PROVIDENCE, R.I., June 16, 2000 — Microsoft today will receive a Ron Mace Designing for the 21 st Century Award during the
Designing for the 21 st Century”
annual conference on universal design. The awards, which are being given for the first time this year, were established to highlight organizations that excel in making products, environments and communication usable to the greatest extent possible by the broadest spectrum of users.
Microsoft, one of seven organizations being honored this year, and the only software company receiving an award, is being recognized for making the Internet, multimedia applications and the Windows operating system usable by the broadest range of people. To learn more about the award and the work and people it honors, PressPass spoke with Greg Lowney, Microsoft’s accessibility strategist, who has led Microsoft’s vision of creating software for the broadest range of users, including users with disabilities.
PressPass: What does it mean to Microsoft — and to you and members of your team — to earn this kind of recognition?
Lowney: It’s really nice for any organization or individual who has been working on an issue like this to receive recognition, because it reinforces the value of what they are doing. When an organization isn’t getting positive feedback, it’s more difficult to keep people motivated. Everything you can do to remind them that real people, and the community as a whole, are benefiting helps to keep them going. Personally, having worked on accessibility issues for 12 years now, it’s great to hear that people really appreciate the work we’ve been doing.
PressPass: Who are the people involved in this work that are being recognized by this award?
Lowney: One of the things that Microsoft did was make an important innovation in how accessibility was handled. In the past, some companies had an isolated team trying to handle accessibility issues for the entire organization. Other companies took a completely distributed approach where it was generally understood to be everyone’s responsibility, but because no one was driving it, it didn’t have the impact it could have.
Microsoft took a hybrid approach. We have a centralized Accessibility and Disabilities Group, which is responsible for providing leadership in this area, both within the company and throughout the industry as a whole. We drive new accessibility technologies and techniques, coordinate work that’s going on, build strong relationships with the disability community and help other groups throughout the company address accessibility as part of their work. Microsoft corporate policy states that it is the responsibility of everyone at Microsoft to deliver on this commitment, and to take the time and resources necessary to make sure all users can enjoy our products. We help make our employees effective in that role.
PressPass: How many people are there in the Accessibility and Disabilities Group, and what exactly are their roles?
Lowney: At the moment, there are around 40 people in the group working full-time on accessibility. But in addition, there are hundreds of people throughout the company who work to make sure their products, programs and services are accessible. In fact, our Accessibility Day event in 1998 drew about 2,500 employees from around the company who came to better understand accessibility and how they can contribute to it in their work.
PressPass: Microsoft has understood the importance of universal access for a long time. How did this approach get started?
Lowney: Our first exposure to the area of accessibility as a company came back in the late 1980s, when we were contacted by the Trace Research and Development Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The Trace Center had gotten a federal grant from the National Institute on Disability Rehabilitation and Research (NIDRR) to look into how Windows could be made more accessible to people with disabilities. They contacted us to see how we could work together on this, and because I was the senior program manager for Windows at the time, it naturally fell into my role to find out what this was all about. It sounded like an exciting project and an incredible opportunity. We gave them technical support to help them develop this project, which we eventually released as Access Pack for Microsoft Windows, and we’ve kept it up ever since.
From my involvement in that project, I pretty much became the focal point for any work in this area. I ended up spending about 10 percent of my time on accessibility of Windows and other Microsoft products.
In the early 1990s Microsoft came to the realization that we needed to get more serious about the accessibility of our products. So that’s when we actually allocated a full-time position on accessibility. I accepted that role, and I’ve been working on accessibility full-time since 1992.
PressPass: What is the difference between universal design and accessibility?
Lowney: Dr. Gregg Vanderheiden from the Trace Center puts it very well:
“Universal design is keeping everyone in mind when you design a product, so that as many people as possible will be able to use it as they encounter it.”
Another key factor, one that was pointed out by Ron Mace when he coined the term
is that designing for a wide range of people really does make a product better and easier to use for everyone.
When we in the software community talk about accessibility, we’re really talking about two things. The first is making the software as flexible as possible, so that it can accommodate a wide range of users’ needs and preferences. That’s the part that many people most closely associate with the term
The second is to make sure the product is compatible with assistive technologies used by people with disabilities. That’s because some people need features that go beyond what’s feasible to be built into every product. For example, a person who is deaf and blind will need a Braille display, which is an expensive device driven by extremely complicated software. We’re not trying to build that facility into every piece of software, but we do stress that software needs to be compatible with those kinds of systems when they are installed on the user’s computer. Part of our job is to build technologies and define standards to make that task much easier.
PressPass: You mentioned that many things that start out as accessibility features end up being standard on computers. They make computing easier for everyone, so the benefits seem to be quite universal. How does every technology user benefit from some of the technologies you’ve developed?
Lowney: There are many ways in which everybody can benefit from the features that are initially conceived to assist people with disabilities. We see this not only in the software area, but many areas of life. Many examples of accessibility technologies are now mainstream. A light goes on and a bell rings, to let you know an elevator will be opening soon. Cuts are made into the edge of sidewalks — curb cuts made for people with wheelchairs, but also used by people with bikes, skateboards and rolling luggage. The typewriter was initially developed for use by a blind typist. Carbon paper was developed for use by blind clerks.
