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Jenny Lay-Flurrie: 4 key pillars of Microsoft’s journey with accessibility

By Jenny Lay-Flurrie, Chief Accessibility Officer

Theo demonstrates a program he created with the technology behind Code Jumper as his mother looks on. Photo by Jonathan Banks.

Kings College Student, Theo, demonstrates a program he created with the technology behind Code Jumper as his mother looks on. Photo by Jonathan Banks.

Hi folks, writing to you from Seattle and not from the CSUN Assistive Technology Conference in sunny Anaheim as planned. Unfortunately, I won’t be able to be there in person this year as a health condition is last minute preventing me from flying down. Gutted! I’ve been looking forward to it for months. But no fear, there are 94 Microsofties from across the company in attendance and eager to share what we’ve been up to, and more importantly, to listen, learn, and foster relationships.

Since I can’t be there, thought I would take the opportunity to share what I was going to cover during my presentation – which will go ahead tomorrow with some of our super stars at the helm!

Each year, this event brings together folks from across the accessibility community to share knowledge and best practices in the field of assistive technology. Accessibility isn’t a space where we can move the dial alone, so effective partnerships are a critical element to creating products that work better for everyone. There are some great examples of this that I want to share. As a company, we’re building a partnership mindset into our DNA and into each of our four key pillars which ground us on our journey with accessibility. Enough talk—here’s some examples:

Pillar One: People

Building accessibility into your company starts by building a culture that embraces accessibility and disability. Hiring diverse and talented people with disabilities and accessibility experts brings experiences that empower and accelerate efforts to build products that work for everyone. One of the programs we launched a few years ago is our Autism Hiring Program. While this program matures, we are equally focused on how we share our learnings and best practices in finding talent with other companies with similar ambitions. Today, 16 companies are working together to learn and share together via the Autism @ Work Employer Roundtable. We wanted to make it easier for folks to know how to get started, and in partnership with Disability:IN, SAP, EY, and JP Morgan Chase and the University of Washington, we’ve developed a new playbook that walks through all the top questions you may have. Do check it out.

Pillar Two: Systems

To really drive the business of accessibility, you need a systematic framework; an ecosystem for how you empower folks to deliver. That ecosystem covers all aspects of the company, and supporting our customers is a key part. We have many other partnerships, such as Be My Eyes, which last year started providing customers a direct connection to receive technical assistance from the Disability Answer Desk (DAD), a free consumer service for Microsoft’s customers with disabilities. Since launching the Be My Eyes service in 2018, and we’ve already taken over 4,000 calls and customer satisfaction is at 90%. This partnership was a great step forward in providing people with disabilities effective support in the way they prefer, and is just the start of what’s possible down the line. We’re also excited to announce that tomorrow DAD will be launching Twitter support in five markets. Customers will now be able to send us a direct message via Twitter for technical assistance through the DAD support page.

Pillar Three: Product

When you combine an inclusive culture with an ecosystem that empowers people, and you do it in partnership, you’re set up to create game-changing products that work for everyone.

Windows 10: We are looking forward to meeting users to get feedback about the latest accessibility improvements and to share what’s coming later this year. And yes, there are announcements for Narrator, including support for Chrome. Narrator is also getting new Home Page that makes it easier to find the User Guide, Quick Start tutorial, new settings to personalize your experience, and links to provide feedback so that we can continue to focus on the features that matter most to users. Narrator is also getting improved reading functionality; it is more efficient (less verbose), more natural and more responsive with apps like Outlook. It will also see additional support for the latest translation tables and braille displays.

We’re also building on the success of larger text options by adding larger pointers. Users can make their pointer easier to see by making it larger and adding a custom color – I recommend red. We’ve also polished “center mouse mode” in Magnifier to make your pointer find the center of your display. The team is very proud of its “buttery smooth” performance!

Office 365: Our enthusiastic partners are embedded in every part of our design process—from concept testing, to post-launch feedback from users leveraging the Disability Answer Desk – a number of experts have helped to build an accessible-by-design product that we hope makes it easier for digital inclusion to be part of your organization’s digital transformation.

The ATHEN group played a particularly crucial role in the development of the new and simplified ribbon found at the top of every Word document and OneNote notebook. The simplicity of the new simplified ribbon was designed to allow screen reader users to more easily find the commands they are looking for. Turns out, it is an easier experience for everyone!

