“Curb cuts are what you use when you’re rolling your luggage, stroller, or wheelchair or delivery cart. When you build things to protect and enable the most vulnerable people, it helps even more [people]. Putting wheelchair accessibility on Google Maps – is a curb cut. The concept is also known as ‘universal design’- build in a way that allows for the maximum number of people to benefit.” – Sasha Blair-Goldensohn, Software Engineer, Google Maps
Sasha Blair-Goldensohn, a born and bred New Yorker, had a change of focus on career and mission after an unexpected life event. During his usual morning walk through New York’s Central Park, a dead tree branch snapped and fell on his head, resulting in spinal damage and paralyzing his lower body.
When he returned to work nearly two years later, he soon realized there were barriers all around New York City – barriers that had been there throughout his time in New York but that he had never noticed. Sasha teamed up with fellow Googlers to use their ’20 percent’ time (a Google initiative enabling employees to work on a Google-related passion project of their own choosing or creation) to improve Maps for people with mobility-related disabilities, who would benefit knowing the locations of accessible subway stations.
The group held a hack-a-thon, and from that developed a “proof of concept.” When they finally got the green light to move forward, they knew it would not be perfect at the start – but it was better than nothing. They worked with Local Guides, a community of now 120 million people who contribute information in Google Maps. During the campaign, seven million Local Guides answered more than 500 million questions with regards to wheelchair accessibility within businesses.
Google recently announced an “Accessible Places” feature to have wheelchair accessibility information more prominently displayed in Google Maps. With Accessible Places, a wheelchair icon will indicate an accessible entrance, and whether there is accessible seating, restrooms, or parking.
Accessibility is a core value at Google and has been embedded in their mission. With “Disability Alliance,” an employee resource group with disability focused sub-groups across multiple regions, employees with disabilities and allies can support Google’s effort. Initiatives like “Accessibility Week” and “Google Impact Challenge: Disabilities” have inspired a broader group of Google employees to participate in projects, helping to improve the accessibility of their products.
Google is one of the 49 participating companies of Disability:IN’s Inclusion Works program. The program provides participating companies with unlimited, customized, virtual and onsite consulting provided by a team of disability inclusion experts. Through partnership with Disability:IN, Google can further build an inclusive culture, while simultaneously developing a sustainable recruitment strategy.
Google’s commitment to disability inclusion is also being measured. In 2019, Google participated in the Disability Equality Index (DEI), a benchmarking tool for corporate disability inclusion, and earned a top score of 100. Further, in the 2019 Google Annual Report, they published for the first time, data from employees who chose to self-identify as having a disability.
Although their advancements have been great, and has impacted people with disabilities around the globe, Sasha notes: “There’s plenty of more work to do. There’s no doubt about it. We’re still after it. We’re at the barricades and we’re out there and we’re making our voices heard, and it makes all the difference to know you’re not in it alone. To form those groups, and to find those allies – at Google, around New York, around the world. To know that, is indescribable and enormously empowering.”
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