.78] And we came up with this idea of this aggregated captions so you could see lots of things that are being said. But because it’s VR, we’re also showing you directional, directional information with an arrow, for example, saying it’s happening to your right or tapping into your left. Once we started here, then with, then, then the creative juices started flowing and someone said, you know, it’s really cool if I could sort of seek by caption, if I could sort of go back three captions. So we’re actually changing, with this, with this one idea we’ve changed a core way of how you sort of experience film. Now this immersive captions thing that right now we’re focusing first on film so you can go back three lines and see what was said and who said it. And you, and they’ll know to turn around to see where the person is. So by working with the community, we were coming up with this new these new user interfaces and these new ways of sharing information in a way that is inclusive and designed by the community. That’s really, really exciting.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:07:17.49] It sounds like to me, and this is, I think, really common for a lot of accessible technologies and tools. Immersive captioning is something that everybody can use. I mean, it’s designed to allow for certain people with disabilities to be able to have that XR experience. But if you don’t have a disability, you can still take advantage of that immersive caption experience.

Christopher Patnoe: [00:07:41.55] Absolutely. That’s, that’s the. As you said, this is, this is the key towards designing inclusively. Everybody can benefit whether you are deaf or hard of hearing or whether you’re, this is your, it’s your native language or not, or whether your neck is sore, you can’t turn around fast enough. There’s so many reasons why these, these technologies are important for everyone.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:08:02.16] As organizations start to plan for immersive technology, how can they work with vendors to ensure they are purchasing an accessible product?

Christopher Patnoe: [00:08:11.97] This is really hard, and I don’t think there’s any silver bullet, so there’s sort of three things that I think about in this space. First thing, there’s always the VPAT, the voluntary product accessibility template. This is them saying what they support in terms of accessibility or not. And often it’s just treated as, like a checkbox thing and don’t really trust it. But you always, you always ask for us because one, if they don’t have it, you know, it’s not accessible. Two, if they do have it, you want to sort of somehow do some kind of validation to see if it’s, if it’s, if it’s good or not. Another thing you could do is talk to colleagues at different companies that do similar kind of work for people that you know who might be acquiring a specific, a specific tool. Ask them if they’ve had any good luck with that. Because many large companies or even many small companies all ask what accessibility it raises the visibility of it. If you have, if you know that someone has had a good experience, leverage that, learn, learn from it, or at least learn from their experience. If you have a little time and money, you could always ask for a pilot. Maybe ask for a couple, a couple of licenses to see if it’ll pass through security and accessibility expectations for your company. And finally, if it’s critically important and you can’t do it, maybe you could pay for a third, a third party company, say Deque, or LevelAccess to test or provide their results for you.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:09:39.61] I love these examples, and they’re things that regardless of the size of your organization and your budget, you can be able to, to, to leverage and consider.

Christopher Patnoe: [00:09:52.27] One thing that I love about accessibility is that even companies that are competitors when it comes to helping people with disabilities, I find that becomes a common bond and you can collaborate with people because you’re trying to help the same, the same people, your clients, your users, your, your company, people willing to help each other behind the scenes because it’s not what you’re competing against. I love that about accessibility.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:10:16.42] How do you and your team handle challenges for accessibility and inclusion in a hybrid work environment?

Christopher Patnoe: [00:10:22.45] We’re still figuring that out because right now we’ve gone from in the office to not in the office to the space now where we’re going to have some people that are, some people that aren’t. I’m really glad that Google has now given people the right to, to be able to work from home. This is something that the community has asked for for a very long time. So I’m thrilled that in our case, Google is willing to do this. But it’s really interesting, speaking to friends of mine who are deaf and hard of hearing, almost universally I’ve heard, I’ve had the best year of my life because I have access to captions. I can actually feel like I’m really part of everything because I’m always aware of who’s talking and what they’re saying. And then there are many people I talk to are nervous about this hybrid space where you have some people in a meeting room, for example, so the captions won’t be as good and they certainly won’t be attributed. And then some people who are on the screen, so we, without intention, it could be, it could become a less inclusive experience. One more interesting thing is, again, for the deaf and hard of hearing community, it’s the concept of masks. Traditional accommodations work to sort of solve the mismatch of what a person can do and the environment that they’re in. But the person who is deaf or hard of hearing, they don’t need the mask. If they can’t lip read if the person that they’re talking to is wearing a mask, so that accommodation here is sort of turned on its ear, that if some, if the company requires people to wear masks, the accommodation would actually be on behalf of the person who is deaf and hard of hearing, but to ask that the people who wear masks wear clear masks, for example, so their lips can be read. So that’s a, that’s an interesting space that I haven’t seen any real strong solutions that from any company at this point.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:12:07.41] I think these are all real-world examples that we, I mean, I can see myself encountering as I’m leading a team or as I’m a teammate where employees are saying, you know, we were remote. Now we’re in this hybrid model. I can’t read everybody’s lips or the captioning doesn’t work. If we’re if half of us are in the meeting room and then half of us are online. And so these are, these are things that we’re going to be all figuring out together.

