Today’s Assistive Technology, Tomorrow’s Everyday Convenience

REDMOND, Wash., July 26, 1999 — Motivated by a powerful desire to overcome barriers to employment and full participation in other aspects of mainstream life, people with disabilities have always been among those who are willing to experiment with new technologies.

For more than a decade people with limited dexterity have been running software that lets them use their voices to communicate with their computers, and blind users have listened as their computers talked to them. Today, these technologies have been refined to the point that they’re ready to be marketed to mainstream audiences. And then there’s the onscreen keyboard, a technology developed initially for those who could not type but were able to point. Today, it seems as though every other corporate executive you see is carrying around a little palm-sized computer with an onscreen keyboard. Older examples of such technology evolutions from outside the world of computers include the typewriter, telephone, ramps cut into curbs, easy-to-open containers, and the bell that signals the arrival of the elevator.

“When new technology is first introduced, it is often pretty cumbersome,” says Greg Lowney, director of accessibility and the Accessibility and Disabilities Group at Microsoft. “Mainstream audiences aren’t willing to try it and quickly give up in frustration because the inconveniences outweigh the benefits it provides them. Microsoft relies on early adopters – such as people who love computer games, people in the computer industry, and people with disabilities – to teach us how to make our products more usable.”

On July 26, the nation marks the ninth anniversary of Americans with Disabilities Act, federal legislation that requires businesses with more than 15 employees to accommodate individuals with disabilities. “Microsoft has been working on making our technology accessible to individuals with disabilities for more than a decade, because it’s the right thing to do and it makes good business sense,” Lowney says. “It’s also consistent with Bill Gates’ vision of empowering people through great software – any time, anywhere and on any device. The passage of the ADA motivated our large corporate clients to also take this issue more seriously, which has given us further justification for being proactive in this area.”

This is not a small niche. It’s estimated that there are more than 30 million people in the United States with disabilities who can be affected by the accessibility of computer technology; worldwide, the number is much higher. In the future, millions more will become permanently or temporarily disabled due to an accident, illness or age.

“Every morning, millions of Americans wake up and fantasize about not going to work. At the same time, millions of Americans with disabilities wake up and wish they could go to work,” says Warren D. Johnson, Assistant Vice President of Individual and Major Gifts, Easter Seals. Technology is the key to tomorrow’s jobs, and Microsoft has been instrumental in breaking down the obstacles that people with disabilities face in finding work.”

Thanks in part to their relationship with the community of people with disabilities, members of Microsoft’s Accessibility and Disabilities Group have been able to help employees throughout the company make products not only more usable and attractive for people with disabilities but for everyone. Today, due to more than 10 years of dedicated effort and committed leadership, accessibility features are standard in Microsoft products.

“If you can’t access today’s technology, you are looking at a difficult future,” says Betsy Beyha, director of technology policy for the World Institute on Disability. It’s hard to get educated, hard to find a job. We knew that Microsoft was serious about accessibility issues when Windows 95 came out with accessibility options included in the basic operating system.”

Windows 2000, which will be released sometime in the next several months, contains dozens of built-in features specifically for people with disabilities. People with impaired vision can modify their screen to make type larger and clearer. For those who have manual dexterity issues, it’s possible to customize keyboard functions so that keys repeat more slowly or not at all. Users can also go into the control panel and turn on a function that allows them to switch over to serial key commands instead of the default key commands that require pressing two keys at once. A feature called MouseKeys allows users to bypass the mouse altogether by using the numeric keypad. It even lets blind users perform basic system functions on any machine.

“It’s not just people with disabilities who are benefiting from this technology. The rest of us are, too,” Beyha points out. She recalls a recent training seminar she conducted for a group of teachers, none of whom had a disability. As she was projecting a Web page on the overhead, she quickly keyed in a command in Microsoft Explorer that made the Web address bigger and easier to read. “All at once, everyone was asking, ‘How did you do that? I want to do that on my computer,'” Beyha says.

The Accessibility and Disabilities Group was created in 1992 with the understanding that, as an industry leader, it was Microsoft’s responsibility to develop products and information technologies that were accessible and usable by all people, including those with disabilities.

“It all began when we started working with the Trace Research and Development Center at the University of Wisconsin to make Windows 3.0 more accessible to people with disabilities,” Lowney remembers “We helped them develop an add-on tool, then we made the tool available free of charge. We improved it for Windows 3.1, then created my full-time job, which included building it into Windows 95 and Windows NT.”.

In 1998, Bill Gates announced a large-scale plan to dramatically increase the size and scope of Microsoft’s accessibility initiatives. The accessibility team has grown from one person in 1988 to a full-time staff of over 40 today.

“One of the most important things we do is to encourage people within all areas of Microsoft think about and take responsibility for accessibility,” Lowney says. “We want to make sure that our products are easy to use for the widest possible range of people. That diverse customer base is valuable to us as a company.

“By the same token, Microsoft is committed to employing people with disabilities, in part because their perspective really helps us build better products for everyone,” Lowney says “In addition, by demonstrating their success in the workplace, they raise awareness about how people with disabilities really are equally capable. That in turn can help break down social barriers, and it’s something we see becoming more widespread because of the capabilities of the computer.”

Microsoft has also reached out to the community of people with disabilities by forming an international advisory council composed of leading direct service and advocacy groups. “Microsoft has shown that they understand that their developers can’t just go off by themselves and intuit what everyone needs. By setting up the advisory council, they’ve asked the community of people with disabilities to help them prioritize where they put their resources,” says Russ Holland, program director for the Alliance for Technology Access.

In January 1999, WE Magazine, a lifestyle publication for people with disabilities, identified Microsoft as one of 10 companies that go beyond the Americans with Disabilities Act to recruit and accommodate employees with disabilities.

Microsoft has also taken the lead in pushing the entire high-tech industry to recognize the importance of people with disabilities as consumers and to routinely consider accessibility issues when designing new products. Microsoft has built a number of tools that allow software authors across the industry to build more accessible products that provide users with greater flexibility and that work better with accessibility aids. In fact, Microsoft now requires software developers who want to use the “Designed for Windows” logo on their packaging to follow certain accessibility guidelines in the design of their products.

Microsoft’s ultimate goal is to drive the industry toward universal accessible design — making all accessibility products usable by the widest range of individuals, and raising awareness of what is possible with assistive technology.

Perhaps the most important thing the community of people with disabilities has taught Microsoft is flexibility. Early programmers and developers initially worked under the assumption that people have to adapt to the limitations of the computer. Now they understand that technology should be designed to accommodate human needs, not the other way around.

“An important role of the community of people with disabilities has been to encourage the high-tech industry to give choice and control to users,” Holland says. “This idea is rapidly becoming mainstream. Just look at Microsoft Windows — no two users have their desktop set up the same way.”

“Adaptable computer interfaces, ergonomic keyboards, portable devices, voice recognition and artificial speech — all of these were developed for or first adopted by the community of people with disabilities,” Lowney says. “The technologies we are developing today to accommodate people with disabilities are the future of the high-tech industry.”

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