Today we celebrate the 10th annual Global Accessibility Awareness Day (GAAD). As we at Microsoft reflect on GAAD, it can’t be ignored that this past year has made advancing accessibility initiatives more important than ever.
COVID-19 has had a disproportionate impact on people with disabilities, widening what the World Bank termed the “Disability Divide,” the gap in societal inclusion for people with disabilities. GAAD is a time to push to level the playing field for people with disabilities, including ensuring accessibility initiatives are durable and sustainable. This starts with leadership.
We were encouraged by the White House announcing its first-ever Director of Disability Policy, Kimberly Knackstedt, and more media outlets hiring reporters specifically to cover the topic of disability. At Microsoft, we recently raised the bar on our end, announcing a five-year commitment to help close the “Disability Divide.” And, we’re not alone. Companies globally are either starting or expanding their accessibility efforts. It’s humbling to see the growth, but there still isn’t enough focus on accessibility and nowhere near enough accessibility leads. More is needed.
We know that at Microsoft at least 6.1% of our U.S. employees have a disability. As companies look to “return to normal,” accessibility leads can work within organizations to implement strategies around topics like what “return to work” should look like, particularly for employees with disabilities.
As part of our five-year commitment to help close the “Disability Divide,” we focused on three core pillars – accessible technology, talent development and workplace – tied to new skills initiatives, new partnerships and technology investments. I’d like to take a moment to highlight some new and awesome initiatives that have already come from these commitments.
First let’s talk technology. Products empower people with disabilities but also empower everyone to be inclusive of the 1 billion-plus people with disabilities around the world. We are focused on building products that are “accessible by design” such as the following:
- Accessibility in gaming: Xbox released a series of announcements today, continuing their focus to enable more people to play, including the estimated 400 million-plus gamers with disabilities on the planet. Three that jump off the page:
- New Xbox Accessibility Insider League (XAIL) gives you a simple, streamlined way to provide accessibility feedback directly to Xbox engineering or game development teams. Anyone who self-identifies as a person with disability can join. The refreshed Xbox Insider Hub has been redesigned with accessibility at the forefront, offering a central tool to find experiences and ways to provide critical feedback that developers need.
- The Xbox Gaming Accessibility team has also created a Gaming and Disability Player Experience Guide that outlines common game accessibility barriers experienced by players across a wide spectrum of disabilities, including situational disabilities.
- A long list of new features both in Xbox and games including Gears 5 and Minecraft. Xbox Party Chat will soon support transcribing speech into text and synthesis of speech from text. Gears 5 now has “navigation ping” in escape mode, audio cues that power up blind and low vision gamers to navigate in the game. For more, do check out the details in: Xbox Accessibility GAAD announcement.
- Accessibility made seamless and inclusive: Accessibility is a responsibility we all have whether it is creating a product, data source, document or support channel. I am excited by some of the advances including:
- Simone Stumpf leads ORBIT (Object Recognition for Blind Image Training), collecting data from the blind and low vision community to enable artificial intelligence (AI) to identify personalized objects. This is important work, helping to tackle the disability data desert, the lack of data from people with disabilities to ensure that AI is more precise and useful to everyone. Read about Simone’s story.
- New Outlook MailTip feature, live today and will prompt and guide you on how to be accessible, correcting any issues before sending an email to a large distribution list. Coming soon, background accessibility checker feature, checking your document, email or presentation for accessibility as you write it.
- We launched Disability Answer Desk with American Sign Language (ASL) support for our deaf customers back in 2015 and introduced ASL Support for Microsoft stores in April to help customers with their buying experience. Today, we are launching Be My Eyes Support for LinkedIn to help answer product and accessibility questions.
- The #BuildFor2030 campaign includes our AI for Accessibility grantee WeWALK, which produced a smart cane to enhance the mobility of people who are blind or have low vision through accessible navigation and exploration via voice commands straight from the cane. Learn more about WeWALK and our other AI for Accessibility projects.
Next, we need a global workforce that better represents people with disabilities. Talent development is one of our core goals as people with disabilities need equitable access to education and job opportunities. Two examples include:
- Working with 11 partners to improve accessibility and inclusivity in the classrooms by engaging students to drive improved learning outcomes. One of those is Lexplore which provides K-12 educators a full reading assessment in just 3-5 minutes using AI and eye-tracking technology. And Made by Dyslexia which launched training to help identify and support the 1 in 5 students with dyslexia in the classroom.
- The APAC enabler program has helped 110 people with disabilities across six countries to find roles within the first seven months since launch. Employers are provided cloud and AI training and accessibility education for employer partners, and inclusive hiring from non-profit organizations supporting people with disabilities. In India, a new skilling initiative is helping create job opportunities in the financial sector.
At Microsoft, our ambition is to fully represent the population of people with disabilities across the globe, and we take that seriously. I’ve said it many times, but this is a journey, and we continue to embed accessibility and disability inclusion into our company DNA. We encourage all employees to bring their authentic selves to work, to self-identify with a disability, to share and advocate for themselves and colleagues. Here is a video from Kathleen Hogan, our Chief People Officer, who shared her personal journey at our 11th annual Ability Summit, where 12,000 people met virtually to talk about the future of accessibility and disability inclusion. I am especially humbled and proud to be part of a company that sees disability as a strength and as a part of being human.
Today, Microsoft offices in the U.K., Canada, Sweden and around the world are also sharing their exciting inclusion efforts. Closing the “Disability Divide” will take all of us to succeed. So, I leave you with an ask. Today, invest your time and grow your knowledge. Take one of the many courses on accessibility such as our accessibility fundamentals course or the new LinkedIn’s video series on Digital Accessibility for the Modern Workplace and head to aka.ms/AccessibilityCommitment to learn more.