Another important advancement is with our Accessibility Checker. We have updated the rules for accessibility checker to reduce false positives making accessibility even easier to achieve to empower everyone. In addition, you can now ‘check as you go’ by letting the accessibility checker keep an eye on your document while you’re building it. This provides an at-a-glance reminder in the status bar when issues exist in the document, and a 1-click action to investigate recommendations.

AT Partnerships: Our assistive technology partnerships are critical to ensuring we can truly empower people with disabilities. We are passionate about our first-party tools, but also passionate about empowering the ecosystem at large. We’re successful not only when we build ourselves, but when we empower others to build as well. A few examples include Eye Tech Digital Systems, which integrates with the built-in eye-tracker on surface; Dolphin Computer Access’ GuideConnect, a talking digital assistant; and InsideVision’s InsideOne, a tactile tablet with an integrated braille keyboard. These are just a few examples, and we’d like to say a huge thank you to our partners for their ongoing collaboration to push the boundaries of assitive tech.

Accessibility Insights: We also have great news for developers with the open sourcing of Accessibility Insights – a tool that helps developers find and fix accessibility issues in their code. Accessibility Insights offers developers the ability to run FastPass and identify common accessibility issues early in the dev cycle and provides tips on how to fix. In addition, we partnered with Deque Systems to add Windows platform support to the axe accessibility rules engine.  Now developers can test their code in development using a common, unified approach. I really encourage you to learn more about Accessibility Insights by checking out Keith Ballinger’s latest blog.

Pillar 4: Innovation/Future

Lastly, what we crave: innovation. It motivates, inspires and drives us. Building solutions with and for people with disabilities by harnessing so much of the knowledge we have across the industry and working in partnership with the community to ensure what we built has impact and purpose. Two projects that epitomize this:

Seeing AI: Designed for the blind and low vision community, this research project and free mobile app harnesses the power of AI to describe people, text and objects. The team announced new features and functionality inspired by feedback and recommendations provided by the Seeing AI user community. These updates are all live today – check them out!

  • Explore photos by touch feature: tap your finger to an image on a touchscreen to hear a description of objects within an image and the spatial relationship between them.
  • Native iPad support: For the first time we’re releasing iPad support, to provide a better Seeing AI experience that accounts for the larger display requirements.
  • Channel improvements: Customize the order of your channels, access face recognition function while on the Person channel, get audio cues while analyzing photos in other apps!

Code Jumper: Lastly, Code Jumper is a physical programming language for kids between 7 and 11 with all ranges of vision. It started as a Microsoft research project in the UK, but as it evolved the team worked to create a path to manufacture at scale. The research and technology behind Code Jumper is now in the capable hands of the American Printing House for the Blind (APH), a nonprofit based in Louisville, Kentucky, that creates and distributes products and services for people who are blind or with low vision. Over the next five years, APH plans to offer Code Jumper and related curriculum to students throughout the world. Learn more about the project here.

Check out this post for all the Microsoft sessions this week.  Our accessibility engineers, program managers, and world-class researchers are excited to talk to you.  Again, I wish I could be there with you!

For more information and to stay up to speed about Microsoft accessibility, visit www.microsoft.com/accessibility 

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Empathy and innovation: How Microsoft’s cultural shift is leading to new product development

The young Microsoft software engineer had just moved to the U.S. and was trying her best to stay in close touch with her parents back home, calling them on Skype every week.

But their internet connection in India was poor, and Swetha Machanavajhala, deaf since birth, struggled to read their lips over the glitchy video. She always had to ask her parents to turn off the lights in the background to help her focus better on their faces.

“I kept thinking, ‘Why can’t we build technology that can do this for us instead?’” Machanavajhala recalled. “So I did.”

It turned out her background-blurring feature was good for privacy reasons as well, helping to hide messy offices during video conference calls or curious café customers during job interviews. So Machanavajhala’s innovation was integrated into Microsoft Teams and Skype, and she soon found herself catapulted into the spotlight at Microsoft – as well as into the company’s work on inclusion, a joy to experience after having been excluded at a previous job where her deafness made it hard to fully participate.

Software engineer Swetha Machanavajhala poses with her parents in front of the Taj Mahal in India.
Microsoft software engineer Swetha Machanavajhala and her parents. Photo by Swetha Machanavajhala.

