Hitting Refresh on Accessibility

By Jenny Lay-Flurrie, Chief Accessibility Officer

This week, Microsoft’s CEO Satya Nadella released his new book, Hit Refresh. In it he shares the inside story of our quest to rediscover Microsoft’s soul and imagine a better future for everyone. It spans his journey from India to the US, to the culture changes he is driving within the company, to the future of technology.

Satya’s point of view – as a leader and on the value of technology – is not just business-oriented, it’s deeply personal. In the book, he talks about his own journey as a parent of Zain, his 21-year-old son who was born with cerebral palsy and spastic quadriplegia, and is legally blind. In interviews about the book, he also shared that one of his daughters has a learning difference that led his family to an academy that specializes in training the brain to function at a higher level.

It’s clear these experiences have had a deep impact on him and his approach. As he wrote, “Being a husband and a father has taken me on an emotional journey. It has helped me develop a deeper understanding of people of all abilities and of what love and human ingenuity can accomplish.”

I want to share with you how this deep understanding and empathy has, and continues to have, a tremendous impact within Microsoft.

Like Satya, I’ll start with a story.

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella chats with Jenny Lay-Flurrie at the 7th annual Microsoft Ability Summit.

At the end of 2012, before he became CEO, we asked Satya to be the executive sponsor of our Disability Employee Resource Group (ERG). The ERG represents employees across the company with disabilities such as hearing loss, blindness, ADD, mobility and PTSD. Our goal is to enable employees and customers to achieve more, through our employee experience, accessibility features in our products, innovation and awareness of what matters.

Some of these communities have been around and having impact since the late nineties, but we knew it was time to take it up a notch. Satya replied quickly with a ‘yes, absolutely’ and we set up time to meet. I was excited (and horribly nervous) about that first meeting and had done hours of prep work to ensure I was ready. He came in, sat down and asked the simplest of questions – “How does this work?”

With that one question, all my nerves vanished, allowing us to have a very real and deep conversation about the ways technology can empower… and dis-empower people.

Following this first meeting, we had follow-up demos and immersion sessions with members of the ERG, focused on an array of technologies: screen readers, magnifiers and more. Each session was designed to illustrate the opportunity we have ahead of us, and educate on the engineering specifics at play. Satya brought his curiosity, passion, empathy and commitment to our initiative then, and that has continued in his role as CEO. Satya has continued to play an active role in the ERG, frequently speaking at our annual Ability Summit and our accessibility leadership team meets quarterly with Satya’s senior leadership team. His direction, and that of the leadership team, has helped frame our efforts today and consistently reminds people of our goal. We ‘hit refresh’ at the end of 2015 with new leadership and increased resources to focus on our efforts on accessibility (which included my new job!)

He shared in his mail as we closed the year, “Top of mind for me heading into 2016 is how we must make Microsoft products accessible to more than 1 billion people globally.” And he also set three commitments: to be transparent about our goals and progress in making our technologies accessible; to hold ourselves accountable in building accessibility into our products; and to embed accessibility into our inclusive hiring practices.

Since then, we have taken some incredible leaps forward. Our core products, Windows 10 and Office 365 have really embraced the opportunity over the last 2 years and are working tirelessly to empower people to build inclusive content and expand the usability of core accessible features like Narrator. We have a hack culture that continues to grow. In 2014, we held the first ‘Ability Hackathon’ and pinched ourselves when 75 people showed up to hack across 10 projects. This year we had over 150 projects and nearly 850 people hacking on disability focused projects (and loved every minute!) We also shared details of an amazing hack-to-product story, with the launch of Eye Control in Windows 10 which goes live in the Fall Creators Update on October 17.

But it’s not just products – we’ve done so much internally to make Microsoft a great place to work for our employees with disabilities. I love walking around our buildings and seeing braille signage in our kitchens, rumble strips that lead to front doors of buildings and ramps to tree houses. We have work to do, but accessibility is a priority at Microsoft.

People often ask me: How Microsoft has been able to accelerate our accessibility and disability inclusion efforts so quickly? What has been the catalyst? It’s a tough question to answer as, like any culture shift, there is never one singular reason and I spend a lot of my day working, and thanking the many employees, customers and partners that are making the magic happen. Long-term, sustainable culture change is a recipe of many parts.

But Satya’s empathy, vision, desire for innovation and respect for the community – from his own experiences, to our first meeting – to today, has been an incredible catalyst towards a future where technology empowers, and we solve the remaining challenges where it’s dis-empowering.

There is more work to be done on these issues – and urgently. Microsoft is up for the task. Satya writes, “I look forward to more and more products that help people with disabilities—we must embrace inclusive design in all we do.”

Check out Hit Refresh to read more about how these commitments are coming to life in new products and services. Visit www.hitrefreshbook.com to learn more and use #hitrefresh to contribute to the broader conversation. This truly is an exciting time at Microsoft and I can’t wait to share more about the exciting projects we have in the works to continue our work to empower people with disabilities.