Jalon Hall thought she was being scammed when a recruiter reached out on LinkedIn about a job moderating YouTube videos in 2020. Months after earning a master’s degree in criminal justice, her only job had been at a law firm investigating discrimination cases. But the offer was real, and Hall, who is Black and Deaf, sailed through the interviews.

She would be part of a new in-house moderation team of about 100 people called Wolverine, trudging daily through freezing weather to offices in suburban Detroit during the early pandemic. When she accepted the job, the recruiter said via email that a sign language interpreter would be provided “and can be fully accommodated :)” That assurance unraveled within days of joining Google—and her experience at the company has proven difficult in the years since.

Hall now works on responsible use of AI at Google and by all available accounts is the company’s first and only Black, Deaf employee. The company has feted her at events and online as representative of a workplace welcoming to all. Google’s LinkedIn account praised her last year for “helping expand opportunities for Black Deaf professionals!” while on Instagram the company thanked her “for making #LifeAtGoogle more inclusive!” Yet behind the rosy marketing, Hall accuses Google of subjecting her to both racism and audism, prejudice against the deaf or hard of hearing. She says the company denied her access to a sign language interpreter and slow-walked upgrades to essential tools.

After filing three HR complaints that she says yielded little change, Hall sued Google in December, alleging discrimination based on her race and disability. The company responded this week, arguing that the case should be thrown out on procedural grounds, including bringing the claims too late, but didn’t deny Hall’s accusations. “Google is using me to make them look inclusive for the Deaf community and the overall Disability community,” she says. “In reality, they need to do better.”

Hall, who is in her thirties, has stayed at Google in hopes of spurring improvements for others. She chose to talk with WIRED despite fearing for her safety and job prospects because she feels the company has ignored her. “I was born to push through hard times,” she says. “It would be selfish to quit Google. I’m standing in the gap for those often pushed aside.” Hall’s experiences, which have not been previously reported, are corroborated by over two dozen internal documents seen by WIRED as well as interviews with four colleagues she confided in and worked alongside.

Employees who are Black or disabled are in tiny minorities at Google, a company of nearly 183,000 people that has long been criticized for an internal culture that heavily favors people who fit tech industry norms. Google’s Deaf and hard-of-hearing employee group has 40 members. And Black women, who make up only about 2.4 percent of Google’s US workforce, leave the company at a disproportionately higher rate than women of other races, company data showed last year.

Several former Black women employees, including AI researcher Timnit Gebru and recruiter April Christina Curley, have publicly alleged they were sidelined by an internal culture that disrespected them. Curley is leading a proposed class action lawsuit accusing Google of systemic bias but has lost initial court battles.

Google spokesperson Emily Hawkins didn’t directly address Hall’s allegations when asked about them by WIRED. “We are committed to building an inclusive workplace and offer a range of accommodations to support the success of our employees, including sign language interpreters and captioning,” Hawkins says.

Figuring out how to accommodate people like Hall could be good business for Google. One in every 10 people by 2050 will have disabling hearing loss, according to the World Health Organization.

Mark Takano, who represents a slice of Southern California in the US House and cochairs the Congressional Deaf Caucus, says that Google has an obligation to lead the way in demonstrating that its technology and employment practices are accommodating. “When Deaf and hard-of-hearing employees are excluded because of the inability to provide an accessible workplace, there is a great pool of talent that is left untapped—and we all lose out,” he says.

Hall was born with profound bilateral sensorineural hearing loss, meaning that even with hearing aids her brain cannot process sounds well. Two separate audiologists in memos to Google said Hall needs an American Sign Language interpreter full-time. She also signs pre- and post-segregation Black ASL, which uses more two-handed signs and incorporates some African American vernacular.

During her childhood in Louisiana, Hall’s parents pushed her into speech therapy and conventional schools, where she found that some people doubted she was Deaf because she can speak. She later attended a high school for Deaf students where she became homecoming and prom queen, and realized how much more she could achieve when provided appropriate support.

