Microsoft Helps Smithsonian Showcase History of Disability Rights Movement

WASHINGTON, D.C., July 6, 2000 — When Katherine Ott, the Smithsonian Institution’s curator for its new exhibition about the disability rights movement, wanted an object that would capture the importance of computers and technology for people with disabilities, she turned to Microsoft.

Courtesy of Smithsonian Institution

“The role of technology is really critical to the disability rights movement,”
Ott said.
“The lengths that Microsoft has gone to in designing accessible software made it the company we thought of first.”

In conjunction with the tenth anniversary of the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History has set up an exhibition showcasing the history of activism in the disability rights movement. According to Ott, this is the first time that a museum has attempted to interpret the history of the disability rights movement as a political issue similar to other civil rights movements.

Objects on view in the exhibition include the pen President George Bush used to sign the ADA into law, a Microsoft Windows 2000 CD and user manual, and one of the first ultra-light wheelchairs. Also included is a grave marker for a young woman with epilepsy who died while institutionalized and was buried, as were thousands of other people who died in institutions, with just a number on her marker. Her family has since replaced the original marker with one that has her name and the date of her death. In the Smithsonian’s exhibit, the label identifying the original grave marker reads,
“For some people, the struggle is simply to be seen as human.”

Two Web-based kiosks integrated into the display duplicate the exhibit using visual and audio descriptions, graphic images and captioned video clips. Their accessible design will ensure that visitors to the exhibit, including those with disabilities, will be able to experience all that it offers. These interactive kiosks, running on Microsoft Windows 98 and designed and developed by NCR Corp. and isSound, are prototypes of future versions that will be available to museums and other cultural institutions.

Two exhibit brochures funded by Microsoft feature examples of accessible graphic design as they highlight ways in which American society has been changed by the influence of people with disabilities.

“Everyone can benefit from technology, but only if accessible and universal designs prevail,”
said Gary Moulton, group product manager at Microsoft.
“Microsoft is defining, promoting and implementing accessible design to improve our own products and services and those throughout the high-tech industry.”

Over the past 12 years, Moulton said, Microsoft has been a leader in implementing universal design and accessible design, which has led to the wide range of features in Microsoft products that make them easier for people with disabilities to use. Microsoft’s Accessibility and Disabilities Group works closely with product developers as well as disability advocates to ensure that accessibility features are included in Microsoft’s most popular products, such as the Encarta multimedia encyclopedia, Windows 2000, Windows 98, Office 2000 and the Internet Explorer feature in Windows.

In a speech to the Sensory Access Foundation in March, Microsoft Chairman and Chief Software Architect Bill Gates described a less visible
“digital divide”
that confronts people with disabilities. He said that one way of helping to narrow this digital divide is
“to make sure that people with disabilities can be empowered through technology.”

Noting that the PC took a step backward in accessibility for the visually impaired when it advanced from a character mode interface to a graphical user interface, Gates called the release of Windows 2000 “a big step forward” in making up that difference.

Graphical elements such as photos and icons made it more difficult for accessibility aids and utilities to describe information on the screen. Windows 2000 helps bridge that gap with new accessibility features such as “Narrator,” a text-to-speech utility built directly into the operating system. Narrator enables blind and visually impaired users to have some critical windows and menus read aloud when they’re displayed, hear typed characters read aloud, use their mouse pointer to follow an active item on the screen, and adjust the speed, volume and pitch of the computerized voice.

Another new feature, “On-screen Keyboard,” displays a virtual keyboard on the computer screen that enables people with mobility impairments to type data by using a pointing device or joystick. On-screen Keyboard provides a minimum level of functionality for some people with mobility impairments, and it can also help people who don’t know how to type. “Magnifier” is a previously introduced display utility that makes the computer screen more readable for people who have limited vision — it creates a separate window that displays a magnified portion of the screen.

In recognition of its work in making the Windows 2000 operating system and other software accessible to the broadest range of users, including users with disabilities, Microsoft last month received a Ron Mace Designing for the 21 st Century Award during the

Designing for the 21 st Century”
annual conference on universal design in Providence, R.I. The awards, given for the first time this year, honor organizations that excel in universal design concepts — a worldwide design movement to make products, environments and communication usable to the greatest extent possible by the broadest spectrum of users.

Microsoft was one of seven organizations honored and the only software company to receive the award.

Microsoft is also working within the community to expand employment opportunities for people with disabilities. Last fall, for example, Microsoft and the National Business & Disability Council created the Able to Work Consortium, dedicated to increasing employment opportunities for people with disabilities. Its primary purpose is to develop tools and strategies that will help businesses tap into the pool of over 8.5 million job seekers with disabilities who want to work but remain unemployed.

Ott thinks that the Smithsonian show will be very powerful, as most museum visitors don’t see disability as a civil rights issue, but as a medical problem. She feels that putting it in a civil rights context will educate people about the history of this important issue and movement.

“One of the most compelling objects we have at the Museum of American History related to civil rights is a section of the actual lunch counter from the F.W. Woolworth store in Greensboro, N.C. where the civil rights sit-ins began,”
Ott said.
“The disability rights movement exhibition is right beside that lunch counter.”

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