How a Deaf Guy from Google Changed Dreamforce (and Doesn't Even Know It)

Empathy noun em·pa·thy \ˈem-pə-thē\: the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner; also : the capacity for this.

by Josh Klipp, Ava Consultant and Accessibility Specialist

Two years ago I attended my first Tech Inclusion Accessibility Summit. At the time, I was Salesforce’s Reasonable Accommodations Program Manager. I realized that, as the only person dedicated to anything disability-related at Salesforce, I needed to learn more as quickly as possible. The first presenter at the Summit was Sam Sepah, a Global Staffing Program Manager at Google. I didn’t know much about Sam, but looked forward to his perspective on accessibility at Google.

Sam Sepah, Global HR Program Manager, Google (2016)

Sam was introduced, took the stage, and began addressing the crowd using American Sign Language — and much of the crowd seemed to understand. I didn’t hear or understand anything though — I don’t know ASL — and for about 30 seconds I panicked that I was going to miss Sam’s presentation. But finally the interpreter and captioning kicked in, and I relaxed into my chair took in what Sam had to say.

I learned a lot at the Summit that day, but what stuck with me the most were the first 30 seconds of Sam’s presentation. All I’d missed were the few moments it took the interpreter to start talking. How then must it feel for people who are deaf or hard of hearing to move throughout the world constantly missing information because others fail to communicate in ways that are available to everyone?

It was a profound moment of humility, learning and, most importantly — empathy — that in turn motivated me to make big changes at Salesforce. I pushed for an integrated accessibility strategy in Salesforce’s built and virtual environments; I engaged a vendor to provide captioning and ASL services for all employees in North America; I implemented an accessibility initiative at Dreamforce, Salesforce’s annual conference and the biggest tech conference in the world. That Dreamforce initiative included training for 2,000 ambassadors and docents, assembling a team of employee volunteers trained to assist guests and customers with accessibility needs, advising logistics vendors on ensuring accessibility in the temporary built environment. And one of the biggest pieces of the Dreamforce accessibility initiative was to implement Ava.

I met the founders of Ava at that Accessibility Summit. In a nutshell, Ava is an app that provides phone to phone real-time captioning. I saw the potential for Ava to make a huge impact on Dreamforce as a way to provide real-time captioning in the over 3,000 break out sessions and keynotes. I didn’t see it as a replacement for tailored solutions, but it would give participants freedom to enter any space in the conference and know they’d have at least one way to access the information being presented.

The three founders of Ava: Skinner, Pieter and Thiebo

Ava and I partnered up — they even modified their technology for a conference setting. Together, Ava and I set up nearly 100 devices and kept them running across 6 different conference center venues and hotels for 4 days, with decent success, and gave people who are deaf or hard of hearing the opportunity to — finally — get the same information at Dreamforce as everyone else. We didn’t change the world, but we changed a few people’s experience and made them feel seen and included.

I’ve moved on from Salesforce, but I’ve kept in touch with the people at Ava. I’m compelled by their undaunted commitment to the nearly 15% of adults around the world who experience some sort of hearing loss. Ava’s founders include people who are deaf and/or were raised by deaf parents. Ava’s founders understand that, with this one small bit of technology, they can help millions of people feel more included and participate in what the rest of the world simply takes for granted. It’s a beautiful mission, but it requires the empathy of more people to fulfill: people inside companies, people who create events, people who walk around the world aware of others’ struggles and ask themselves what they can do to make it better.

The key is empathy.

“Humans aren’t as good as we should be in our capacity to empathize with feelings and thoughts of others, be they humans or other animals on Earth. So maybe part of our formal education should be training in empathy. Imagine how different the world would be if, in fact, that were ‘reading, writing, arithmetic, empathy.’ — Neil DeGrasse Tyson