Hall expected to find a similar environment at Google when she moved to Farmington Hills, Michigan, to become a content moderator. The company contracts ASL interpreters from a vendor called Deaf Services of Palo Alto, or DSPA. But though Hall had been assigned to enforce YouTube’s child safety rules, managers wouldn’t let her interpreters help her review that content. Google worried about exposing contractors to graphic imagery and cited confidentiality concerns, despite the fact interpreters in the US follow a code of conduct that includes confidentiality standards.

Got a Tip?

Managers transferred Hall into training to screen for videos spreading misinformation about Covid and elections. She developed a workflow that saw her default to using lipreading and automated transcriptions to review videos and turn to her interpreter if she needed further help. The transcriptions on videos used in training were high quality, so she had little trouble.

Her system fell apart late in January 2021, about 20 minutes into one of her first days screening new content. The latest video in her queue was difficult to make sense of using lipreading, and the AI transcriptions in the software YouTube built for moderators were poor quality or even absent for recently uploaded content. She turned to her interpreter’s desk a few feet away—but to her surprise it was empty. “I was going to say, ‘Do you mind coming listening to this?’” she recalls.

Hall rose to ask a manager about the interpreter’s whereabouts. He told her that he and fellow managers had decided that she could no longer have an interpreter in the room because it threatened the confidentiality of the team’s work. She could now talk with her interpreter only during breaks or briefly bring them in to clarify policies with managers. She was told to skip any videos she couldn’t judge through sight alone.

Feeling wronged and confused by the new restrictions, Hall slumped back into her chair. US law requires companies to provide reasonable accommodations to a disabled worker unless it would cause the employer significant difficulty or expense. “This was not a reasonable accommodation,” she says. “I was thinking, What did I get myself into? Do they not believe I’m Deaf? I need my interpreter all day. Why are you robbing me of the chance of doing my job?”

Without her interpreter, Hall struggled. She rarely met the quota of 75 videos each moderator was expected to review over an eight-hour day. She often had to watch through a video in its entirety, sometimes more than an hour, before concluding she could not assess it. “I felt humiliated, realizing that I would not grow in my career,” she says.

Throughout that February, Hall spoke to managers across YouTube about the need for better transcriptions in the moderation software. They told her it would take weeks or more to improve them, possibly even years. She asked for a transfer to child safety, since she had heard from a colleague that visuals alone could be used to decide many of those videos. An HR complaint filed that spring led nowhere.

Black and disabled colleagues eventually helped secure Hall a transfer into Google’s Responsible AI and Human-Centered Technology division in July 2021. It is run by vice president Marian Croak, Google’s most distinguished Black female technical leader. Hall says Croak supported her and described what she’d been through as unacceptable. But even in the new role, Hall’s interpreter was restricted to non-confidential conversations.

Hall says the discrimination against her has continued under her new manager, who is also Black, leading to her exclusion from projects and meetings. Even when she’s present some coworkers don’t make much effort to include her. “My point of view is often not heard,” Hall says. In 2021, she joined two gatherings of Google’s Equitable AI Research Roundtable, an advisory body, but then wasn’t invited again. “I feel hidden and pushed aside,” she says.

Hall filed an internal complaint against her manager in March 2022, and an HR staffer has joined their one-on-one meetings since October of that year. One of the interpreters who has assisted Hall says the friction Deaf workers encounter is sadly unsurprising. “People truly don’t take the time to learn about their peers,” the interpreter says.

The allegations are notable in part because a civil rights audit Google commissioned found last March that it needs to do more to train managers. “One of the largest areas of opportunity is improving managers’ ability to lead a diverse workforce,” attorneys for WilmerHale wrote. Hawkins, the Google spokesperson, says all employees have access to inclusion training.

Hall says when she has access to an interpreter, they are rotated throughout the week, forcing her to repeatedly explain some technical concepts. “Google is going the cheap route,” Hall claims, saying her interpreters in university were more literate in tech jargon.

Kathy Kaufman, director of coordinating services at DSPA, says it pays above market rates, dedicates a small pool to each company so the vocabulary becomes familiar, hires tech specialists, and trains those who are not. Kaufman also declined to confirm that Google is a client or comment on its policies.

