UN International Day of Persons with Disabilities: Improving access and inclusion

 |   Brad Smith - President

The recognition today of the UN International Day of Persons with Disabilities is perhaps even more important as we continue to learn more about yesterday’s tragic shooting at the Inland Regional Center, which provides social services for children and adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities in San Bernardino, California. It is difficult to imagine why this place of inclusion and empowerment was targeted in this way. Our thoughts and prayers are with the families and loved ones affected by these brutal attacks.

Today marks the United Nations International Day of Persons with Disabilities. It’s an important day, and we at Microsoft are proud to participate in it. Since it was established in 1992, this day has promoted greater awareness of the issues people with disabilities face around the world and mobilized action to improve access and inclusion.

Each year the UN selects a theme to guide this global discussion. This year’s theme is Inclusion Matters: access and empowerment for people of all abilities. It’s a theme that resonates in important ways at Microsoft. Satya Nadella has made our mission clear: across the company we are focused on empowering every person and organization on the planet to achieve more. It’s a mission that speaks to why most of us decided to join Microsoft in the first place.

This mission connects in fundamental ways with today’s discussion. An estimated one billion people worldwide live with disabilities every day. They are members of our families and among our friends, colleagues and neighbors. Like all of us, their futures are defined not by their limitations, but by what they can achieve. More than ever, it’s clear that people with disabilities can achieve amazing things throughout their lives. And more than ever, information technology needs to be a tool that empowers and enables people with disabilities to achieve more.

We want to use this day not just to share what we’re doing, but more importantly, reflect on our opportunities as a company to better serve people with disabilities. As we’ve concluded over the past year, this requires that we raise our ambition and strengthen our capability to better meet the needs of this vital population.

Building our own inclusive culture. As with virtually all of our efforts to serve people around the world, these steps need to start with our own employees. We cannot serve effectively people with disabilities if we do not have a diverse employee population and inclusive culture that ensures that we reflect and understand the needs of all customers.

We’re therefore focused on building a more inclusive culture and committed to enabling employees with disabilities to be successful. We do this through Supported Employment programs, through pilot programs, and through efforts to hire individuals of all abilities. This year, we were honored to be named as the 2015 Employer of the Year by the U.S. Business Leadership Network (USBLN), a national nonprofit focused on disability inclusion. All of this provides a good start. But it’s just a start.

Fostering inclusive design. In less than two years as our CEO, Satya has driven broadly across the company the need to focus on integrating inclusive design into our engineering culture. We understand that people interact with our products in diverse ways. We therefore need to design products to ensure that the diversity of these needs is reflected in our product planning from the start. That’s why we’ve developed inclusive design sprints that enable our designers and engineers to partner with individuals that have a range of disabilities across visual, hearing, speech, mobility and cognitive spectrums, including autism, ADHD, and dyslexia. We are sharing our resources to promote awareness, based on our belief that if we create a solution that works well for people with disabilities, we’ll help foster better designs for everyone.

Partnering with others. Broader and better learning will be the ultimate foundation for all of our future progress. We’re therefore making it a priority to work with leading NGOs worldwide that address the needs of people with disabilities, so we can better understand how we can meet the needs of their members and communities. This dialogue, user testing, and feedback are all helping us to develop better technology. We’re enthused by what we’re learning, pleased that we’re starting to make more progress, and above all committed to aiming higher and moving faster.

In a similar way, we’re collaborating with governments and multilateral organizations to help realize the promise of digital inclusion for all citizens. Among other things, this means more work to contribute better to international standards that can help guide governmental organizations in the EU, Australia and other nations as they develop and deliver better experiences for citizens – especially over the Internet as more government services become automated and delivered in this way.

We’re encouraged by these steps, but more importantly we’re focused on how much more we can do. Above all else, we appreciate deeply the importance of technology to people with disabilities. The World Bank reports that people with disabilities are more likely to experience greater health challenges, more significant employment obstacles, and higher poverty rates than average. In the United States, the most recent report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that the unemployment rate for people with disabilities is more than double the rate for other people, running at 10.5 percent versus 4.6 percent. The challenges are similar in other countries, especially when one considers that many people with disabilities do not have entry to the workforce and hence are not reflected in the unemployment rates.

We appreciate that better technology can make a difference. Given the degree to which employers rely on information technology, more accessible IT products can make the workplace more inviting and inclusive for people with disabilities. Similarly, more accessible technology can help strengthen educational opportunities and better connect friends and families at home.

In short, we have an opportunity to innovate in ways that can help contribute to a brighter future for people with disabilities. More than anything else, we should use today to reflect on the ways we can turn this opportunity into reality.