Microsoft employees say those twists and turns of innovation – aiming for A and ending up with a much broader B – have become more common at Microsoft in the five years since Satya Nadella was appointed chief executive officer.

Nadella’s immediate push to embolden employees to be more creative has been exemplified by the company’s annual hackathon. Machanavajhala and others say the event has helped spark a revival where employees feel energized to innovate year-round and to seek support from their managers for their ideas – even if those have nothing to do with their day jobs.

“The company has changed culturally,” Michael A. Cusumano, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Sloan School of Management who wrote a book about Microsoft 20 years ago, recently told The New York Times. “Microsoft is an exciting place to work again.”

Chris Kauffman, a marketing manager in product licensing who has worked for Microsoft for 13 years, said Nadella’s focus on fostering collaboration was a turning point for her, as she noticed silos being torn down. Kauffman also realized the advent of artificial intelligence (AI) could help business people like her broach the realm of engineers and IT specialists. She and her team capitalized on both of those developments to create a chatbot and virtual colleague, answering thousands of licensing questions from around the world and helping to handle the accelerated pace of Azure cloud computing service updates.

“I went to my first hackathon three years ago and fell back in love with Microsoft,” Kauffman said. “I realized that I now have permission to talk to anyone I want to. I’m no longer limited by my job function or level. And my experience with the chatbot is a great example of how technology can be democratized and used by everybody.”

That new openness has led to an explosion in new products or fine-tuned improvements across Microsoft, for customers as well as for internal use. Employees say the resurgence is showing up both in product improvements and internal events such as TechFest, an annual showcase of Microsoft research that takes place in a few weeks.

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Lessons from the South Side: The dad who helped raise an empathetic engineer

One day, young Heather came home from junior high school with an idea. She’d often toss out ideas to her father for what she could be when she grew up. Back then, he was endearingly tough to please, she remembered. Not in an unloving way, but in a way that emboldened Heather to challenge herself.

Her dad was reading in his tattered, gray arm chair. She touched his arm gently and signed, “Dad! What if I become a sign-language interpreter?”

He peered at her over his book, set it down, and signed, “No.”

“What? I thought you’d be excited. I’ve been interpreting for you and mom my whole life,” she pressed. “Why not?”

“Too safe for you,” said Royce. “Believe in yourself. Do what makes you uncomfortable.”

While Heather walked out of the room thinking that it was strange that he wouldn’t want her to choose interpreting as a career, she knew that he was right. So even though she interpreted for then-president Barack Obama during a 2015 national monument dedication in Chicago, she respected his commitment to working hard for the sake of the family. So, she would keep looking for something that challenged her.

*****

After her sophomore year of high school, Heather went to a summer engineering program at Chicago State University. There, she got to dig in to the hardware of all the gadgets that she loved. As she soldered the circuit board for a phone, she thought about how so many people who have hearing loss, at that time, couldn’t use the phone easily—the feedback on hearing aid devices made people on the other end of the line sound like they were in a construction zone. “Wow, I could make accessible technology and really change people’s lives.”

“Today, I never take it for granted that I can send my dad a text if he doesn’t see me standing at the door. The world of pagers and mobile phones really changed our world,” Heather said.

It turns out that there was a name for being an inventor of technology for people who are Deaf or hard-of-hearing. She came home that summer and told her dad, “Engineer. I’m going to be an engineer.” At that point, Heather had never heard of any female, black engineers. Surely that qualified as uncomfortable.

Royce said nothing, his kind eyes narrowing in on hers. He smirked, shrugged, and then walked down the narrow hallway to rest up for the evening’s shift at the post office.

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Creating a future for all: An interview with Saqib Shaikh, the force behind Seeing AI

Saqib Shaikh lost his sight at the age of seven, fell in love with computers as a schoolboy in Britain and grew up to become a top software engineer with an inspirational mission.

Standing at the intersection of artificial intelligence (AI) and inclusive design, he believes we can create intelligent machines to empower millions of people around the world with disabilities to achieve more and live enhanced lives. The knowledge gained from targeting and solving the problems of those with special needs, he says, can only drive technological innovation that benefits everyone across society.

