REDMOND, Wash., July 26, 2005 – This week marks the 15th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), a landmark U.S. civil-rights law that protects people with disabilities from discrimination, ensures them equal access to public transportation and public buildings, and requires employers to provide a “reasonable level of accommodation” to help them do their jobs. In today’s knowledge economy, reasonable accommodation often includes accessible and assistive technologies that make it easier, and in some cases possible, for people with disabilities to use computers and to customize their work environments.
Even before passage of the ADA, Microsoft had started to develop software that was designed to empower people with disabilities. For nearly 20 years, Microsoft has been committed to increasing the accessibility of its own products while providing a platform that enables other developers to create assistive software and devices that are compatible with Microsoft Windows operating systems and other Microsoft products.
The Microsoft Accessibility Resource Centers (MARC) program is one of the company’s latest efforts to empower people with disabilities. For the MARC program, Microsoft partnered with two nonprofit organizations — the Alliance for Technology Access (ATA) and the Association of Assistive Technology Act Programs (ATAP) — to select 26 centers in the United States that provide technology training and assistance for people with a variety difficulties and disabilities that affect computer use, such as low vision, hand and wrist pain, and hearing loss. The MARC pilot program equips the centers with resources designed to train people on the accessibility options in Windows, Office and Internet Explorer so that they can adjust their computers and make them easier to use.
Russ Holland, Program Director, The Alliance for Technology Access, and LaDeana McCoskey Huyler, Marketing Manager, Microsoft Accessible Technology Group
LaDeana Huyler, a marketing manager for the Accessible Technology Group at Microsoft, and Russ Holland, program director at the Alliance for Technology Access, are two of the people responsible for creating and implementing the MARC program. PressPass caught up with Huyler and Holland as they were preparing to attend the annual ATA Institute in Seekonk, Massachusetts, July 28-30. This year, the ATA Institute will focus on “converging and emerging technologies and their impact on people with disabilities, communities, and our society.” Huyler and Holland also plan to use the ATA Institute as an opportunity to meet with many of the MARC center directors and to brainstorm ideas for the future of the program.
PressPass: Why was the MARC program started? What do you hope to see it accomplish?
Holland: If people with disabilities are to have the access they deserve, then the single most critical factor we need to work on is awareness, and the MARC program can play a significant role in that. In Windows XP, for example, there are many accessibility options and utilities available to anyone who uses the operating system. They are not sufficient to meet the needs of every person with a disability, nor are they meant to be, but they are a great start. As we travel and train people on assistive technology, however, we find that many people are not even aware that these accessibility options exist.
The MARC materials offer a way for people to learn about the opportunities and potential that accessible and assistive technology can provide, and to take the first step toward making them a reality. If MARC helps people realize that their disability need not be a barrier to access, education or employment, then it will be a success.
Huyler: Our research shows that the majority of computer users — from people with mild impairments to severe disabilities, and workers who are just beginning to experience the effects of age-related impairments — could benefit from using the accessibility options, but many people simply don’t know those options are available on their computers. For example, a study commissioned by Microsoft and conducted by Forrester Research found that 57 percent of working-age computer users [74.2 million people in the United States] are likely or very likely to benefit from the use of accessible technology because of mild-to-severe difficulties or impairments.
Currently, there are many community technology centers nationwide that train people with physical and cognitive disabilities and impairments to use the wide variety of assistive technology products that are available on the market, such as screen readers for people who are blind or specially designed keyboards and mice for people with dexterity difficulties. These technology centers are wonderful resources in local communities, and Microsoft wanted to support their work by providing resources to help the centers educate people on how to adjust their computers immediately to make them easier to hear, see, and use.
As a first step, we established a network of 26 centers to help increase awareness of the accessibility options available in Windows, and we provided each center with comprehensive training materials. Microsoft provides all of these resources to the centers free of charge, and the centers can pass them along at no cost to individuals, or educational and training organizations.
PressPass: What kind of resources and support do the centers receive through the MARC program? How does each of those resources serve people with physical or cognitive difficulties, impairments or disabilities?
Huyler: Microsoft supplies the centers with copies of the Microsoft Accessibility Resources, which include:
Video demonstrations that provide an overview of what people can accomplish with the accessibility options in Windows XP
Step-by-step tutorials to show users how to begin using accessibility options in Windows, Office, and Internet Explorer
Guides on specialized assistive technology products for people with various types of difficulties and impairments
Inspiring case studies that showcase knowledge workers using accessible technology to overcome a wide variety of difficulties and impairments
The centers load these resources onto their computers so that visitors may view and use them easily. The resources are also available on a CD set, called the Microsoft Accessibility Resource CD Set, so that centers can offer the same resources for those who want to use them at home. The CD sets, valued at (US) $3.95, are supplied at no charge to anyone who wants one, and the centers can distribute them at their discretion to local businesses, schools, nonprofit organizations, and trainers.
The CD set and the resources it contains have received wide acclaim from computer users who have used them as well as rehabilitation and occupational therapists. Many trainers have integrated these materials into their training presentations to enhance awareness of the capabilities built into the operating system.
Holland: Just as important as the training resources is the publicity that the MARC program brings to the issue of accessibility awareness. Centers that participate in the MARC program are advertised on the Microsoft Accessibility Web site and showcased in the Microsoft Accessibility Update newsletter that reaches thousands of subscribers each month. This goes a long way toward connecting people to local community technology centers where they can see assistive technology in action and learn from assistive technology experts. Through the Microsoft Accessibility Web site, publications, and other channels the MARC program encourages many people to investigate the opportunities accessible and assistive technology can offer, and identifies the MARC Centers as one place where people can pursue their search for assistance.
