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Woman in wheelchair at conference table
Photo by Jordan Nicholson is courtesy of Disability:IN and licensed under CC BY-ND 4.0.

More than 1 billion people around the world live with a disability, and at some point, most of us likely will face some type of temporary, situational or permanent disability. The practical impacts are huge. Employment and education rates are lower and poverty rates are higher for people with disabilities. And unfortunately, societal inclusion for this critical community has been flat for 30 years. Yet if there is one thing we have learned from 25 years of work on accessibility at Microsoft, it’s this: People with disabilities represent one of the world’s largest untapped talent pools, but we all need to act with bolder ambition to empower disabled talent to achieve more.

Fortunately, there is cause for optimism in closing what the World Bank rightly calls a disability divide. Digital technology can play a critical role in bridging barriers to communication, interaction and information. That’s why today we’re announcing the next phase of our accessibility journey, a new technology-led five-year commitment to create and open doors to bigger opportunities for people with disabilities. This new initiative will bring together every corner of Microsoft’s business with a focus on three priorities: Spurring the development of more accessible technology across our industry and the economy; using this technology to create opportunities for more people with disabilities to enter the workforce; and building a workplace that is more inclusive for people with disabilities.

All of this work is interrelated. We can’t create the next generation of accessible technology unless we attract more people with disabilities to play a bigger role in helping to develop it. And we need to create an inclusive workplace that nurtures this talent. This stronger foundation will allow us to implement an “accessibility by design” philosophy not only for Microsoft’s products, but for our tools and services that support software developers and suppliers everywhere.

This ambition builds on our broad and lengthy work to empower people with disabilities. From Sticky Keys, a simple way to create shortcuts in Windows created in the early 1990s, to Seeing AI and the Xbox Adaptive Controller, digital accessibility is now a part of Microsoft’s engineering DNA. Over the past five years, under the leadership of Chief Accessibility Officer Jenny Lay-Flurrie, we have accelerated our culture of accessibility – creating innovative technology solutions, changing hiring practices with our Autism Hiring Program, growing the employee community and partnering with others to help create new opportunities for the many talented people with disabilities.

Technology

We believe that accessible technology is a fundamental building block that can unlock opportunities in every part of society. Our work starts by ensuring that Microsoft’s own products are accessible by design, so that as we advance our features and functionality, we can help everyone across the spectrum of disability be more productive. We will then expand our reach with new tools and data resources to support software development across our industry and by other organizations that create software services for their customers or employees. Finally, we will support this with a broad technology initiative with new support for basic research and new data science capabilities to advance innovation on an ongoing basis.

Accessibility by design

Today, we are announcing a variety of new “accessible by design” features and advances in Microsoft 365, enabling more than 200 million people to build, edit and share documents. Using artificial intelligence (AI) and other advanced technologies, we aim to make more content accessible and as simple and automatic as spell check is today. For example:

  • A new background accessibility checker will provide a prompt to fix accessibility issues in content across the core Office apps and Outlook will nudge users to correct accessibility issues.
  • AI in Microsoft Word will detect and convert to heading styles crucial for blind and low-vision readers.
  • A new Excel navigation pane designed for screen readers will help people easily discover and navigate objects in a spreadsheet.
  • We’re expanding Immersive Reader, used by 35 million people every month, to help with the comprehension of PowerPoint slides and notes.
  • In Teams, high-contrast mode can be used to access shared content using PowerPoint Live  which will reduce eye strain and accommodate light sensitivity with Dark Mode in Word.
  • New LinkedIn features that include auto-captioning for LinkedIn Live broadcasts, captions for enterprise content and dark mode later this year.

We will also empower software developers by embedding accessibility tools, prompts and AI-driven automation so that accessibility is included at the start of the development cycle. One way we’re doing this is with Accessibility Insights, our developer tool for UI accessibility testing and remediation, to help improve accessibility of websites and apps. Today, it catches up to 40 percent of accessibility bugs, and through more automated testing and the expanded use of AI, in the future it will catch even more. We soon will include Insights in more of our products to assist in developing technology that’s more accessible.

GitHub, our software collaboration platform that is the world’s largest home for developers, is introducing new themes designed to make its features more accessible to people with visual impairments. The first is a dark dimmed theme bringing less contrast to the user interface for users with light sensitivity. In the coming months, GitHub will release additional themes, including high-contrast themes for users with low vision and themes for users who experience color blindness. Additional features will be added in the months to come.