Saqib has had a lifelong relationship with advancing digital technology. At a school for children who are blind or with low vision, he learned self-reliance and developed a burning sense of curiosity. As a 10-year-old, he was given a rudimentary talking PC, and that led him to learn how to program. His intellectual romance with computer science blossomed at university where he doggedly overcame all sorts of day-to-day challenges on campus to graduate top his class with a master’s degree in AI.

A dozen or so years ago, Saqib joined Microsoft and quickly proved his prowess as an engineer by helping to create products, services, and apps that many of us use every day, like Bing and Cortana.

His quest nowadays is to create greater accessibility and inclusion – to level the playing field for everyone. As the driving force behind Microsoft’s Seeing AI project, he is exploring how AI can enable people who are blind or with low vision to achieve more with freedom and confidence.

His team launched the Seeing AI app in 2017, giving those who cannot see a new way to understand the world through the cameras on their smartphones. Since then, it has helped customers with more than 10 million tasks. A user merely points his or her phone, and the app vocally says what it sees. It might be in a room, on a street, in a mall, or an office – customers are using the app in all sorts of situations. With facial-recognition technology, the app can name friends and acquaintances, describe physical appearances of people and even predict their moods.  It can read printed text in books, newspapers, menus, and signs aloud. It can even identify banknotes.

Saqib currently works and lives in London. We caught up with him on a recent visit to Singapore where he told audiences about how technology has helped him realize his potential and how it promises to improve the lives of everyone – and not just those disabilities.

“There are a lot of problems. But for every problem, there is a solution,” he says.

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With Code Jumper, experts look to jumpstart computer science interest for kids who are blind

None of this would come as a surprise to the students at New College Worcester. As they assembled their programs, some recalled computer science classrooms in which they had been told to do touch typing – which is a method of typing by muscle memory instead of looking at the keyboard – while the other kids in their classes used block coding to write basic computer programs. Others shared the frustrations of trying to learn more complex coding skills like Python or JavaScript without the grounding in more simplified coding systems many other students were getting to use.

With Code Jumper, they said, they were immediately able to experiment and build programs.

“I just felt very independent, and I liked that,” said Daniel, who at 11 years old already knows he wants to pursue a career in computer science. “It kind of made me inspired to do more coding.”

On this day, Daniel was collaborating with another student, Rico. The 12-year-old’s favorite subjects are IT and science, and he said that in his previous school he only got to do touch typing. With Code Jumper, he was able to write an actual program for the first time.

“To just do coding, it was a fun experience,” he said.

As the kids worked on their programs, Jonathan Fogg, head of computing and IT at New College Worcester, walked around the classroom, helping them with things like debugging. Fogg also watched with evident delight as they ran their programs for him. He said Project Torino was unlike anything he’d been able to provide the kids before now.

“There really isn’t an equivalent to this physical way of programming,” Fogg said.

The early access to basic coding skills is important, Fogg said, because many kids who are blind or low vision are drawn to careers in computer science. He thinks that’s partly because many of the skills kids with low vision develop to navigate the world make them good at the kind of computational thinking that’s helpful for a computer science career. And, he said, traditionally it has been a career that is more accessible to people who are blind or low vision, because of tools such as screen readers.

But at a young age, he said, he’s found that many kids are afraid to start playing around with a computer, especially if they know it’s an expensive, fragile machine.

“If they’re not confident, they won’t have a go at the computer because they’re afraid they’ll break it,” he said. “But once they’ve gotten over that barrier, then they’ve been successful. Project Torino reinforces that – they can’t break it and they can do all these really, really cool things.”

Daniel and Rico sitting at a classrom table, helping each other feel the buttons and knobs on brighlty colored plastic pods
From left, Daniel and Rico were part of a group of students at New College Worcester in Worcester, UK, who participated in a beta test of the technology behind Code Jumper. Photo by Jonathan Banks.

Magnets, blocks and lots of trial and error

It’s a couple of days later, and Theo is sitting in a small resource room at the school he attends, Kings College School, also in the UK. Theo, who is blind, has been part of the Code Jumper project for years – in fact, he was one of the first group of students who collaborated with Morrison and others to develop the system.

“I helped them choose what kind of buttons to use,” he said as his hands moved swiftly along the bright plastic pieces, assembling a program as he chatted easily about the computer science skills he’s developed over the years.

