Microsoft’s Accessibility Journey: Education, Work and Life


By Jenny Lay-Flurrie, chief accessibility officer, Microsoft

This week is one that many in the accessibility community look forward to all year. Today, I'm spending the day in San Francisco attending the Game Accessibility Conference (GAConf) along with colleagues from Xbox, then I’m headed to the 33rd annual CSUN Assistive Technology Conference. I’m one of nearly 80 people from Microsoft going there and meeting with folks to discuss the future of accessibility. There is a lot to talk about, so whether you’re attending in person, or watching via social media, here’s an overview of our strategy and roadmap going forward with a sneak peek as to what’s to come.

Recent Progress

It’s been a great start to the year, with launches coming thick and fast – from Microsoft Disability Answer Desk support via Be My Eyes, to Learning Tools on iPad and the new Soundscape app on iOS. We have more to come (yes that’s teasing!) as we work to empower folks in three core areas: Education, Workplace, and Life.

Education

Technology can play an important role in empowering students to be successful, especially those with disabilities. An inclusive classroom can enable students to do their best work and gain independence, while giving teachers the opportunity to engage every learner. The vision we have is simple: how can we empower a group of students, with a variety of disabilities (or not), to work together and co-author a piece of work? Built-in accessibility solutions now in our products can make our vision a reality.

Students from across the disability spectrum – from learning disabilities like dyslexia, to blindness, and more – can use the same technology as their peers. This can reduce stigma and provide students with the tools they need to fully engage with curricula, classmates and teachers. At their fingertips, students have the ability to turn on tools when and where they need that can help them read, write and collaborate. For example, students can customize how they view and read content with:

  • Learning Tools Immersive Reader – This allows students to change spacing and font size, identify syllables and parts of speech, as well as line focus. Available in OneNote, Word, Outlook, Office Lens and Edge.
  • Read Aloud – It enables students to hear written text while each word is simultaneously highlighted. Available in multiple Office 365 applications.
  • Colour Blindness filters – Added last November, these can be switched on in the Windows Ease of Access Settings to provide access to charts, graphs and images for folks that are colour blind.
  • Narrator – Provides students who are blind the ability to navigate any Windows 10 device, access content in Office 365, and read and reply to comments in Word.

Similarly, students can choose how they contribute and write content with:

  • Dictate in Office – This tool helps students write by using only their voice. Shipping in 9 languages across much of the Office suite (from Word to PowerPoint, Outlook Desktop and OneNote.)
  • Ink to math – Like pen on paper, students can hand write math equations that become typed text. Available in OneNote for Windows 10.
  • Eye Control on Windows 10 – A new preview feature that empowers folks to control a mouse and type content with an on-screen keyboard using just the movement of their eyes. This feature will soon get additional capabilities, such as scrolling, right/left click, calibration improvements and more.
  • Real time messaging – While we have more work to do on Microsoft Teams, this example from a classroom in London shows how simple features can empower a connection and help create a more inclusive classroom.

Workplace

Reducing the unemployment rate for people with disabilities is one of our top priorities – and the unemployment statistics are forever on our minds. There are so many productivity features now embedded into product: simple features that can really make a difference to people. We are continuing to invest in both our first party features and third party partnerships with companies such as NVDA and Freedom Scientific. Here are my top tips:

  • Making it easier to turn on accessibility features – Coming this spring, you’ll be able to ask Cortana to find a setting in Windows Ease of Access and activate it. Quick and easy to do whether you’re new to accessibility or an old hand.
  • Making it easier to create inclusive and accessible content – We moved the Accessibility Checker to the ribbon and usage increased 5 times. Whether you’re in Word, Outlook, PowerPoint, or even Visio, you can now make sure that what you send, share, or collaborate on is inclusive and accessible.
  • Narrator improvements – The Windows team continues to march forward on its journey with Narrator, and this spring will be releasing more performance, navigation, Edge browsing, audio, Braille and yes – Narrator is coming to Safe Mode. Please do check out this blog from Jeff Petty, which includes improvements detailed by our valued partners NVDA and Freedom Scientific.
  • Highlighting features you may not know aboutPresentation Translator brings real-time subtitles to presentations in 60+ supported languages using a Microsoft PowerPoint add-in. Also, Tell Me is a great but little known feature that allows you to enter words and phrases about what you want to do next and quickly get to features that help you get things done. There are many more – I would love to hear your favourite.
  • Showing stories – To demonstrate how these inclusively designed technologies are having a real impact, we launched a series of videos. The Inclusion in Action video series features 6 individuals that reached out to us via Disability Answer Desk, our Twitter handle or approached one of us at a conference!

