In a post published late last month on Google’s Workspace blog, content lead Dominic Smith shared the story of David Cohn. Cohn, who is profoundly deaf, is founder and co-chief executive of marketing and communications agency Civic Entertainment. Smith described Cohn as being “excited about helping brands build and activate critical accessibility strategies, including those involving new uses of technology.” Smith cited Cohn’s involvement in orchestrating press coverage—including from yours truly back in late 2020—for Google’s partnership with Guiding Eyes for the Blind to develop AI-based technology that enables runners who are blind to navigate streets without assistance from a sighted guide, whether canine or human.
I also interviewed Cohn for the column a little over two years ago.
“[If] you ask David about the use of technology that has most impacted his own personal life, he’ll tell you that it’s the humble-but-powerful caption in a Google Meet video call. Over the years, he’s met, pitched to, and connected with hundreds of company executives without once hearing their voices,” Smith said of how captions equal connectedness for Cohn. “Deaf since infancy due to spinal meningitis, David moves through the world entirely without sound. Real-time captions in Meet allow him to understand everything that’s said in a meeting, regardless of whether people are sitting at the same conference table (using companion mode) or tucked into a video tile from across the globe.”
Smith goes on to tell the story of how Google Meet first gained captioning support in 2019, adding the functionality is “continuously updating” with the latest advancements in artificial intelligence and machine learning technologies. In addition, audio fidelity and background noise reduction have both been markedly improved as time has gone on. For his part, Cohn never learned ASL, instead relying upon lip-reading and visual cues in order to communicate with others. He told Smith he sometimes think about “how incredibly useful this sort of technology would have been in college,” saying would have made lectures, homework, and studying a more accessible experience.
According to Smith, Google “continues to invest in the power of captions with users like David in mind” by way of features such as Live Transcribe for Android and Recorder for Pixel phones. Cohn said he’s grateful for how technology has empowered him to access the world like anyone else. “Because my disability is invisible, people don’t know what I’m experiencing,” he said of the imperative for assistive technologies. “Deaf people tend to be resourceful, but surviving the pandemic would have been much more difficult if it had happened a decade ago. Technology made it exponentially easier to operate, personally and professionally.”
A video about how “captions builds bridges,” featuring cameos by Googlers KR Liu and Laura D’Aquila, is available on YouTube.
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