The bright plastic pods, oversized dials and thick cords the students are using today is a far cry from the original ideas Morrison and her collaborator, senior researcher Nicolas Villar, had when they first started thinking of a physical programming language.

Their original idea was to create a physical programming language that mimicked block coding, complete with actual blocks and magnets. It didn’t work at all. The kids either lined the blocks up in a row and didn’t do anything else, or they grew frustrated by the magnets falling off the table and getting lost.

Microsoft senior researcher Nicolas Villar in a blue jacket stands against a glass wall, looking into the camera
Microsoft senior researcher Nicolas Villar. Photo courtesy of Microsoft.

So, Morrison, Villar and the other team members began meeting regularly with a small group of kids and getting their ideas. Based on the kids’ feedback and ideas, they switched to bigger plastic shapes that fit easily into kids’ hands, and they created surfaces the kids could rub or squeeze in order to recognize and interact with them.

With the new designs, the kids immediately began exploring ways to put them together and write short programs that made sounds.

Through the work with the young collaborators, Villar said he started to see the technology from the kids’ perspectives. For example, the kids with some vision benefited from bright, contrasting colors. They also found that kids like to work together, guiding each other’s hands, so they built the pods to be about the size of two kids’ hands.

“They were really helping us invent,” Villar said.

Once they had figured out what Morrison called “the kid way of engaging with things,” they set to work making sure that the system also would teach kids the basics of coding, such as how to create a sequence and what steps you need to take in order to debug.

The researchers also created detailed guidance that teachers without a computer science background could use to help kids develop coding skills, since they couldn’t expect all schools to have an IT specialist available to work with students who are blind or low vison.

For Villar, the impact of Code Jumper has extended far beyond just this project.

“It’s opened my eyes to different perspectives, different ways of focusing or seeing the world,” he said.

For Theo, the involvement with Project Torino has been life changing as well. He’s now doing more complex coding, including recently writing a hangman game in Python – something he says he couldn’t have done without the basics he learned using Code Jumper. Equally important to him, he’s made new friends with other kids in school who are also interested in coding.

“It’s been really good socially for us,” said Elin, his mother.

A smiling Theo sits at a table in a small library, both hands touching the plastic knobs
Theo demonstrates a program he created with the technology behind Code Jumper as his mother looks on. Photo by Jonathan Banks.

Big plans

In late 2017, Villar flew to Kentucky to show the leadership at American Printing House for the Blind a demonstration of the project. Craig Meador, APH’s president and a longtime educator, said he was immediately drawn to how intuitive and interesting the system would be to kids.

“If you put this in a classroom, not only is the blind student going to be using this but every student in the classroom is going to want a crack at this,” he said. “From a teacher’s perspective, that’s all you ever really want – something that’s inclusive.”

Skutchan, APH’s technology director, said the fact that it’s immediately accessible for kids with no prior computing experience is important. In the past, he said, kids who are blind or with low vision who wanted to get into coding had to first learn other computing skills, such as how to type and use a screen reader. That made it harder to get started at a young age – and potentially closed the door to a field that could have provided a career for them.

“I think coding is an equalizing field to be in,” he said.

Meador and Skutchan have grand plans for Code Jumper, including developing a curriculum and figuring out distribution and other levels of support. APH plans to release Code Jumper first in the US, UK, Canada and Australia, and then to distribute it throughout the world.

They say it’s the type of system they may have dreamed of – but would never have had the resources to create themselves.

“We’ve never really had anything that’s been able to give students so many different ways they can experiment and learn about coding,” he said, “and it translates so well into actual skills.”

Related:

Allison Linn is a senior writer and editor at Microsoft. Follow her on Twitter.

Top Image: Student Victoria, left, and Jonatha Fogg, right, head of computing and IT at New College Worcester, discuss the program Victoria created during a beta test of the technology behind Code Jumper. Photo by Jonathan Banks.

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343 Industries collaborates with Limbitless Solutions to offer Halo-themed ‘Bionic Arm’ prosthetics to deserving young heroes

One of our core missions here at the studio is to “inspire heroes and deliver wonder.” Normally, this is most often and understandably applied to the nature of making games. Indeed, creating new worlds to explore, new mysteries to solve, and heroes through which to experience it all is always an amazing and rewarding endeavor. There are, however, times where opportunities to inspire heroes and deliver wonder present themselves outside the scope of game code, cutscene scripts, or sandbox balancing.