Christopher Patnoe: [00:12:37.65] Yes.

Break: [00:12:38.76] Let’s take a reset. This is Jessica Miller-Merrell and you were listening to the Workology Podcast sponsored by Upskill HR and Ace the HR Exam. Today we are talking with Christopher Patnoe. He’s the Head of Accessibility and Disability Inclusion at Google. This podcast is part of our Future of Work series on the Workology Podcast, and it is powered by PEAT, the Partnership on Employment and Accessible Technology.

Break: [00:13:04.41] The Workology Podcast Future of Work series is supported by PEAT, the Partnership on Employment and Accessible Technology. PEAT’s initiative is to foster collaboration and action around accessible technology in the workplace. PEAT is funded by the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy, ODEP. Learn more about PEAT at PEATWorks.org. That’s PEATworks.org.

Intersectionality and How DEI Factors Into Accessibility and Inclusion


Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:13:33.43] Let’s talk about intersectionality, how does DEI factor into accessibility and inclusion at Google? How do you ensure your team is diverse?

Christopher Patnoe: [00:13:43.72] DEI should always factor accessibility as part of it, a disability inclusion, disability is as much a factor that people should pay attention to its race or gender. When it comes to ensuring that your team is diverse. It’s the same practices as what you would do for race or gender. So when you want to hire someone, don’t hire the first person that’s there. Make sure there’s some time for the best, broadest group of candidates could be presented to you before making decisions in terms of who you want to bring in for a conversation. Another thing that, that I’ve recently started hearing about is instead of a culture fit, you would think about a culture add. How could someone bring a diverse perspective to your team? How can they bring a diverse set of experiences to your team so you have a broader, more robust solution set for any kind of problems? So don’t focus too much on a culture fit because that could really if you take it to an extreme. Make everybody the same because you all get along really, really well. And also when you’re applying to if you have a job that you wanted to fill, reach out to your company’s ERG and their networks and see if they know someone who might be a good fit. But I think probably the biggest piece of advice is don’t stress it out trying to fill it fast because you’re more than likely not going to have the greatest, the greatest opportunity for a diverse hire.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:15:12.28] Agreed. You’re going to the same old, trusted like source or job board or whatever you’re using to hire, and you’re not taking the time and being intentional about different communities, like you said, networks of people. What do you see as the future of workplace inclusion and accessible technology? And how are AI and XR helping in these areas?

Christopher Patnoe: [00:15:36.93] The first thing that pops out of my head is, is the AI in terms of captions and the ability for speech to text and text to speech technologies to really revolutionize how people communicate. Maybe you, you have live, you can do inter-language. You can have instantaneous or near-instantaneous real-life translation from one language to another. It’s possible. You have the ability for someone who, who might be visually impaired, you could use AI to take a look at a document and read it for them. So if they, if, if a document isn’t accessible, you can use computer vision to, to read out the contents of the document. You think OCR and the better the OCR gets, the better the quality of that readout will be. Of course, you want things to be accessible, but you can’t guarantee it. So using these technologies like AI to compensate for those situations is an exciting area of study. When it comes to XR, I’ve seen some really neat things around, even, even today around, say, Google Meet on Google Glass, where you could actually have someone wearing Glass, having a meeting in a, say, in a, if you’re doing like a building, you want to do a walkthrough of the building, if one person’s there wearing a Google Glass and they can walk around and, and show you what’s happening. This isn’t an accessibility story, but the ability to take your hands and use them while you’re having interactions with people is exciting when it comes to things like VR. You can have these, these large virtual gatherings of the people, and some companies are starting to, are starting to come up with, with captioning standards and opportunities for you so you can have inclusive virtual meetings. So you have people from all over the world coming together and interacting in a much more natural perspective than you’re a sort of Brady Bunch Zoom grid that you see on the screen.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:17:32.37] I love that the future, I think the possibilities are amazing and I’m so excited that, that we’re a part of, a part of this conversation. We’ve had some conversations on this podcast about AI and its potential for creating bias. I wanted to ask you, what would you recommend to HR leaders in order to help mitigate this?

