Accessibility and Technology Take Center Stage at the 2014 Ability Summit

The following blog post was written by Paul Nyhan, a staff writer with the Microsoft Accessibility Blog. Paul is a 20-year journalism veteran who has written extensively about disability issues.


When Microsoft held its first Ability Summit in 2010, eighty people gathered in a small room to talk about accessibility, technology and disability. What a difference four years makes.

Last month, the Ability Summit took center stage, as hundreds of people - employees, politicians, disability rights advocates, educators and public officials - packed a far larger hall to discuss what they are doing and need to be doing to create a more accessible world.

The day-long summit explored all of the accessibility work at Microsoft, ranging from panels on the basics of accessibility in technology and accessible web development to support for parents with special needs children and employment of people with disabilities.

Together, all of these panels, talks, awards and casual conversations over lunch and coffee highlighted how accessibility has been moving towards the heart of the technology industry and its work. In Microsoft, Washington state and around the world, leaders have embraced the idea, and this year’s summit drew Gov. Jay Inslee, Microsoft Chief Executive Officer Satya Nadella and United Nations Ambassador of Ecuador Luis Gallegos, a long-time champion of accessible information technology.

“You’ve got to have leadership that embraces this as a real goal. We really need to get this on the hearts and minds of our politicians, as well as our business leaders,” Gov. Jay Inslee said during his luncheon address. “We’ve got a CEO here at Microsoft who gets it.”

While the governor drew a big crowd and plenty of applause, the day was dominated by Microsoft developers, strategists, program managers and product planners who are driving innovation and creation of accessible products, software and devices at the company.

People like Amos Miller, director of Enterprise Strategy Asia at Microsoft, who helped lead a panel on “Enabling through Design Empathy” that showed how design and engineering focused on the toughest challenges, such as access issues of people with disabilities, can drive innovation for everyone.

And Windows developer Guy Barker, who has been creating applications for ten years that help people with disabilities communicate and connect. He spoke about creating accessible apps for Windows 8, including his latest creation the 8 Way Speaker App, which gives a user eight options to select words that will be spoken.

At the heart of all this work is the One Microsoft Accessibility Strategy that views accessibility as a mainstream and competitive market, where the company can offer free first-party solutions driven by proactive engagement, instead of the old view that accessibility is a niche market, too often defined by costly third-party solutions and a compliance mindset.

Our task is to shed the compliance mindset, build out our capacity and capabilities to deliver high quality, differentiated solutions that are power(ful) and flexible enough to work for people of all abilities in the wide range of situations we encounter every day. -- PowerPoint presentation “The New ‘One Microsoft’ Accessibility Strategy, 2014 Ability Summit.

In the digital age, technology is a key enabler, Jill Houghton, chair of the US Business Leadership Network or USBLN, a non-profit focused on disability inclusion in business and markets, said during a luncheon panel discussion that included Gov. Inslee and Colleen Fukui-Sketchley, Corporate Center Diversity Affairs director at Nordstrom.

“There is over 1 billion people with disabilities worldwide,” Houghton said. “We are a large, strong and growing market.”

The Ability Summit showcased accessibility’s growing importance to not only those 1 billion people with disabilities, but to everyone. Now, designers, developers, advocates, product managers, and public officials at the summit should build on the summit’s momentum to inspire a broader people-centric approach throughout the company and tech industry that creates technology that can fit everyone’s abilities, leaders urged.

“I hope that everybody today is committed to raising the bar,” Gov. Inslee said.



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