Today we’re excited to talk a little bit about one such opportunity, as 343 Industries is proud to announce a collaboration with Limbitless Solutions to provide new Halo-themed, 3D-printed prosthetics to be made available to young heroes who – like the Master Chief himself – also routinely and triumphantly beat the odds.

Limbitless Solutions is a non-profit organization that creates an affordable option for prosthetic-limb devices for children. Using rapid prototyping technologies ‑ 3D printing specifically ‑ prosthetic arms that are fully functional and capable of gripping objects and various gestures are created and fitted to children at a fraction of the cost compared to other prosthetics on the market. The incredible and dedicated team over at Limbitless began in 2014 as a group of University of Central Florida students who wanted to help a family whose son was born without most of his right arm, and since Limbitless has grown to a full-time operation based at UCF in Orlando, Fla. 

The Limbitless “Bionic Arm” prosthetics are all at once functional, cost-effective, and expressive, and perhaps best of all, Limbitless donates their innovative prosthetic arms completely free of charge to recipients and their families. Limbitless is “devoted to building a generation of innovators who use their skills and passion to improve the world around them.” To learn more about their program and also see and hear inspiring stories of affiliated families, please make sure to visit Limbitless-Solutions.org.

THE HALO CONNECTION

With all that firmly in mind, we’re incredibly honored to have the opportunity to collaborate with Limbitless Solutions to offer a unique bit of Halo flavor in our shared goal of inspiring heroes. Beginning in 2019, Limbitless will add two special Halo-themed options to their already-amazing lineup of designs for their 3D-printed Bionic Arms. First up is a fantastic recreation of the Master Chief’s own legendary Mk. VI armor, designed to help turn any eager recipient into an awesomely augmented, galaxy-saving superhero.

In addition, Limbitless will also offer a “multiplayer” variant of the Mjolnir-inspired and personalized prosthetic, allowing a wide range of creative color customization to create a Spartan style as unique and heroic as the recipients themselves. We’re infinitely honored to have been approached Limbitless Solutions to help further their ongoing mission to make heroes out of humanity and look forward to delivering hope and helping hands beginning early next year.

Again, for more information on Limbitless Solutions and their innovative and empowering projects, please make sure to visit Limbitless-Solutions.org on the web, or on Twitter at @Limbitless3D. You can also learn more about their amazing studio and team by checking out their YouTube channel. For all the latest Halo news and updates, keep dialed into Halo Waypoint on the web, as well as @Halo on Twitter.

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Present more inclusively with new live captions & subtitles in PowerPoint

Live presentations can be thought-provoking, inspirational, and powerful. A great presentation can inspire us to think about something in an entirely different way or bring a group together around a common idea or project. But not everyone experiences presentations in the same way. We may speak a different language from the presenter, or be a native speaker in another language, and some of us are deaf and hard of hearing. So, what if speakers could make their presentations better understood by everyone in the room? Now they can with live captions & subtitles in PowerPoint.

In honor of the United Nations International Day of Persons with Disabilities, we’re announcing this new feature—powered by artificial intelligence (AI)—which provides captions and subtitles for presentations in real-time. Live captions & subtitles in PowerPoint supports the deaf and hard of hearing community by giving them the ability to read what is being spoken in real-time. In addition, captions and subtitles can be displayed in the same language or in a different one, allowing non-native speakers to get a translation of a presentation. At launch, live captions & subtitles will support 12 spoken languages and display on-screen captions or subtitles in one of 60+ languages.

Live captions & subtitles in PowerPoint brings:

  • The power of AI to presenters, so they can convey simple and complex information across subjects and topics.
  • Speech recognition that automatically adapts based on the presented content for more accurate recognition of names and specialized terminology.
  • The ability for presenters to easily customize the size, position, and appearance of subtitles. Customizations may vary by platform.
  • A peace of mind with security and compliance knowing that the feature meets many industry standards for compliance certifications.

The feature joins other accessible features in Office 365, like automatic suggestions for alt-text in Word and PowerPoint, expanded availability of automatic closed captions and searchable transcripts for videos in Microsoft Stream, enhancements to the Office 365 Accessibility Checker, and more.

