A Look Back – and a Look Ahead – at Accessibility at Microsoft

By Jenny Lay-Flurrie – Chief Accessibility Officer

It’s been a little over a year since Microsoft restructured our approach to accessibility across the company and what a year it’s been! With CSUN kicking off this morning, want to take a moment to highlight the momentum at Microsoft and share some news – including an expanded Microsoft Accessibility website and the launch of KNFB Reader for Windows 10.

First, KNFB Reader.  We are delighted to announce will be available starting today for Windows 10.  So grateful for the partnerships with the National Federation of the Blind and Sensotec as we’ve worked together to make KNFB Reader available on Windows 10. KNFB Reader for Windows 10 allows people who are blind and others with print disabilities to access the content of printed documents simply by photographing the document. KNFB Reader then converts the image to text that can be read aloud in synthesized speech or output to a connected refreshable Braille display using a compatible screen reader. The technology incorporates KNFB Reader’s signature audio and vibration guidance to help the user align the camera and take the perfect image of a document so that processing is fast and accurate. It’s also the perfect desktop PC or laptop application for recognizing image-based PDF files. To learn more about KNFB Reader for Windows 10, please visit knfbreader.com or search for the app in the Microsoft Store, where you can download the app for an introductory limited time price of $19.99.

We’re also excited to be launching today a refreshed and expanded Microsoft Accessibility website with updated product accessibility information and resources about assistive technology providers, public policy and accessibility standards conformance information. Folks have asked me time after time to make sure that this site is the ‘one stop shop’ for everything from product accessibility to our approach to inclusive hiring to blogs and news – well, this is it!  So please, remove bookmarks to the old Microsoft Enable site as that will be decommissioned and replace it with a bookmark to Microsoft Accessibility website at www.microsoft.com/accessibility. And please keep sending us feedback as we continue to evolve this site to meet your needs.

As you can see from the Microsoft Accessibility site –this last year has been truly transformative for accessibility at Microsoft. Customer feedback is at the center of everything Microsoft does, and it shapes how we create accessible products. You are the driving force behind hundreds of ongoing improvements of accessibility features in Windows 10, Office 365, Cloud + Enterprise products, and devices, like Xbox One. Thank you. And keep it coming!

Empowering people and organizations is a journey, but we wanted to highlight some of the progress and a look at what’s coming!

Progress in the last year

Last Global Accessibility Awareness Day, we shared an update about features coming up in Windows 10 and Office 365.

Since that time, Windows 10 Anniversary Update included improvements to the screen reading experience on Narrator, accessibility in Microsoft Edge, Mail and the Start menu, and tools for developers to build accessible apps and experiences. With the Windows 10 Anniversary Update last summer, we added voices to Narrator that provide faster speech to text translation.

Office 365 is quite simply the most accessible version of Office yet. The team has improved the experience in Office PC, Mac, web and mobile applications to make it easier to access and author content from any device, moved the Accessibility Checker to the Review tab to make it easier and simpler to build inclusive content, introduced Learning Tools in OneNote and Word for PCs that are useful for people with dyslexia, and are improving spelling checker in Word 2016 and Outlook 2016 to make recommendations for phonetic and other less commons misspellings. Just yesterday, we announced that Learning Tools is now in both Word Online and OneNote Online, bringing this technology to Word is a big deal!

The scale of these product improvements is significant, and one of the questions we’ve been regularly getting is, ‘How did you make that happen?’ One of the processes we put in place was a new accessibility testing program which we built in partnership with the Department of Homeland Security’s Trusted Tester program. With this effort, we have rolled out a systematic engineering process to test Microsoft products for accessibility standards conformance resulting in updates to over 100 conformance documents for Office 365 alone. Visit our recent blog on accessibility standards conformance testing for more information. In the next few months, we will begin providing conformance statements for the updated Section 508 rules recently published by the Access Board.  You can view a few samples.

To take advantage of these accessibility improvements, make sure you’re using the latest version of Windows 10 and Office 365.