Google’s Hawkins says that the company is trying to make improvements. Google’s accommodations team is currently seeking employees to join a new working group to smooth over policies and procedures related to disabilities.

Beside Hall’s concerns, Deaf workers over the past two years have complained about Google’s plans—shelved, for now—to switch away from DSPA without providing assurances that a new interpreter provider would be better, according to a former Google employee, speaking on the condition of anonymity to protect their job prospects. Blind employees have had the human guides they rely on excluded from internal systems due to confidentiality concerns in recent years, and they have long complained that key internal tools, like a widely used assignment tracker, are incompatible with screen readers, according to a second former employee.

Advocates for disabled workers try to hold out hope but are discouraged. “The premise that everyone deserves a shot at every role rests on the company doing whatever it takes to provide accommodations,” says Stephanie Parker, a former senior strategist at YouTube who helped Hall navigate the Google bureaucracy. “From my experience with Google, there is a pretty glaring lack of commitment to accessibility.”

Hall has been left to watch as colleagues hired alongside her as content moderators got promoted. More than three years after joining Google, she remains a level 2 employee on its internal ranking, defined as someone who receives significant oversight from a manager, making her ineligible for Google peer support and retention programs. Internal data shows that most L2 employees reach L3 within three years.

Last August, Hall started her own community, the Black Googler Network Deaf Alliance, teaching its members sign language and sharing videos and articles about the Black Deaf community. “This is still a hearing world, and the Deaf and hearing have to come together,” she says.

On the responsible AI team, Hall has been compiling research that would help people at Google working on AI services such as virtual assistants understand how to make them accessible to the Black Deaf community. She personally recruited 20 Black Deaf users to discuss their views on the future of technology for about 90 minutes in exchange for up to $100 each; Google, which reported nearly $74 billion in profit last year, would only pay for 13. The project was further derailed by an unexpected flaw in Google Meet, the company’s video chat service.

Hall’s first interview was with someone who is Deaf and Blind. The 90-minute call, which included two interpreters to help her and the subject converse, went well. But when Hall pulled up the recording to begin putting together her report, it was almost entirely blank. Only when Hall’s interpreter spoke did the video include any visuals. The signing between everyone on the call was missing, preventing her from fully transcribing the interview. It turned out that Google Meet doesn’t record video of people who aren’t vocalizing, even when their microphones are unmuted.

“My heart dropped,” Hall told WIRED using the video chat app Sivo, which allows all participants to see each other while a hearing person and sign language interpreter speak by phone. Hall spent the evening trying to soothe her devastation, meditating, praying, and playing with her dog, which she has trained in ASL commands.

Hall filed a support ticket and spoke to a top engineer for Google Meet who said fixing the issue wasn’t a priority. WIRED later found evidence that users had publicly reported similar issues for years. Microsoft Teams generally will record signing, but Hall wasn’t permitted to use it. She ended up hacking together a workflow for documenting her interviews by laboriously editing together Meet recordings and screen-captured video using tools that she paid $46 a month for out of her own pocket.

Company spokesperson Hawkins did not dispute Meet’s limitations but claims support for the Deaf community is a priority at Google, where work underway includes developing computer vision software to translate sign language.

Google leaders have often paid lip service to the importance of including people with diverse experiences in research and development, but Hall has found the reality lacking. Despite her understanding of the Black Deaf community and research into its needs, she says she is yet to be invited to support the sign translation work. In her experience, Google’s conception of diversity can be narrow. “In the AI department, a lot of conversations are around race and gender,” Hall says. “No one emphasizes disability.”

Her research showed Black, Deaf users are concerned about the potential for AI systems to misinterpret signs, generate poor captions, take jobs from interpreters, and disadvantage individuals who opt for manual interpretation. It underscored that companies need to consider whether new tools would make someone who is unable to hear feel closer or further from the people with whom they are communicating.

Hall presented her findings internally last December over a Google Meet call. Twenty-four colleagues joined, including a research director. Hall had been encouraged, including by Croak, to invite a much larger audience from across the company but ultimately stuck with the short list insisted upon by her manager. She didn’t even bother trying to record it.