accessibility

LEADING THE CHANGE

LEADING THE CHANGE

How Jason Barnes and others are leading the way to a more accessible world made with – not just for – the disabled community.

6-minute read

Jason Barnes has loved playing drums since he was a little boy. This didn’t change when he lost his arm in an electrical accident at the age of 22. Nearly 10 years later, Jason’s passion for music has led to the creation of one of the most advanced prosthetic limbs in the world. Today, he is one of millions of people with disabilities who are doing what they love.

Technology that’s designed in partnership with the disabled community is ultimately more useful for everyone. More and more, people in the disabled community are the co-creators of the tools that are helping them and others pursue their goals and live the lives they want.

Opening the door for invention

Jason Barnes started drumming before he could talk. 'I remember when he was two years old,' says his mother, Maggie. 'Whenever we put music on, he’d start banging on his high chair or the dinner table or whatever he could get his hands on.' In 2012, when he was 22, Jason’s right hand was amputated after an electrical accident. This event began a new chapter in his life.

Since 2013, Jason has been working with Gil Weinberg, a renowned roboticist and founding director of the Georgia Tech Center for Music Technology, to develop the world’s most advanced robotic drumming arm. Their latest design uses Google’s open source machine learning platform, TensorFlow.

Jason’s arm operates using EMG, or electromyography, which means that sensors in the prosthesis pick up electrical signals from the residual limb. When Jason activates muscles to flex or extend his arm, the prosthesis reacts accordingly.

Jason Barnes in a classroom looking at a laptop. Georgia Tech engineers stand on either side of him.

Jason and the team at Georgia Tech doing gesture recognition and training.

Jason Barnes playing drums against a black backdrop.

Jason can play intuitively with his prosthesis because it allows him to feel the feedback from the drumsticks, just like his own arm would.

A close-up of Jason’s prosthetic arm as he plays the drums.

Jason testing a prototype of the prosthesis.

A studio shot of Jason and his partner against a red backdrop. Jason’s arm is around her shoulder. They are both wearing black.

Jason and his longtime partner, Amanda Dearborn.

Portrait of Sarah Sirajuddin. She has long black hair and is smiling at the camera.

'Making technology free and accessible to all allows for greater and faster innovation.'

Sarah Sirajuddin, engineering lead for Google’s TensorFlow team

Machine learning can perform tasks that traditionally required human intelligence, such as visual perception, speech recognition, decision-making and translation. 'Our ultimate goal is to design it so that anyone could use it as easily as they might use Gmail,” says Sarah Sirajuddin, engineering lead for Google’s TensorFlow team. 'The more accessible the technology is, the more we empower people to build their own solutions.'

Rather than completing a design and sending it to Jason to test after the fact, Gil worked with him in the lab to iterate on versions of the arm as they were being built. For Jason, this was a new experience.

5:21

See how TensorFlow is helping blind athletes run independently.

'I felt lucky to be a part of this process. In the past, there has always been a learning curve with me having to adjust to a new device. But this way, it was the device that was adjusted to me.'

Jason Barnes

Watch Jason’s story

6:31

Working together to build better

'If you’ve never used assistive technology to help, how would you know how to design a product that would make best use of those assistive technologies? The answer is you wouldn’t.'

Vint Cerf, VP and Chief Internet Evangelist at Google

Collaboration with the disabled community is a fundamental part of the design process at Google – whether it’s collaborating on a new piece of technology to fill a specific need or iterating to improve a core tool.

Since 2018, nearly 1,000 participants have recorded over 1,000 hours of speech samples as part of Project Euphonia. The project was created to help people with speech impairments be better understood by voice-activated tools like Google Assistant. Currently, many speech recognition models are not trained on the voices of people with speech impairments, because there isn’t enough data available. To solve this, the team has collaborated with partners, like the ALS TDI (ALS Therapy Development Institute), to gather the data needed to make speech recognition more accessible. For participants, the project offers an opportunity to help shape the future of speech recognition, not just for themselves but also for the millions of people who have speech disorders globally.

ALS technologist Steve Saling working with the Project Euphonia team. Find out how you can record your voice to help.

In 2017, Google enlisted the support of millions of contributors worldwide known as Local Guides, to Crowdsource accessibility information for Google Maps. Today, information on wheelchair accessibility is available on over 15 million places in Maps. You can see it by clicking on the two-line description of a location on Maps and scrolling to 'Accessibility Information'. Thanks to a growing network of Local Guides, business owners and other contributors around the world, more information is being added every day to help people go where they need to go with confidence.

In 2017, Google enlisted the support of millions of contributors worldwide known as Local Guides, to Crowdsource accessibility information for Google Maps. Today, information on wheelchair accessibility is available on over 15 million places in Maps. You can see it by clicking on the two-line description of a location on Maps and scrolling to 'Accessibility Information'. Thanks to a growing network of Local Guides, business owners and other contributors around the world, more information is being added every day to help people go where they need to go with confidence.

'Access to information gives the possibility of independence and freedom. Why not give that same opportunity to people with disabilities?'

Luis Durán, Local Guide, Santo Domingo, DO
3:44

Find out how you can contribute to make Google Maps more helpful for everyone.

