The Pipeline: The YouTuber Making Videos More Accessible

Going to the movies is billed as an experience everyone should be able to enjoy, whether they're getting tickets to a sappy rom-com, the latest Pixar tearjerker, yet another big-budget Avengers movie without a plot, or a sweet indie like Ladybird. But when Liat Kaver was growing up in San José — Costa Rica’s largest city and capital — this wasn’t always the case.
Kaver, who was diagnosed with profound hearing loss when she was a year old, often found herself restricted to seeing English-language blockbusters in theaters, which she could count on for closed captioning. Meanwhile, any film in Spanish, her native language, would not include the narrative tool. This left her to guess at the plot unfolding onscreen, which defeated the point of going to the movies in the first place.
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The predicament stuck in Kaver’s mind, and helped inform her decision to pursue her current role as a product manager at YouTube. In her position, Kaver spearheads the company’s efforts to expand automatic captioning, increasing video accessibility on a global scale. She sees the tool as a way to give everyone a voice that can be heard:
“I envision a future where everything will be automatically captioned and at high quality,” Kaver says. “That way, someone like me won’t have to be dependent on content owners and creators to provide captions on videos.”
This is an ambitious undertaking — especially when you consider over 400 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube every minute — but one Kaver is poised to tackle head-on: She's used to creating an action plan and seeing it through from start to finish. Instead of letting the obstacles she's faced in school and her career sideline her success, she’s used them as fuel to move forward and enact change, fighting stigmas surrounding disability in the process. Her perspective is an important one in the tech industry, because, as she’s acknowledged, tech that is not built with accessibility in mind does a disservice to a large portion of the population, including those who are are blind or have limited motor skills, as well as others who are deaf or hard of hearing.
Although Kaver says she faced some tricky social challenges while growing up, she attributes her successes during high school (including being class president) to her own determination, a close group of friends, and her parents. Kaver says her mom and dad offered limitless encouragement, telling her she was able to do anything in life, so long as she worked hard enough to achieve it. It was an ethos she took to heart.
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“That’s why I always work really hard,” she says. “I always had in my mind that I wanted to try to accomplish things [in my career] so we can start breaking [down] the stereotypes about people with disabilities.”
This messaging proved especially important when Kaver started her bachelor’s degree at the University of Costa Rica. There, she faced an unexpected roadblock: another hearing loss, which left her hearing aid ineffective. Unable to make sense of sound, Kaver became reliant on lip-reading and note-taking assistance from peers, before she decided to undergo surgery for a cochlear implant.
“I became a bionic woman in that moment,” she says with a laugh.
Like other surgical procedures, getting a cochlear implant requires intensive rehabilitation — including multiple follow-up appointments and speech therapy — as the brain learns how to hear again. But Kaver, who wanted to graduate with her peers, decided to fast track her recovery: She returned to school immediately, and learned to hear again in less than six months. In retrospect, she believes this speedy return, though difficult, helped her progress more quickly: She was exposed to many sounds at once, instead of being in a quiet environment at home.
When she graduated, she headed to GBM, an IBM alliance company, where she worked as a business analyst and helped the company transition from its focus on hardware to an orientation in software. She was passionate about the tech management side of computer science, which was a perfect fit for her innate leadership skills.
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Although she had heard about the obstacles facing women in tech, it never crossed her mind that shouldn't pursue a career in the industry: "My parents always challenged me to do the things people say women are not supposed to do."
After four years at GBM, Kaver embarked on another adventure in her career in 2013, when she came to the U.S. as an MBA student at MIT Sloan. There, she found herself tested once again. Even though she had learned English during high school, understanding in classes proved frustratingly difficult. For the first time in her academic career, Kaver needed to get an accommodation known as CART, a service that arranged for someone to accompany her to classes to provide real-time translation.
“It was the first time that I really felt powerless, in the sense that I couldn’t do anything,” she says. “I really needed this accommodation.”
Kaver found it difficult to accept the help, but was determined to find a way to improve the situation. Initially, MIT only offered CART as an in-person service, which required a huge amount of work on the user’s end to schedule sessions. In search of more flexibility, Kaver worked with MIT Student Disability Services and Sloan Technology Services to pioneer a remote version of CART, which let translators dial into classes from afar. The process was less time intensive, and made it easier to attend classes, something that improved her own experience but also paved the way for future students.
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As her MBA graduation neared, Kaver knew she wanted to pursue work at Google. The company's global reach and gargantuan size was one she believed would enable her to have a larger impact on accessibility efforts. She made this goal a reality, joining the Cloud team as a product manager in 2015. Once there, she began networking with others who were working on accessibility at Google’s Mountain View headquarters. After just four months, she learned about an opening on YouTube’s video infrastructure team and transitioned to her current role as a product manager on the video platform’s caption experience. There, she’s able to bring viewers the kind of experience she always wanted as a young girl.
Last year, Kaver and her team achieved a challenging feat: automatic captioning for one billion videos. In a blog post she wrote announcing the news, she referenced her early years attending movies in Costa Rica, and called YouTube’s advancement "my dream." More recently, Kaver’s team unveiled live automatic captions, a technical accomplishment that lets creators easily caption live streams.
“Getting those captions to be accurate and in real-time during a live stream is even more difficult, especially as we want to minimize audio to text delay and make sure we don’t lose out on transcription quality,” she says of the challenge.
YouTube isn't the only platform putting a focus on accessibility. Efforts by other tech companies have multiplied in the past year: Microsoft earned widespread acclaim for introducing an adaptive controller for Xbox, and Airbnb announced new “accessibility filters” that make it easier for vacationers to find accommodations that work for them.
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The importance of creating, improving on, and expanding these kinds of tools is not lost on Kaver. For her, the future is defined less by her pursuit of one specific career, and more by one overarching goal: To continue “working on products that make an impact," especially in the accessibility space.
Kaver’s Advice for Anyone Unsure of Stigmas They May Face In The Workplace:
Surround yourself with smart and positive people.
"Be an ally and empower people to be inclusive. Don’t let haters or ignorants define your path or diminish your achievements."
Don’t wait for people to advocate for you; become your best advocate.
"If you need something (i.e. accommodations for your disability, better work life balance), be upfront about the need and don’t be afraid to ask for it. Some people worry that requesting accommodations when interviewing, it would diminish the chances of getting the job. However, if that’s the case, then the company is not a good fit."
Share your own experiences to raise awareness of the importance of building accessible solutions.
"Be empathetic and open, so you motivate others to ask questions and learn about the potential opportunities."
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