Christopher Patnoe: [00:17:56.94] First thing I say, I think, would be to acknowledge that it is a problem and to create some metrics that allow you to measure to see if it’s happening to you. So if all of a sudden you’re seeing that you don’t have a particular demographic, say youth, if all of a sudden everybody, you have a new AI and also everybody is in their 30s and 40s, if you don’t look for it, you’re not going to find it. So, so start with the premise that it is biased. It is. It is fallible and test for the things that are most important. So in that case, you always make sure there’s a human in the middle, so you have some validating the AI to make sure it does what it’s supposed to, and especially all the areas that are important to you. So pressure test, validate the results, and provide feedback to the people who are building the AI to make sure that it, if it is something that is inherent in the AI or if it’s a configuration something, configuration thing on your side of the AI, there’s many places where these things can go wrong. But if you don’t look for it, you’re never going to find it.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:19:02.78] Awesome. I feel like it’s an obvious answer, but it’s one worth restating. Every week I read a new article about AI and the liabilities, but I believe there are so many opportunities. You’re mentioning captioning. This is a great area where artificial intelligence can really help improve the experience for everyone, including people with disabilities. Can you tell us about the top three things you’ve learned from your leadership role in the accessibility and inclusion face space? I know that’s a big question.

Christopher Patnoe: [00:19:37.53] Yeah. One thing is leadership engagement is critical. You, if you don’t have the support from, from leadership at the top, it’s a really, it’s much, much harder to get people’s attention. So that’s number one. The corollary is leadership engagement at the top is not enough because you really need to gauge at every level of the organization and you need to do it in their own language. Different organizations will have different cultures and are driven by different metrics, KPIs, things however you want to describe it and you need to really have the impact that you want to convince them that something like accessibility is critically important, that inclusion is critically important. You need to provide the right arguments to them. For example, are they driven by money? Are they driven by fear of being sued? Or are they driven by FOMO, fear of missing out? Or are they driven by competition? Are they driven by doing, doing what’s the right thing? And every leader is going to be different, and they’re going to have different values that you need to control that you need to account for when making that pitch. So getting leadership at the top is one of those conversations, but making sure at the SVP, the VP, the director level, you understand what their motivation is and you create your pitch that speaks to their values, so they follow along with you.

Christopher Patnoe: [00:21:08.21] And finally, and this is probably the most important of all of this is you need to pace yourself. It is so easy to, to dive into this work because it feels so good knowing that what you’re doing in the end will make someone’s life better or the lives of hundreds or thousands or millions of people. It’s addictive. It is a passion and it is a lifestyle, but it is a marathon. It’s not a sprint. So understanding how to pace yourself, understand how to give just enough how to care just enough, but not so much that you burn out. Because once you burn out, you’re no longer good to the cause. So if you pace yourself, give yourself that 80 percent so you can do it for the next 20-30 years, then you have the opportunity to really make a big difference, not if you give yourself 160 percent for five years.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:22:00.76] Great advice just in general, like just for life, but particularly with accessibility and inclusion. Chris, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with us here on the Workology Podcast. Where can people go to learn more about you and the work that you’re doing at Google?

Christopher Patnoe: [00:22:19.57] I’m pretty active on LinkedIn, and I welcome anyone to connect with me there. I’m not a speaker for Google, though I will certainly comment on things that we do. I just, I try to share posts and thoughts that I think are relevant to inclusion and accessibility. That’s probably where I’m most active. I’m also on Twitter, but less so I find LinkedIn, the conversation on LinkedIn a little more rewarding than those on Twitter.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:22:45.31] Awesome. Well, we will link to your LinkedIn as well as your Twitter. So if people want to connect with you and tweets and chat and be a part of the conversation and get access to the valuable resources and information that you’re sharing, so thank you again for taking the time to chat with us today.

Christopher Patnoe: [00:23:01.93] My pleasure. Thank you so much for the chance to talk.

Closing: [00:23:04.12] I love hearing from people like Christopher about technology and how different types of tech and tools and resources that we have at our disposal can help people with disabilities in their everyday life as well as their work. I appreciate Christopher so much for sharing his experience with us today on the Workology Podcast. It is so exciting to hear about how technology can make our workplaces more inclusive, and especially about how important it is that people with disabilities be involved in the development of the technologies that we use in our businesses. Thank you to PEAT, as well as our podcast sponsor, Upskill HR and Ace the HR Exam.

Closing: [00:23:49.66] This podcast is for the disruptive workplace leader who’s tired of the status quo. My name is Jessica Miller-Merrell, and until next time you can visit Workology.com to listen to all our Workology Podcast episodes.

Closing: [00:24:02.50] Personal and professional development is essential for successful HR leaders. Join Upskill HR to access live training, community, and over one hundred on-demand courses for the dynamic leader. HR recert credits available. Visit UpskillHR.com for more.

Connect with Christopher Patnoe.



– Christopher Patnoe on LinkedIn

– Christopher on Twitter

– Accessibility at Google

– Google Launches Program To Hire More People With Autism

– XRaccess.org 

– Episode 321: Commitment to Full Inclusion with Susan Mazrui, Director of Global Public Policy at AT&T

– Episode 325: Community Building and DEI With Melissa Marshall, VP People & Organization, Banfield Pet Hospital

– Episode 328: Featuring Chad Chaffee, Apprentice in Cybersecurity with Apprenti

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