By Jenny Lay-Flurrie, Chief Accessibility Officer
United Nations International Day of Persons with Disabilities (UN IDPD) serves as an important reminder that globally there are over a billion people with a disability. This year’s theme, “Transformation towards sustainable and resilient society for all” is especially relevant to our accessibility efforts here at Microsoft. This is a fact reinforced by the World Health Organization in which they shared that only 1 in 10 have access to the assistive technology they need: technology that can empower functioning, well-being and independence. This is a statistic that needs to change.
Disability is something that can affect any of us at any time, and technology has the power to change lives and help transform society on multiple levels. There have been many advances in assistive technology, especially in the last couple of years, and it’s both exciting and humbling to see the progress. There’s a lot more to do (and trust me, we’re on that!) but in the meantime, let’s talk about some of the steps we’re making at Microsoft to make accessibility easier to find, use, and become a master at.
First, we’ve been pouring over your feedback that comes in from the UserVoice forum and the thousands of people that contact our Disability Answer Desk support lines every month. We’ve started producing videos to answer your most common questions. Often, these are simple tasks that folks are just looking for a quick tutorial on or hints on how to get going!
We developed these short videos in partnership with our friends in Customer Service Support (with closed captioning and audio description) to help with tasks like changing font sizes, installing Windows 10 using Narrator, and more tasks. These have just gone live so do check out the new Disability Answer Desk video series and let us know what you think! And if there is something we missed, share what else you want to see in UserVoice!Chitra from the Disability Answer Desk introducing herself.
Second, it’s never been more important to build inclusively. Building inclusively just makes sense. It helps to ensure sustained feature sets and, most importantly, makes accessible features easier to find and use. When the Office team moved the Accessibility Checker (which is now available across the Office 365 suite from a deep dark menu) to be located right next to Spell Check, usage of the feature increased five times!
However, the one thing I heard on my travels is that people are not aware of all the cool stuff included in our products. Here are my top tips.
Windows 10 (Fall Creators Update)
The Windows 10 Fall Creators Update includes several new features: Dictation on the Desktop, which allows a person to speak into their microphone, and their words are converted to text. Color Filters improve usability for people, allowing them to differentiate between colors like red and green. Narrator now uses Microsoft Cognitive Services to automatically generate image descriptions for pictures that lack alternative text; and, it’s possible to use Magnifier with Narrator, so you can zoom in on text and have it read aloud. Read Aloud in Edge reads content from web pages, news, documents, and more (and just hit 1 million users! Whoop!) I can’t finish this section without mentioning Eye Control for Windows 10. Specifically designed to enable people with physical and mobility impairments, like ALS, Eye Control for Windows 10 lets you navigate, interact and use text-to-speech features on Windows 10 with only the movement of your eyes and a compatible eye tracker, like the Tobii 4C. Check these features out, and if you haven’t yet upgraded to Windows 10 and you use assistive technology, please do take advantage of our free upgrade offer to get Windows 10 by the end of the year.
I encourage you to check out the recent six part Inclusion in Action video series to see the real world impact of Office 365 technologies at home, school and work! Every single person featured in these videos either contacted our Disability Answer Desk, spoke to one of us at an event or wrote something that got our attention! We are so grateful to all of them for sharing their stories so we can learn about how they’re using features like Learning Tools, which opens doors to reading and writing for people with learning difficulties like dyslexia. We’ve now expanded Learning Tools to be available in Word, including on the iPad and our browser Edge: it’s right up there on the menu bar. Also, the other best kept secret is the Tell Me feature in Office 365, which lets you enter words and phrases about what you want to do next, and quickly get to features you want to use or actions you want to perform.
Next, I want to talk about the importance of artificial intelligence (AI.) While I was in Sydney last month for the Microsoft Summit, I announced the expanded availability of Seeing AI in Australia, Ireland and the United Kingdom. This free app on iOS uses AI to narrate the world, from text to the gender of a person in the room. It’s an invaluable tool for people with blindness or low vision, and as was recently highlighted in this article, features that may also be valuable for people with autism. I love reading the feedback from this app. One attendee shared, “I cannot tell you how liberating that is when I used to have to rely on other people to tell me where things were. I still wake up each morning with that wow factor.” AI is also empowering technologies like Presentation Translator, a free ‘add in’ for PowerPoint, which lets people digest content across languages. It also allows folks like me with deafness to get instant, highly accurate, real-time captions. However, this is only the tip of the iceberg. These two examples show that AI has hugely exciting ramifications for people with disabilities. At the core, AI is about enhancing human capability – and people with disabilities are clear experts when it comes to human capabilities!
Lastly, let’s talk about Smart Cities. It’s not just the everyday users who need to be able to find cutting edge accessibility features, we need to consider how accessibility features are woven into the fabric of our cities. Microsoft is proud to be a sponsor of the Smart Cities for All initiative (SC4A.) This year, we helped G3ict and World Enabled launch the SC4A toolkit to help cities around the world learn to be more inclusive and use innovative technologies to benefit persons with disabilities and older persons. Since then, we’ve supported the award-winning initiative in Smart City dialogues and events in Quito, New York City, Barcelona, San Francisco, London, Rio de Janeiro, Puebla, and Buenos Aires. All the goodness is wrapped into a toolkit, which is available in eight languages to help cities meet their inclusion goals.
Disability is a Strength
As I’ve said many times, disability is a strength. It’s a strength for each of us with a disability and it’s a strength for Microsoft. Each one of these features and policies has been built with and for people with disabilities, often leveraging the talent in our Disability Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) or hired through our inclusive hiring programs, such as our Autism Hiring Program. However, we cannot change the staggering unemployment rate for people with disabilities on our own, we need to work together across organizations, industries and borders. That is why we recently joined together with other organizations, including SAP, EY, DXC Technology, Ford Motor Company, JPMorgan Chase & Co. and more, to participate in the USBLN Autism @ Work Employer Roundtable, where learning and guidance is shared with other businesses looking to change or adopt inclusive hiring practices at their company.
It’s your questions and calls to Disability Answer Desk that keep us grounded, focused and prioritized in what we tackle next. So please keep the feedback coming. Know that our hope — our goal — is that by building inclusively, by ensuring that these features are just easily to find and use, they will empower more work, home and play. We want to ultimately change the statistics.
Be sure to visit the United Nations International Day of Persons with Disabilities website to learn what you can do to make a difference for people with disabilities around the world.