PressPass: How are the MARC program, and the resources it provides, helping people with disabilities?
Huyler: One center shared the story of a woman with Parkinson’s disease who came in for a technology consultation. Because of her condition, she had difficulty seeing the computer screen and using the mouse and keyboard. After viewing the videos about accessibility in Windows XP, she learned how to use the Accessibility Wizard to activate several accessibility features that made it easier for her to control the keyboard and mouse, and improved the visibility of text and other screen graphics. After the consultation, she immediately went home and adjusted her computer based on what she learned at the center. Now she is able to use her computer with very little difficulty. She told the center staff, “Just enlarging the type and changing the color contrast was wonderful and I would have done this years ago if I had known about the Microsoft Accessibility features.”
Holland: Once someone with an impairment or disability is able to use assistive technology and to realize its potential to level the playing field for them, they have started down a path that can take them anywhere they want to go in their personal and professional lives. Awareness is the first step that is so often missing, and the primary goal of the MARC program is to help increase awareness about what is possible with accessible technology and to fill the gap between awareness and use.
PressPass: Has the MARC program succeeded in increasing accessibility awareness?
Huyler: Yes, since the program started in April more than 11,000 people have used the training resources at local centers, businesses, nonprofit organizations and schools, and more than 2,000 Microsoft Accessibility Resource CD sets have been distributed through the program. By the end of 2005, we expect to reach more than 50,000 people with information that demonstrates how accessibility options and assistive technology products can help them make their computers easier to use.
PressPass: How does the MARC program help ATA and ATAP staff and volunteers do a better job of assisting and training the people that the centers serve?
Holland: Publicity about the MARC program helps ATA and ATAP reach a larger audience. The program also provides information and training resources that people with impairments or disabilities can use independently to gain awareness of accessible and assistive technology and a basic understanding of the tools. That frees center staff members to focus on consumer needs beyond initial training.
Also, because Microsoft provides centers with extensive training resources, center staff can spend more time training people and less time developing training materials. Since April, more than 110 assistive technology trainers have received the Microsoft resources to use in their training, and CDs have been distributed to hundreds of businesses, nonprofits and educational organizations.
PressPass: What kind of feedback have you received about the MARC program from businesses, trainers and nonprofit or educational organizations that have been using the MARC resources?
Huyler: We’ve received many positive comments about the MARC resources, and the rate at which they have been distributed and used is certainly testimony to their popularity and effectiveness.
One noteworthy story was shared by the Assistive Technology Resource Centers (ATRC) of Hawaii in Honolulu, which has been training personnel for the Hawaii Department of Labor and numerous “one-stop” community resource centers statewide. The work is being done through the Workforce Investment Act; the one-stop centers provide a single location where people can go to get all of the employment assistance they need. The goal of the ATRC training is to educate all one-stop center staff about the different types of assistive technology products that are available, how to install and use the technology, and how to resolve user issues.
According to the ATRC of Hawaii, the MARC resources enriched the training that was already under way. The one-stop centers focus on providing options, so having information about the full spectrum of assistive technology products, plus the many accessibility features in Windows, Office and Internet Explorer, fit well with the centers’ mission. The ATRC is now expanding its reach by using the Microsoft Accessibility Resource CD in a project with the Hawaii Department of Education, which includes short presentations for Hawaii’s public school special education departments.
PressPass: What is the future potential of the MARC program?
Huyler: This program is still in its infancy, so it is hard to say how it will blossom in the future. Over the past two decades, Microsoft has increasingly integrated accessibility options and basic assistive technology utilities (such as Magnifier, On-Screen Keyboard and Narrator) into each new version of Windows. By working closely with advocacy organizations and assistive technology partners over the years, we learned a great deal about how to make a better, more accessible operating system. We are still learning today.
Windows XP is the most accessible operating system we have ever released, with a broad range of built-in accessibility options and a wide array of compatible assistive technology products. But we want to go beyond that in the future, and do even more. Engaging and partnering with community technology centers through the MARC program helps us to better understand the needs of computer users, how well our products meet their needs, and where there are gaps we need to address.
Microsoft is already working with many center directors to brainstorm ideas for the future. The next version of Windows, called Windows Vista and scheduled for release in 2006, will include even more accessibility options than Windows XP. Windows Vista was designed with accessibility in mind, and Microsoft invested in more than three years of research and usability studies to help ensure Vista would meet the needs of people with a variety of difficulties, impairments, and disabilities.
As the MARC program progresses, we are exploring new ideas to increase awareness about those features and to help the centers get ready to meet the needs of people who are interested in using the new Windows Vista next year. For example, we are currently exploring options for bringing new technology partners into the program to see if we can expand its scope.
Holland: I have had the opportunity to work with Microsoft and the Accessible Technology Group [ATG] for many years. I served on the Microsoft Accessibility Advisory Committee that was formed to help the company determine how its products could address the needs of people with disabilities. Over the years, I have been involved in many advocacy and problem-solving initiatives with ATG staff as they have worked to increase accessibility awareness throughout Microsoft and to ensure greater accessibility in each new version of Windows and other Microsoft products.
As with many advocacy efforts, that work is ongoing, but Microsoft is fortunate to have people in the Accessible Technology Group who know the field, know the company, and have a real vision and commitment to continually increase accessibility for all people.