Research and data

Microsoft Research has one of the few dedicated accessibility research teams in the industry geared toward user-focused research advancing human-computer interaction. This made innovations like Eye Control in Windows 10 possible, enabling eye control communication for people with ALS. Since 2014, more than 6,500 Microsoft employees have participated in the Ability Hack, creating 1,000 projects like MirrorHR, which identifies potential triggers of seizures in children with epilepsy and advances clinical trial research.

We also work with the best accessibility researchers around the world. We have a new partnership with the University of Washington on CREATE, an interdisciplinary center working to build research technology and innovation models that will ultimately drive more accessible technology and inclusive communities. In the United Kingdom, we’re partnering with the nonprofit SeeAbility to research the importance of accessible technologies needed for assisted living environments and provide first-line care workers with the digital skills to use them.

Data fuels improvements in digital technologies. Today there is a gap in datasets that include people with disabilities, known as the data desert. To be more inclusive and avoid biases that skew decision-making in artificial intelligence and machine learning systems, we aim to increase the representation of people with disabilities in datasets. Our AI for Accessibility Program invests in projects around the world seeking to address this lack of disability data. But this lack of data cannot be solved by Microsoft alone, so we are partnering across the disability and accessibility community to advance this work. Look for more in the coming year.

Increasing access and affordability

For many people, assistive technology is out of reach due to cost or lack of connectivity. We are addressing this in two ways. First, we are creating a new Low-Cost Assistive Technology Fund, as part of the AI for Accessibility program, to spark innovation aimed at driving down the cost of assistive digital technology and increasing access to it. This will launch this fall. Second, in the U.S., we are working with internet providers, city governments and community organizations to offer affordable broadband, hardware, software and digital skills resources to people with disabilities, with a current focus in Los Angeles and New York. And third, Microsoft Stores is today announcing ASL video call capability to enable deaf customers to explore Microsoft products with a member of our deaf support staff.

Workforce

 We recognize that accessible technology by itself will be insufficient to create the opportunities that people with disabilities deserve. We also know firsthand that the development of accessible technology requires more talented individuals with disabilities. We’re therefore building a second strong pillar that will intensify our focus on building a workforce that better represents people with disabilities. As we’ve learned, it’s both the right thing to do and it’s good for our business. Studies show that companies that hire, support and promote talent with disabilities financially outperform their peers.

Increasing skills and education

Building this workforce will require a concerted effort to provide people with disabilities with the same access as everyone else to education and job opportunities. We believe technology can play an important role in unlocking this access through skills development, education and by better connecting people with disabilities to job opportunities.

The digital era is creating a new generation of technology that will require everyone to learn new skills, including people with disabilities. That is why our new initiative is founded in part on work to train more people about accessibility needs and accessible design. We are building on our work with Teach Access, an industry collaboration to address the critical need to enhance students’ understanding of digital accessibility, to support a cultural shift across the tech sector that will help create new technologies with the needs of people with disabilities in mind.

We recognize that the role of any single company will always be limited. But we’re excited about what we believe we can do. We’ve gathered new insights through Microsoft’s global skills initiative into the practical obstacles that people confront and new ways to overcome them. We are committed to putting these learnings to work through our skilling resources from across Microsoft, including from LinkedIn, Microsoft Learn and GitHub. We will increase accessibility certifications and Microsoft accessibility curriculum, while expanding the accessibility of our skills curriculum and offering new curriculum across Microsoft Learn and LinkedIn Learning.

We will also use digital technology to improve the accessibility of classrooms through a new Accessibility University Initiative. Based on a pilot at the University of Illinois, we’re expanding our work to additional colleges and universities to increase graduation rates of students with disabilities in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education, reaching universities such as the University of Texas Austin, Georgia Tech and Florida A&M. We are working together to create best-in-class Universal Design Learning (UDL) environments in STEM education. This work will also grow much-needed academic research on the impact of accessible technology on students and provide insight into how to grow workforce-ready disability talent.

Finally, today we’re announcing a way to help students better master social and emotional skills. Reflect in Microsoft Teams for education will support social and emotional learning (SEL) to help students to learn emotional vocabulary and enhance empathy with peers.

Connecting skilled workers with jobs 

Once people with disabilities have the right skills and education to enter the workforce, the next critical step is to connect them with job opportunities. Today LinkedIn CEO Ryan Roslansky and I are announcing that we’re doing just that through LinkedIn’s new accessibility resources and features to support the growth of a more inclusive, skills-based labor market through accessible learning paths designed to connect learners with jobs. This program includes a new LinkedIn Learning course focusing on accessibility in the modern workplace.