One of the personal highlights of the year for me was when academy-award winning actress, author and producer Marlee Matlin came to Microsoft. We spent the day focused on both accessible technology and how to foster inclusive cultures. As you can see from the Q&A, Marlee is a phenomenal role model, especially for people with disabilities, and was so engaging and insightful when answering questions. She talked about the importance of focusing on “ability” instead of “disability,” inclusive office culture and how to ignore the “naysayers” in your career.

During Marlee’s visit, we also asked her to test out the new ASL offering for customers contacting the Disability Answer Desk and had a lot of fun in the process! Please watch and share this video. We have ASL agents waiting to take your call!  We loved having you Marlee! Come back and visit us anytime.

I was also recently very humbled to be elected to the US Business Leadership Network (USBLN) as Board Chair. This is a great opportunity to partner with a non-profit organization to build awareness on reducing the unemployment rate for people with disabilities. In the US, the unemployment rate is roughly double for people with disabilities than it is for people without disabilities; on top of that, people with disabilities often have to overcome employer-based misperceptions such as their ability to do the work, or the impact on co-workers. These efforts will aid us in continuing to expand awareness for creating inclusive hiring practices.

Looking ahead – What to expect

So, now for what’s next. Back in December, we provided an update on new enhancements still to come in Windows 10, Narrator and Office 365. For example, braille input and output in the forthcoming Windows 10 Creators Update, which will support braille displays from more than 35 manufacturers, using more than 40 languages and multiple braille variants, including grade 2 contracted braille. Other products that will become more accessible in the Creators Update include the Xbox gaming device, which received a major refresh, opening up new accessibility options to ensure great experiences for all gamers and teams in our Cloud + Enterprise division are actively working on numerous updates. And for Office, Office 365 applications on every platform will continue to evolve each month in 2017 to empower users to consume, create and collaborate on content independently, efficiently and confidently, including the expansion of built-in tools for authoring accessible content and personalizing reading experiences, and support for creating polished content with assistive technologies.

In addition to Windows and Office, there is some great work happening in our Microsoft Cloud + Enterprise services division, some of the highlights:

  • In the coming months, Power BI, which is a suite of business analytics tools to analyze data and share insights through rich dashboards, will focus on improvements to both the visualization of reports and dashboards for both the desktop and online versions. Power BI will provide an improved experience for screen reader and users of magnifiers, as well as complete keyboard and high contrast support. Following that, the team will focus on the authoring experience, providing accessible technology support and significant accessibility improvement to report authors.
  • Dynamics 365 customer engagement is undergoing important updates which build upon feedback from users and improve an accessible user interface across supported surfaces; the new UI will provide support for screen readers, as well as improve contrast and keyboard management and will be available by the end of this year.
  • The upcoming release of Visual Studio will feature some important and highly requested improvements in accessibility focused on the new installer experience: to be keyboard accessible and enable high contrast preferences. The VS Debugger is being revamped to make debugger windows and widgets fully accessible to screen reader and keyboard users. Lastly, the editor window is undergoing improvements, ranging from making all controls accessible to screen reader users to ensuring keyboard access is consistent and thorough. We expect continuous updates to roll out after the launch of Dev15, increasingly supporting accessibility scenarios. Feedback is definitely welcome through the Visual Studio UserVoice forum.

I’m incredibly excited about the momentum, but know we still have so much more to do ensure our products meet the needs of all our customers. Progress simply would not be possible without the incredibly powerful and valuable feedback we receive from you. Please keep sharing your thoughts with Microsoft through the Disability Answer Desk or request new features via UserVoice. We want to hear from you!

For those of you coming to the 32nd annual CSUN Assistive Technology Conference in San Diego this week, we hope to see you. For all of the Microsoft sessions this week, see the list and schedule here and our reception is on Thursday night.  Our accessibility engineers, program managers, and world-class researchers are excited to talk to you.  Look forward to seeing folks there!

Lastly, again, for more information and to stay up to speed about Microsoft accessibility, visit www.microsoft.com/accessibility and check back next week for our wrap of CSUN!