Life

We continue to imagine what’s possible to empower people with disabilities – and how technology can impact home, play and life. Here are some examples:

  • Microsoft Soundscape app – It helps people who are blind or have low vision explore the world around them through 3D audio experience. If you haven’t tried it yet, download the app from iOS app store and give it a go!
  • Xbox – Xbox has been bringing core accessibility to life over the last several months, with Narrator support, updated Magnifier capabilities, Inline Chat features and enhancements to audio playback. They also launched a new feature set called Copilot to empower gamers to play together, dividing function keys to get achievements unlocked!"
  • Hands-Free Music Project – This brings music to people with ALS. A user-interface that is controlled with your eyes allows you to build lines of a score and hear it played. It's a great project that just won the Interactive Innovation Award at SXSW.
  • Seeing AI – The "Talking Camera App for the Blind Community" launched last summer already has 150,000 downloads in 35 countries and has assisted users finish more than 5 million tasks.
  • Lastly the world of Artificial Intelligence (AI) – We’re already seeing the positive impact AI can have for people with disabilities with AI-powered features like Microsoft Translator and automatic suggestions for image Alt-Text in Word and PowerPoint. AI is about empowering human capability and these examples, and more, illustrate to us the real time and future potential for this space.

Here is the video without audio description

Learning Along the Way

One of my catchphrases is "Feedback is a Gift." I believe it in every aspect of life, but especially when it comes to technology and accessibility. People with disabilities are the experts and your feedback and ideas keep us grounded. There are several ways you can stay involved and up to speed on changes at Microsoft with the frequency of your choice:

  • Insiders – For the technical early adopters, we recommend you get involved in our Insider Communities – from Windows, to Office, to Skype. Each group posts early builds to their Insider groups. Great opportunity to be involved from the ground up, but be warned, these are early builds, so early adopters only!
  • UserVoice – Got accessibility feedback on any Microsoft product or suggestions or ideas? Send them into UserVoice and share with your colleagues who can vote them up or down. We review ideas posted here every single day.
  • Making it easier to get help – The Disability Answer Desk (DAD) recently relaunched its website adding quick videos covering some of the common questions we get like how to do a clean install using Narrator and tips for assistive technologies. There are more videos on our Microsoft Accessibility YouTube Channel, including how to give an Inclusive Presentation.
  • Feature lists in a box – We heard that you wanted an easy way to reference all the features across Microsoft products, so we put them into on document. Check out our Accessibility Feature Sway which has every feature broken down by disability type. It’s a living document and we will keep it updated as more features come out!
  • Inclusion practices in a box – We had the same request for our disability hiring practices so there’s a Disability Inclusion Sway for that, too!

The future looks bright

There is much more on the horizon as we think about the worlds of Education, Work and this small thing called Life. We look forward to the conversations we are having this week and at events later this year, including a new event on May 31, 2018. As many of you know, for the last seven years, we have hosted a Microsoft company event called the Ability Summit. This year, for the first time, we will be opening our doors at Microsoft's headquarters in Redmond, Washington, to talk about products, jobs, the upcoming Seattle Special Olympic USA Games and our overall journey with Accessibility. Please save the date for on May 31 with more details coming soon!

Once again, for those of you coming CSUN, we look forward to seeing you there. Check out the Microsoft sessions and stop by the Microsoft exhibits in the Grand Hall  at booth 213. We will also be present at several other events throughout the year – just check out our blog and Twitter for the latest – and be sure to check back next week for our wrap of CSUN!


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