In the computer area, we see that almost every person can take advantage of capabilities we’ve built into the software. For example, Microsoft’s Internet Explorer Web browser allows people to stop animations when they are annoying. It allows people to expand font size, or change colors. It allows people to use the keyboard rather than the mouse, or vice versa — whichever they choose.
It’s only recently that people realized that
doesn’t only mean usable by a 24-year-old white male, but by the wide range of potential customers out there.
Unfortunately, many things are still designed in ways that are not very usable for a lot of people. It’s certainly true that many people go to Web pages today and find they are almost unusable — not everyone likes reading minuscule little fonts or purple text on a black background. The principle of universal design says you should be flexible enough to accommodate the needs of people who have disabilities, and that flexibility also addresses the needs of people who don’t.
PressPass: How does Microsoft itself benefit from universal design and accessibility?
Lowney: Microsoft believes it’s in every company’s best interests to support universal design. One of the most obvious benefits to the company is that it allows us to meet the needs and exceed the expectations of our customers. That actually increases the number of customers who can and will use our product. And when we address the needs of people with disabilities, we’re also addressing the people around them, including friends, relatives, coworkers and employers.
It also opens larger markets to the company, because an increasing number of large employers realize they need to provide an accessible workplace for their employees with disabilities. The federal government has really led the way in this regard, creating a huge demand for accessible products. This has been the single largest factor increasing the number of companies that are working in this area.
PressPass: Does society benefit as well?
Lowney: We believe everyone benefits when each person is able to make his or her fullest possible contribution to society. Everyone has skills and insights. And in the current tight labor market, the economy as a whole can’t afford to pass up any pool of qualified individuals.
PressPass: Why is creating accessible software a priority for Microsoft?
Lowney: There’s the fact that it’s important to our customers. We got a lot of feedback on the accessibility we’ve done. People let us know when they like what we’ve done, and they also are quick to tell us when we make a mistake. Both of those are very effective on helping us stay on track in moving the technology in the right direction.
As mentioned earlier, it’s not just customers with disabilities but also large organizations that have a lot of purchasing power and consider accessibility to be important. Such market pressures are being used to help motivate companies like Microsoft and everyone else. The fact that Microsoft got an earlier start than many companies may be a competitive advantage, but it’s one that, in all honesty, we would love to lose if it means that the entire industry learns to get it right and make every product fully accessible. That’s why we’re promoting universal design and trying to make it an industry standard. Every software company should eventually consider accessibility a part of its normal way of doing business.
In addition, Microsoft sees this as important because we have employees with disabilities, as do all large companies, and we want them to be as productive as they can be.
PressPass: What do you see as Microsoft’s biggest accomplishments in accessibility over the years?
Lowney: I feel we’ve made accomplishments in a number of areas. Our software — Windows, Windows NT, Office, Internet Explorer and many others, including even our children’s products — have a wide range of features built in that benefit people with disabilities, and most have spin-off benefits for others.
These are things like the features built into Windows, features that compensate for difficulties typing or using a mouse, for people who can’t hear sounds being made from the speakers, and for a person’s need to customize colors. We developed a low-end magnification in Windows that allows a person to zoom in on a portion of the screen. Over time, we are building even more features into Windows for people with disabilities. However, we believe that end users benefit from having a wide range of solutions available to them, and so we want to complement rather than replace the full-featured accessibility aids that are commercially available today.
We also developed SAMI (Synchronized Accessible Media Interchange), a standard that makes it easy to add closed captioning to any application or Web site. I’m also extremely proud of our work in developing detailed, consistent and effective guidelines on what software can do to be accessible, and guidelines on how manufacturers can build in accessibility as they design their new products.
For a number of years now, we have been making accessibility requirements part of the Windows Logo program. All application vendors that want to use the Windows logo have to take steps that are specifically designed to help ensure their products are accessible to people with disabilities. After the federal purchasing guidelines, the Logo program has probably been the most effective influence on promoting accessible design to companies throughout the industry.
We’ve also developed new technologies such as Microsoft Active Accessibility, which is designed to allow application vendors to innovate in their user interface and their implementation without sacrificing compatibility for accessibility aids.
PressPass: Aside from creating accessible software, what is Microsoft doing to promote an accessible workplace?
Lowney: Microsoft was a founder of the Able-to-Work Consortium, which consists of more than 20 corporations dedicated to increasing employment opportunities for individuals with disabilities. One goal is to educate corporate America on the need and benefits of accessibility in the workplace, so employers can understand how to take advantage of technology to successfully employ people with disabilities. People don’t realize that there are features in every copy of Windows that allow people with disabilities to be successful in the workplace. If they think that it’s not feasible to hire people with disabilities, then those people will never stand a chance. That’s one of the most important problems we’re trying to solve.