For higher-education students, our new Career Coach app in Microsoft Teams, powered by LinkedIn, will also help grow accessibility skills. Later this year, we will be holding LinkedIn Coaches events geared toward job seekers with disabilities to help identify new employment opportunities. Our plan is to learn from the LinkedIn Coaches experience and use this learning to develop future strategies. Building on the work of Microsoft’s Disability Answer Desk, LinkedIn is also partnering with Be My Eyes to make LinkedIn staff available for visual assistance through video.

We also will expand our longstanding work with industry partners, nonprofits, the public sector and the disability community to address barriers to hiring people with disabilities. We have a clear and measurable goal, aimed at reducing the unemployment rate for people with disabilities. First, we will grow our work with other companies to make it easier for people with disabilities to seek employment. The Autism Employer Hiring Coalition, a program that includes companies such as Dell, EY and JPMorgan Chase, with support from Inclusively, is expanding to better enable companies to consider autistic job seekers. We are also expanding our work with workforce development organizations, empowering them with digital tools and trainings focused on digital accessibility, including a pilot with the U.K. Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) to train 26,000 work coaches on modern accessibility tools to assist job seekers with disabilities. Partnerships like these are core to our strategy and we will have more partnerships and our plans to scale this work in the future.

Workplace

Workforce development needs to be coupled with broader and more effective work to foster a welcoming and inclusive culture for people with disabilities. This needs to include more effective work to attract employees with disabilities, accessible digital and physical work environments, building an accessible supply chain, and helping partners with their accessibility journeys.

Even after 25 years of work, we find that we have a lot more to learn and much more innovation ahead to nurture a sustainable culture of accessibility. In October, we published our first Disability Representation report, disclosing that 6.1% of U.S. employees have self-identified as having a disability. We will now expand the survey to 45 additional countries, reaching 90% of our employees. As our workforce grows, we have expanded the global centralized accommodation processes to ensure that every employee has what they need to be successful.

Inclusive hiring

We will broaden our inclusive hiring programs, including our Supported Employment Program from one to 12 countries, and we will expand our Autism Hiring program to include neurodiversity, such as ADD/ADHD, dyslexia and dyspraxia, as well as learning disabilities. We are also expanding this program geographically to include Asia and Europe over the next 12 to 18 months.

Accessible and inclusive tools and spaces

We recognize that we need to extend inclusion beyond our four walls. We’re doing this by helping our 20,000 Microsoft suppliers create a culture of accessibility that we hope will have a ripple effect throughout our industry and across the business community. Since 2015 we have expressly included accessibility in our procurement processes, and it’s now a requirement for working with us. This may be a challenge for some of our suppliers, so we are committed to helping them through our Supplier Toolkit. It includes accessibility fundamentals trainings; resources that introduce accessibility concepts for anyone who manages, designs, creates or edits digital assets; and technical training resources on implementing accessibility in product design, development, and testing. Microsoft has committed to paying our equitable wages to our employees and requires suppliers to pay their employees at least the minimum wage. We also work with Disablity:IN, a leading nonprofit, to share and learn supply chain best practices with other companies.

Employees

All our work in accessibility is informed by feedback from our employees. Microsoft’s Disability Employee Resource Group now includes more than 22 disability communities, with regional and divisional chapters. We have also created a new Employee Experience Accessibility team that focuses on improving accessibility of our internal tools, training and content, physical environment and partnerships with our suppliers. This will advance our efforts to build an inclusive workplace culture that empowers employees with disabilities to achieve their career aspirations and scale our culture of accessibility.

Empowering customers and partners on their accessibility journey

We believe that Microsoft’s most important contribution to accessibility will come not from our own work, but from helping our customers and partners use technology to meet their accessibility commitments. Last year we published the Microsoft Accessibility Evolution Model, an operational “how to” to help our customers develop their own accessibility road maps and business plans. The model provides function-by-function guidance and resources that help an organization develop accessible behaviors, practices and processes. We continually incorporate new learnings and are deepening our engagement with our top enterprise customers, nonprofits and Microsoft partners, helping them to use digital technology to become more accessible.

 ***

Our accessibility team reminds us to do “nothing about us, without us.” It’s a motto that we take to heart every single day as we work to create a more inclusive future. We’ll highlight all this work at our 11th annual Ability Summit on May 5 and 6, 2021. Microsoft senior leaders, including CEO Satya Nadella, industry leaders, people with disabilities, allies and accessibility professionals come together to imagine, build and empower the future of disability inclusion and accessibility.

To learn more about our commitment, visit https://news.microsoft.com/accessibility-commitment

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