Here’s what one of our customers had to say:

“We are constantly looking for new ways of ensuring that the Government of Canada sets the highest possible standards as an accessible and inclusive workplace. We welcome such positive advances in technology, like this feature, that allows everyone, and notably those with disabilities, to better communicate ideas. They help break down barriers and lead to greater inclusiveness to the benefit of individuals and society as a whole.”
—Yazmine Laroche, deputy minister responsible for Public Service Accessibility

Live captions & subtitles in PowerPoint will begin rolling out in late January 2019 and will be available for Office 365 subscribers worldwide for PowerPoint on Windows 10, PowerPoint for Mac, and PowerPoint Online.

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Xbox Adaptive Controller one of TIME’s ‘Best Inventions of 2018’

For people with limited hand and arm mobility, it can be tough to play video games, which are generally controlled using small buttons and joysticks. And while some gamers and small companies have engineered hacks, major gaming companies have largely remained on the -sidelines—until now. Inspired by an internal hackathon and informed by work with groups like the Cerebral Palsy Foundation, Microsoft developed the Xbox Adaptive Controller ($100), an oversize version of its classic rig designed to empower as many gamers as possible. Its main buttons, for example, are roughly 4 in. in -diameter—large enough to be pressed with an elbow or chin, if necessary. It also features ports to accommodate additional aids, like a foot pedal. Xbox designer Chris Kujawski urges others to follow suit: “We hope [our controller] becomes a catalyst for inclusiveness in the gaming industry.” —Samantha Cooney

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How your company can be a positive force for disability employment

by Jessica Rafuse, Microsoft Accessibility Senior Program Manager

NDEAM is a wrap, what’s next?

As National Disability Employment Awareness Month comes to an end, I reflect on the last month and ask, “Now what?!” Making a positive impact on the unemployment and underemployment rates for people with disabilities is a challenge that must extend beyond NDEAM and must be a collaborative effort. So how do we keep the momentum going?

To help answer the question, we gathered experts and influencers from over 75 different organizations from across the Seattle-area to the second annual Microsoft DisAbility Employment Symposium.

As Bri Sambo from T-Mobile put it, we must “lean on the community we have and collaborate with other companies.” The Symposium generated discussion on common challenges, lessons learned, and innovation in disability employment. We celebrated people with disabilities and committed to our ongoing efforts towards inclusion. Then we said goodbye. As the last guest exited the building, the lights dimmed in the conference room, and I realized, “Now, the real work begins.”

What can your company do to continue the journey to positively impact disability employment? Three things: get Ready, get Set, Hire!

GET READY

1. Nurture a culture of inclusion

A common theme across the Symposium was the importance of nurturing a culture of inclusion. Celebrating people with disabilities within your organization will ignite a sense of disability pride that results in a more inclusive and productive workplace. Here are a few things to consider:

  • Recognize Talent: People with disabilities are an asset to the workplace. From innovation to troubleshooting to project management skills, each individual with a disability brings with them a unique set of skills that they have honed as a result of their disabilities. Remember that 70% of disabilities are non-apparent, so you like have someone in your workplace today who is already adding value to the team.
  • Create opportunity for connection: To build a culture you first need to build a community. Our Disability Employee Resource Group is a long standing group of employees, who have helped to define disability inclusion at Microsoft. If you are looking for a first step in this journey, start here. Just a few passionate employees with common experiences can support your business in the creation of truly inclusive culture.
Disability Employment Symposium Opening Panel – in order left to right: Jessica Rafuse (Microsoft), Keith Clark (Seattle Lighthouse), Megan Mauney (Amazon), Becky Curran (Disability: IN) and Bri Sambo (T-Mobile)

DisAbility Employment Symposium Opening Panel – in order left to right: Jessica Rafuse (Microsoft), Keith Clark (Seattle Lighthouse), Megan Mauney (Amazon), Becky Curran (Disability: IN) and Bri Sambo (T-Mobile)

GET SET

2. Invest in accessibility

Another common theme we saw during the event was companies referencing the importance of embedding accessibility into the fabric of their companies as key to recruiting and retaining talent with disabilities. So how do they do it?

