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‘We are at a crossroads’ – How Microsoft’s Accessibility team is making an impact that will be felt for generations

What should businesses do better?

I don’t want to oversimplify – but it’s about people’s attitude to the differences among us. Companies should view disability as a strength. There are over 1 billion people with disabilities globally. Having people with disabilities within the fabric of any company helps ensure that all customers are represented.

That’s especially important now with AI. It can either introduce unnecessary bias or truly represent the needs of people everywhere. Automation is coming in all areas of the workforce, and we need to ensure it doesn’t leave people with disabilities behind. Not too long ago, you could see people with disabilities work in both industrial and office settings. But now when you bring in automation – and you create more complex technology – it can create a gap. If we don’t treat accessibility in a systemic way, it will be hard to correct later.

Anne Taylor, Microsoft's Director of Supportability

Microsoft’s President Brad Smith and co-author Carol Ann Browne make this point in their New York Times Best Seller “Tools and Weapons: The Promise and Perils of the Digital Age”: “When your technology changes the world, you bear a responsibility to help address the world that you have helped create.” That is the right sentiment, and that’s a responsibility I hope we all take with the understanding that accessibility and equal access to information is a right for everyone. A part of this responsibility is addressing the lack of technology training in the disability community. The entire industry can do more through implementing education programs for users of all levels to learn to properly use our technologies, and ultimately help decrease the unemployment gap.

In “Tools and Weapons,” Microsoft recognizes it is in a unique position to do this. Everybody has a place in society and a sense of belonging. Our mission is to empower everyone on the planet to achieve more – including people with disabilities.

How do you help bring accessibility into the heart of what Microsoft does on a daily basis?

Working alongside my colleagues from the various engineering teams, I bring the lens of people with disabilities to make sure our products are compliant with accessibility standards. But I want to go beyond compliant. I want to encourage, inspire and motivate teams to think outside the box and innovate with accessibility design as an essential component to any product or service. Let’s cut down on inefficiencies and other frictions, while at the same time creating technologies that are accessible, easy to learn, and have the lowest barrier of entry for everyone. In my discussions with partners across Microsoft, I often remind them that accessibility innovations are not reserved only for specialized assistive technology made for people with disabilities, but they are essential to every product that we create.

There is a myth that accessibility impedes innovations, but history shows us the opposite is true. Innovations such as video captioning for the deaf to access television programs is now used in bars and restaurants everywhere for all people to use, and voice recognition technology developed in the late 1970s at Rehabilitation Medicine in New York for patients to operate their wheelchairs is now available in everyone’s phones and cars. These examples, among others, teach us that accessibility innovations can benefit us all.

Specialized technologies made for and used by people with disabilities, in the industry it’s often called AT – assistive technology. I’d love to call it access technology instead. That’s an empowering term. For those partners who build their AT in Microsoft’s environment, the Accessibility team is maintaining close partnerships with them to provide proper support and encouragement, so that they can create AT that works well in Microsoft’s ecosystem.

Another aspect of my work includes a lot of demonstrations, so I can show people exactly what works well and collaborate on opportunities to improve. Once I have opportunities to surface problems, then we can have meaningful discussions on topics like accessible design, user interface and how people with disabilities are using AT with Microsoft’s products. Accessibility technical excellence can only be achieved when designers and developers collaborate closely with end users with disabilities. We have been able to make progress because of the support from the various engineering teams that I have the privilege to work with. I am very thankful for their partnership and continued commitment.

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