REDMOND, Wash., July 24, 2001 — For the 54 million people in the United States –one out of every five — who live with disabilities ranging from a mild case of Carpal Tunnel Syndrome to far more severe conditions, accessibility is more than an abstract concept or a buzzword for the politically correct.
“Technology has been called the great equalizer,” says Ellen Mosner, government and public relations manager for Microsoft’s Accessible Technology Group. “If done properly, it is. If not, it can be a huge barrier.”
It’s the opportunity to knock down those barriers for people with disabilities, Mosner says, that motivates her and her colleagues. “Microsoft realizes the importance of making technology as accessible as possible. From the executive level on down, we have the company’s support for designing products that can be used by the widest variety of people possible.”
A great goal, Mosner admits, but not exactly a quick fix. In fact, Microsoft’s commitment to making technology accessible predates the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), an influential U.S. federal law that went into effect 11 years ago this week. While the ADA primarily addresses physical issues — wheelchair ramps and accessible restrooms, for instance — subsequent legislation has broadened the scope considerably to include the telecommunications industry and what Mosner calls the final frontier in terms of barriers — technology.
Microsoft, she notes, has demonstrated its dedication at every pivotal point by focusing on three main areas. First, the company strives to deliver technology that’s accessible to everyone. Second, Microsoft is committed to hiring practices that result in the most diverse work force possible. “Microsoft has created a culture where people with disabilities are valued and respected, and their contributions result in better, more accessible technology,” Mosner says. Finally, Microsoft has been aggressive about partnering with organizations and individuals dedicated to serving people with disabilities.
Leadership Built on A History of Commitment to Accessibility
At Microsoft, the work toward accessible technology began in 1988 — before the ADA — with what’s now remembered as a “grass roots movement.” What started as informal discussions and consciousness-raising has evolved, some 12 years later, into a 40-member team that evangelizes Microsoft product groups on the importance of ensuring that accessibility is on the radar during the design phase. The team also collaborates with experts and prominent research universities worldwide, and works closely with one of Microsoft’s biggest customers, the U.S. government.
As the push for accessibility has expanded, so, too, has Microsoft’s strategy for making fully accessible technology a reality.
Nearly a decade after the ADA, Congress passed Section 255 as part of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, to mandate accessibility of telecommunications services. Two years later, in 1998, Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act mandated that federal agencies — whose employees include approximately 120,000 people with disabilities — demonstrate that in purchasing technology they had considered accessibility issues and chosen the product that was most accessible.
“Microsoft has been fully engaged with Section 508 from the very beginning,” says Laura Ruby, program manager for regulatory and industry affairs with the Accessible Technology Group. “The federal government is one of our biggest customers, and we’re committed to working with them to provide what they need.”
Ruby’s work as the “Section 508 guru” requires her to play several roles. Like Mosner, she interacts with a wide range of product groups at Microsoft. She also chairs a Section 508 accessibility working group sponsored by the Information Technology Industry Consortium (ITIC), and works with other industry associations, alongside partners and competitors, to formulate standards that will make it easier for federal agencies to follow guidelines when purchasing software.
She is also crafting a reporting template that will demonstrate to customers how Microsoft meets the standards set forth in Section 508. The template walks through the law, criterion by criterion, and will feature tables that offer potential customers a more detailed view of each subsection. She plans have the template posted on the Internet by September.
Beyond her own work, Ruby reports that Microsoft has embraced the push toward making fully accessible technology a reality by participating in and, in many cases, spearheading conferences and working groups. In 1999, Microsoft partnered with the National Business and Disability Council and formed the Able to Work Consortium to influence corporate cultures to foster environments conducive to people with disabilities. In August 2000 Microsoft hosted “Out of the Box — Into the Future,” a regional conference for the Division of Vocational Rehabilitation (DVR) in Washington State.
“I feel confident that we’re doing a good job at not only meeting standards but at working towards greater accessibility,” Ruby says. “We’ve been committed to working with people with disabilities for 12 years now, and I think our experience really shows.”
Accessible Technology: The Proof is in the Product
Both Mosner and Ruby point to the Microsoft Office suite of productivity applications and the new Windows XP operating system as examples of how far accessibility has come in 12 years.
To help users design more accessible Web pages using Microsoft FrontPage, Microsoft incorporated documentation improvements to help users who want to make sure that their Web sites conform to Section 508. Additional documentation is available at http://officeupdate.microsoft.com/ .
A Reveal Formatting task pane.
Users who are blind can use a text pane in Microsoft Word to ensure that the formatting is consistent. The Reveal Formatting task pane will verify that the user has not accidentally italicized the wrong text or used an incorrect font size. For users with the condition known as low vision, Outlook provides a draft mode that allows the message to be read without color formatting, eliminating the visual strain associated with dark text set against a dark background.
Improvements to Windows XP include enhancements for greater compatibility with assistive technologies, an Accessibility Wizard that allows users to change the appearance and behavior including keyboard settings, displays, sound and most other functions, more curser and mouse options, keyboard shortcuts and the option to adjust timing.
“I think good accessibility is about alternative forms of input and alternative forms of output,” Mosner says. “These features in Windows XP are a result of our overall design philosophy and the way we work with product groups to ensure inclusiveness and a universal, accessible design. The core features are accessible and usable by people regardless of their capabilities.”
Other examples of accessible technology include voice-recognition software; roller balls, where the commands are determined by a ball instead of a mouse; commands represented by exhaling and inhaling; devices directed by head pointing, and eye-gazing devices that follow the retina to different parts of the screen to determine the command.
Wherever the design of a product ends, both Mosner and Ruby point out, it’s important that the technology is compatible with the technologies already on the market, such as screen readers, magnifiers and speech-driven software and devices.
Personal Convictions, Corporate Commitment
Both Mosner and Ruby began their careers in a profession that could hardly be more non-technical: social work. Mosner focused on children with disabilities, while Ruby worked in mental health and deafness. Their arrivals in the technology field, both say, were somewhat accidental.
But it was working in the trenches of fundamental human issues, they say, that gave them the tenacity and dedication needed to champion a cause long before it was popular. Both say they have been driven throughout their careers and their personal lives by the principals of equality.
“Equal access is a fundamental right, and it should be extended to everyone,” Mosner says. “Period.”
Ruby sees accessibility as something that extends far beyond her job description. “Accessibility issues have always been a part of what I do, whether it’s working or volunteering,” Ruby says. “The nonprofit sector has a great need without the means, and working in the private sector gives you the ability to affect a broader and more diverse scope of people. It’s an incredible opportunity to make it possible for people all over the world to participate in their lives more fully.”
Both Mosner and Ruby acknowledge that while tremendous accomplishments have been made in the 11 years since the ADA’s advent, the future still holds significant challenges — challenges both say they are confident that Microsoft will address and resolve.
Consider the fact, for example, that of the people with disabilities who want to work, 70 percent are still unemployed. “That’s unacceptable,” Mosner says.
As the population ages, fundamental physical challenges will expand the very demographics of people with disabilities. Like the other components of accessibility, the aging of the general population is an issue that’s intensely personal for both Mosner and Ruby. As people age, Mosner points out, their vision and the manual dexterity aren’t what they once were. True to the convictions that she says have informed her career and personal life, she offers herself as an example. “I’m in my 40s, and my vision is deteriorating a little,” she says. “I’ve become very fond of the larger fonts.”