'Access to information gives the possibility of independence and freedom. Why not give that same opportunity to people with disabilities?'

Luis Durán, Local Guide, Santo Domingo, DO

Paying it forward – the butterfly effect

'Everyone will experience disability at some point in their lifetime. It’s important we not only learn from lived experiences but show how we can come together and support each other.'

KR Liu, Head of Brand Accessibility at Google

Today, about 1 billion people, or 15% of the world’s population, experience some form of disability, some visible, some not.1 The more people come together to support accessibility in technology and in the physical world, the closer we’ll all get to a more equitable future.

Jillian Mercado and Brent Lewis are the founder and co-founder of Diversify Photo and Black Disabled Creatives, respectively. Using Google Sheets and Docs, they have created public databases of the artists and innovators often left out from the creative world because of their race and/or their disabilities. In the summer of 2020, these resources helped to connect artists with clients who were looking to hire. Says Lewis, 'We were there to allow folks to meet photographers they haven’t met before and find stories they haven’t found before, and honestly, tear down the walls and the barriers that have kept so many photographers of colour, Black photographers especially, out of the conversation.'

Other change-makers can be inspired by a relationship with a friend or a loved one. Tony Lee has worked at Google for four years as a visual designer. He also grew up with parents who are deaf, watching TV and movies with captions. 'It’s easy to overlook how much information is communicated through audio,' he says. 'If you’re relying only on captions that aren’t well-written or even there at all, you can miss out on so much.' As a side project, Tony created a set of guidelines to make accurate and expressive captions for any film or video at Google. Today, Tony is advocating for better captions across all Google films and is working to make his guidelines accessible externally as well.

Accessibility is just one dimension to consider when building tools that are helpful for everyone. Annie Jean-Baptiste, Head of Product Inclusion at Google, works to make sure that product teams are bringing voices that have historically been at the margins of product design into the centre at every step in the process. 'Ultimately, it’s people who change the world,' she says, 'wherever they’re from, whatever they look like or whatever dimensions make them who they are. Whether they are athletes, mothers, teachers or musicians, technology is a tool that can help people do what they love.'

Jillian Mercado and Brent Lewis are the founder and co-founder of Diversify Photo and Black Disabled Creatives, respectively. Using Google Sheets and Docs, they have created public databases of the artists and innovators often left out from the creative world because of their race and/or their disabilities. In the summer of 2020, these resources helped to connect artists with clients who were looking to hire. Says Lewis, 'We were there to allow folks to meet photographers they haven’t met before and find stories they haven’t found before, and honestly, tear down the walls and the barriers that have kept so many photographers of colour, Black photographers especially, out of the conversation.'

Other change-makers can be inspired by a relationship with a friend or a loved one. Tony Lee has worked at Google for four years as a visual designer. He also grew up with parents who are deaf, watching TV and movies with captions. 'It’s easy to overlook how much information is communicated through audio,' he says. 'If you’re relying only on captions that aren’t well-written or even there at all, you can miss out on so much.' As a side project, Tony created a set of guidelines to make accurate and expressive captions for any film or video at Google. Today, Tony is advocating for better captions across all Google films and is working to make his guidelines accessible externally as well.

Accessibility is just one dimension to consider when building tools that are helpful for everyone. Annie Jean-Baptiste, Head of Product Inclusion at Google, works to make sure that product teams are bringing voices that have historically been at the margins of product design into the centre at every step in the process. 'Ultimately, it’s people who change the world,' she says, 'wherever they’re from, whatever they look like or whatever dimensions make them who they are. Whether they are athletes, mothers, teachers or musicians, technology is a tool that can help people do what they love.'

Side-by-side portraits of Jillian Mercado and Brent Lewis. Jillian is in her wheelchair with a wall of green plants behind her and Brent is in a red hoodie sweatshirt.

Read the conversation between Jillian Mercado, Brent Lewis and filmmaker Crystal Emery, about how creative industries can work to include often overlooked talent.

1:31

Watch the film about how Tony Lee and his parents have communicated over the years.

A portrait of a smiling Annie Jean-Baptiste in a red dress.

'Ultimately, it’s people who change the world. Technology is a tool that can help people do what they love.'

Annie Jean-Baptiste, Head of Product Inclusion at Google

Jason playing an original song with the Marching to Harmony drumline of Atlanta

For Jason Barnes, technology has helped him live out his childhood dreams of becoming a working musician. And the prosthetic arm he helped to build may someday help others to live theirs.

'Jason has taken what was a large setback in his life and has moved an entire field of research forward.'

Sarah Sirajuddin, engineering lead at Google
A behind the scenes photo of Justin Kaneps taking a portrait of Jason Barnes. Jason poses against a black backdrop.

Justin Kaneps is a photographer based in New York City. 'Living with a disability myself, I can empathise with Jason’s story and relate to the way one must adapt to a world built for those without these differences I admire Jason’s tenacity, and I’m honoured to help tell his story.'

What you can do to help

Your action matters. Here are some things that you can do to help build a more accessible world.

What Google is doing

Find out about Google’s commitment to hiring and supporting employees with disabilities.

1World Health Organization, World Report on Disability, 2011

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