REDMOND, Wash., Oct. 22, 1998 — Disability activists have long considered Greg Lowney the chief advocate within Microsoft for people with disabilities, because of his outstanding work to help Microsoft make the Internet, multimedia applications and the Windows operating system more accessible to people with a wide range of disabilities. Now, he has the title to prove it.
Lowney’s current challenge is to create a central department that will oversee Microsoft’s accessibility efforts and help the company succeed in its commitment to build more accessibility features into its products. As Microsoft’s first Director of Accessibility, a new position created in February, Lowney will lead a large team to ensure Microsoft’s product groups develop innovative products that meet the diverse needs of people with disabilities.
Lowney, a friendly man with wire-rimmed glasses and wide, red sideburns, explains how his responsibility has increased with the growing public awareness of accessibility issues. A poster on the wall behind him reads, “Think ALL users; think Accessibility,” a testament to Lowney’s belief that software can empower or exclude people with disabilities, depending on how it is developed.
Lowney’s group is following a four-pronged approach to provide more accessible products to customers. The strategy includes developing accessible products and technologies within Microsoft, working closely with outside developers to create accessible products reaching out to the disability community to better meet customer needs, and providing customers with detailed information on the accessibility features of Microsoft products.
“When we’re fully staffed, we’ll be much more responsive and proactive,” Lowney explains. “A centralized group will allow us to provide the product groups with high-quality advice on accessibility issues earlier in the product cycle. It will also allow us to hire people who can provide a wider range of specialized advice on how people who are deaf use our products, for example, or how a person with dyslexia might use our products.”
From Programming to People
Lowney began using computers in high school, and eventually became a computer hobbyist who programmed for fun with friends at the University of Washington. He later worked as a programmer for the University of Washington’s Physics Department, and eventually landed a contract job with a local school district to install a system of networked computers. There, he realized he enjoyed teaching people how to use computers even more than he enjoyed programming.
“I think my interaction with people there changed the way I thought about the computer industry. It wasn’t just sitting in a room and programming anymore,” he says. “It was more important to be out there talking with people who were benefiting from the computer software.”
Lowney joined Microsoft in 1986, and began working on accessibility issues two years later while serving as the core program manager for Windows. The Trace Research and Development Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison received a government grant to make Windows 2.0 accessible for people with impaired hearing and dexterity, and contacted Lowney to see if Microsoft would help with the project. “I thought that was a cool idea that none of us had ever dealt with before,” Lowney recalls.
The result was Access Pack for Microsoft Windows, an add-on package that included features to enhance the operation of the keyboard and mouse, provide visual feedback when the computer makes sounds and allow specialized devices to operate the computer.
Gregg Vanderheiden, director of the Trace R & D Center, says the center eventually formed a relationship with Lowney because he took the time to understand the university’s needs. “This was purely Greg Lowney, who felt that it was something that needed to be done,” Vanderheiden says. “Slowly he became kind of the unofficial spokesperson at Microsoft around this issue, and people began coming to him and asking him questions.”
After Microsoft shipped Windows 2.0, Lowney increasingly spent his time working on accessibility issues. He worked with the Trace R & D Center to develop updated Access utilities for Windows 3.0 and 3.1 and added accessibility features to DOS. In 1992, Microsoft offered Lowney a full-time job to coordinate accessibility issues for the company.
“In some ways, it was a tough decision because I came from a technical background, and the work I had been doing for Microsoft until then had been extremely technical,” Lowney says. But he accepted the offer because “it makes me feel good to be able to contribute to society in a positive way, and to be able to make this society more just for people.”
For many years, Lowney was the sole person within Microsoft who worked on accessibility. Eventually, various product teams within the company hired people to address accessibility issues for specific products, and the number of people focusing on accessibility within Microsoft gradually rose to 10 by the end of last year.
Elevating the Issue
Activists representing the disability community credit Lowney with helping to elevate accessibility as an issue within Microsoft. “He was the only person at the time within Microsoft working on accessibility,” says Curtis Chong, president of the National Federation of the Blind’s computer science division, who met Lowney in 1993. “He promoted the program when nobody else believed in it.”
Chong says Microsoft is doing far more to promote accessibility than it was five years ago. “But you know, it wouldn’t have happened as fast if Greg wasn’t there,” he said. “I do believe that strongly.”
“I don’t know anybody who’s trying harder, and I don’t know anybody whose heart is more in the right place,” says Vanderheiden, the Trace Center director. ” Even before there was a big movement within Microsoft, he was able to make progress. He laid the foundation and the groundwork for all that followed. What he has done has not only had a profound impact at Microsoft, but on the entire field of technology and disability.”
Microsoft has accomplished “a lot of really great things for accessibility” during the past few years, Lowney acknowledges. The company managed to build a wide range of accessibility options into every copy of Windows and Windows NT, he says. It added closed captioning and audio description technology to make almost all of its multimedia products accessible to the deaf and blind communities. And it developed Active Accessibility, a new technology that makes it easier for computer applications to work with accessibility aids.
Despite these accomplishments, Lowney says Microsoft made a major mistake last year when in its rush to release Internet Explorer 4.0, it released the product with fewer accessibility features than version 3.0. Although Microsoft corrected most of the problems 30 days later with the release of Internet Explorer 4.01, the chain of events nevertheless harmed Microsoft’s credibility within the disability community.
“This was a real blow to the disability community, which had been counting on Microsoft to improve their products with each release,” Lowney says. “And many came to question whether accessibility had really become part of the system at Microsoft and whether it was taken seriously everywhere throughout the company.”
Reaffirming the Commitment
The mistake with Internet Explorer led Microsoft Group Vice President Paul Maritz and CEO Bill Gates to reaffirm Microsoft’s commitment to accessibility issues. At Microsoft Accessibility Day 98 in February, Gates announced the formation of an Accessibility and Disabilities Group within Microsoft and Lowney’s new position as director overseeing the group and driving the company’s overall strategy.
In the last eight months, the 10 people focusing on accessibility issues have moved into his group, and Lowney has tripled the number of people working full-time on accessibility. Lowney hopes to have a staff of 25 employees and a large number of contractors on board within the next six months, who will provide detailed assistance to product teams, conduct outreach to outside developers and the disability community and develop technologies that developers can use to build accessible products.
By reorganizing into a single group, the company’s goal is to provide a more cohesive approach to addressing accessibility issues. “By being centralized, we have the ability to be much better coordinated, to ensure that our actions all fit together well and are in tune with our long-term strategic goals,” Lowney says.
The Road Ahead
The group has outlined several initiatives aimed at strengthening its work within the accessibility arena. For example, it is developing measurable objectives for making future versions of Microsoft products more accessible. And it is establishing a 25-member advisory council comprised of prominent members of the disability community to help Microsoft determine its priorities and verify progress.
But Lowney says his most important goal for the coming year will be to establish a process for working closely with Microsoft product groups to ensure these groups address accessibility in a systematic way. “That includes building up our team, who will be there assisting the product groups from the beginning and all throughout the product cycle,” Lowney says. “It also involves setting up the oversight mechanism by which product groups will rate themselves and be rated on how well they’re addressing accessibility.”
Lowney says he spends most of his day in meetings-discussing accessibility issues with his team, providing advice to product groups and working with marketing teams to develop communication strategies. While the job allows him to combine his technical and management skills, the biggest satisfaction comes from knowing that millions of people with disabilities will benefit from the progress Microsoft makes in this area.
“I’m the kind of person who believes in doing what’s right,” Lowney says. “And in this case, it’s my belief that computer companies should make their products an enabling part of our culture rather than a barrier.”