  • Be creative, be frugal, and be resourceful. “Investment” does not always mean “budget” allocation. Utilize resources that are available for free on public platforms. For example, watch Introduction to Disability and Inclusion to learn the basics, and educate your colleagues by using Microsoft Accessibility Training Resources particularly our At a Glance series, which provides bite-sized accessibility trainings.
  • Leverage technology to empower people with disabilities. The role of technology is indisputable in empowering all people, including people with disabilities. From accessible career websites to assistive technologies like screen readers (e.g., Narrator and JAWS) for people who are Blind or Low Vision, accessible technology can make your company more attractive to talent with disabilities. As an individual, you also have a role in making your workplace more accessible with a few simple tricks. Try using the Accessibility Checker before sending an email or turn on Translator within PowerPoint during your next meeting. If you want to know more about accessibility features check out our Accessibility Feature Sway and at the Microsoft Accessibility Site.
  • Accessibility in all levels of your company. Senior leaders are immensely influential as accessibility champions. Ignite your leader’s passion for accessibility by sharing personal stories about how your company’s business has positively impacted the lives of people with disabilities. In support of NDEAM, Microsoft CEO, Satya Nadella, celebrated with six accessibility feature demos: Inclusive Presentations, Seeing AI, Xbox Adaptive Controller, Learning Tools, Soundscape, and Eye Control.

HIRE

3. Hire someone with a disability today!

The timing is now. While nurturing your company culture and integrating accessibility into all that you do, actively seek candidates with disabilities to join in your journey. People with disabilities are just the problem solvers you need to provide feedback on your efforts as you strive for improvement.

  • Transparency in recruiting: candidates appreciate transparency in your company’s inclusion efforts and clear timelines on the accessibility journey. For hiring managers, open communication is key to confront bias and to allow for discussion around your company’s policies for workplace accommodations and benefits.
  • Identifying gaps: partner with your internal talent acquisition team, HR, legal, or other stakeholders to understand the process for working with candidates with disabilities. Ensure that your organization has a process for soliciting and responding to requests for accommodations. Offer trainings to all members of a recruiting ecosystem and co-create resource guides that are specific to your business. Don’t wait for the processes and policies to be perfect, “Hiring talent with disabilities is just common sense, just ask us what we need.”- Nyle DiMarco
  • Resources abound: check out the Disability Equality Index (DEI), which serves as an neutral benchmarking tool to evaluate, measure, and improve your company’s disability inclusion efforts. We are sharing even more of our learnings through our Disability Inclusion Sway and the Microsoft Inclusive Hiring Site.
Jenny Lay-Flurrie and Nyle DiMarco onstage at Disability Employment Symposium

Jenny Lay-Flurrie and Nyle DiMarco onstage at DisAbility Employment Symposium

Thank you again to all the companies, organizations, and disability influencers who participated in our DisAbility Employment Symposium and to those who helped develop these learnings. For those who were not able to join us in-person, Disability:IN can help you to find other businesses in your area that are also committed to disability inclusion. Be curious, be bold, and be collaborative. Hire someone with disabilities and they will guide you along the way.

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Devs and manufacturers: Enhance accessibility with Microsoft’s Eye Control

October 31, 2018 | By Microsoft blog editor

Eye Control is an exciting technology in Windows 10 that allows customers to use their eyes to control an on-screen mouse, keyboard and text-to-speech experience. This is a technology that empowers people with limited mobility such as people living with ALS.

As part of the National Disability Employer Awareness Month (NDEAM), Microsoft’s CEO Satya Nadella has shared a demo video showing the capabilities enabled by the APIs (Application Programming Interface) associated with the Eye Control. Thanks to the additional Eye Drive Library, which emulates a joystick via eye tracking, the video shows prototypes of a remote-controlled car and an electric wheelchair, which can then both be controlled by eye tracking. Those are research prototypes designed to illustrate how this technology can be used to empower people, and appeal to developers, innovators and makers to download these open source libraries and see what you can do.

By highlighting the Eye Control features in Windows and its APIs, we encourage developers and eye tracking device manufacturers to harness the power of eye control for their own applications and products to enhance accessibility and utilize a new mode of interacting with a Windows-based computer. We are keen to see where the development of this technology is leading us in the future.

To learn more about Eye Control APIs for Windows and Eye Drive Libraries referenced in the video visit: Eye Control APIs and Eye Drive Library. To learn more about the research team behind this technology visit Microsoft Enable.

If you have any questions about the demo or the technology, please reach out to the Disability Answer Desk.

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