Making Technology Accessible to Everyone

REDMOND, Wash., June 5, 2006 – As a fifth grader growing up in Irving, Tex., Rob Sinclair tutored younger students with learning impairments, helping them to make sense of the words they were struggling to read, and to grasp the concepts that would help them succeed in school and in life. That was when he first began to understand the importance of making information accessible to everyone — including people who experience the world in different ways. As an adult, achieving that goal has become his highest ambition.

“Developing new ways to make technology easier for people to use has always been one of my passions,” Sinclair says. “I’ve really been pursuing the same goals throughout my career.”

Today, as the new director of the Accessible Technology Group (ATG) at Microsoft, Sinclair leads the company’s worldwide strategy to develop software and tools that make it easier for people to see, hear and use their personal computers. As a widely respected computer scientist with 15 patents pending, most for advances in accessible technology, Sinclair is ideal for the role. And he believes that he has the right team, in the right place, at the right time to get the job done.

“A lot of companies work on different aspects of accessibility, and all of those contributions are valuable, but Microsoft is unique,” Sinclair says. “No other company takes such a broad approach to accessibility, none has assembled a team with such breadth and depth of expertise, and few companies have been working on accessibility issues as long as Microsoft.” Sinclair points out that Microsoft has been a leader in accessible technology design and development since 1988.

Accessibility Investments with Windows Vista

Sinclair and his team are responsible for all product planning, engineering, regulatory issues and marketing related to accessibility at Microsoft. They provide the guidance and direction Microsoft needs to make its own products more accessible, and to make Microsoft Windows an outstanding platform that other companies can use to develop accessible technologies.

Both aspects of their work are evident in Windows Vista, the next version of the Microsoft Windows operating system. According to Sinclair, Microsoft has made three major accessibility investments in Windows Vista:

  • A new Ease of Access center to help consumers identify and locate the built-in accessibility features in Windows Vista that will make it easier for them to use their computers

  • New technologies such as state-of-the-art speech recognition and magnification

  • Microsoft UI Automation, (“UI” refers to user interface), an innovative accessibility model that makes Windows an even better development platform for accessible technology

While ATG focuses primarily on helping Microsoft and assistive technology manufacturers create software and devices that empower people with mild-to-severe disabilities, which includes age-related impairments, the benefits of those solutions are not limited to people who experience physical or cognitive difficulties — and neither is Sinclair’s vision for accessible technology.

Rob Sinclair, Director, Microsoft Accessible Technology Group

“By addressing the needs of people with a wide range of abilities, we gain deeper insights into the challenges that all consumers face as they interact with technology,” he says. “As a result, Microsoft is able to create a system that is more functional for everyone.”

Sinclair describes himself as a “practical dreamer,” someone who likes to think big, set aggressive goals, and develop a plan to achieve them. He says he gets his biggest thrill from working with his team to solve difficult problems.

“Today, people are required to adapt themselves to their computers, so using technology means knowing how the machine expects us to give it information and how we can get information from the machine,” Sinclair says. “It’s an artificial barrier that prevents us from making the best use of technology.

“I want to create a system that adapts to the user, that adjusts to our needs as they change in the course of a day and throughout our lives, so that it becomes much easier and more natural for people to interact with technology,” he explains. “We are building technology today that moves us much closer to that goal, and a lot of those innovations are in Windows Vista.”

Windows Vista Ease of Access Center

Windows Vista includes a new Ease of Access center (located in the Control Panel), where anyone can turn on accessibility settings and tools. A questionnaire helps users decide which accessibility settings or tools to use. Users answer questions about their experience performing routine tasks, such as reading a newspaper. Based on those answers, Windows Vista provides a personalized recommendation for accessibility tools and settings in the operating system that are likely to improve the user’s ability to see, hear, and use the computer.

“Even if you are aware that you sometimes have difficulty typing, there is no intuitive way to know which features can help you,” Sinclair says. “With Windows Vista, we’ve solved that problem.

“The task-based questions in the Ease of Access center allow us to gather information about our customers’ requirements and preferences based on their daily experiences,” he says. “People may not think of themselves as someone with low vision, for example, but they know whether they have trouble reading the print in a newspaper.”

New Technology in Windows Vista Enhances Accessibility

The new Speech Recognition experience in Windows Vista is designed to empower people to interact with their computers by voice. This is particularly important for people who have difficulty with dexterity or limited use of their hands and arms, because it reduces or eliminates their need for a mouse and a keyboard while enabling them to maintain or increase their productivity. Speech Recognition in Windows Vista allows users to dictate documents and e-mail messages, fill out forms on the Web using voice commands, and seamlessly manage Windows Vista and their applications by saying what they see.

Speech Recognition is fully integrated into Windows Vista and is built on top of the latest Microsoft speech technologies. It features state-of-the-art voice recognition accuracy that is designed to improve as people use it, adapting to their speaking style and vocabulary.

Also in Windows Vista, Microsoft has added a new magnification layer to the graphics stack that is used to display the user interface. Having this capability in the core of Windows significantly improves the quality of magnified screen images and improves the readability of scaled text for people with low vision.

“Instead of stretching an image to enlarge it, which often creates jagged edges and other distortions, magnifying an image in Windows Vista is more like changing a font size,” Sinclair says. “It is rendered at a larger size from the start. As a result, each user can enlarge buttons, icons, and other graphics to the size they find easiest to see with no loss of image quality.”

Microsoft UI Automation in Windows Vista

One of the most innovative aspects of Windows Vista is a new accessibility and automated testing model called Microsoft UI Automation, which reduces development costs not only for accessible and assistive technology (AT) developers, but also for application developers who make their software compatible with AT products such as screen readers for people who are blind. Microsoft UI Automation also improves product quality by providing increased testing support and a new way of doing automated UI testing for software developers.

Other accessibility models rely on a single interface that must serve dual purposes: exposing UI information about applications and collecting information needed by AT products. Microsoft UI Automation separates the two models, with one for application developers and another for AT developers. “With Microsoft UI Automation, application developers provide only the information they have, and AT developers retrieve only the information they need to create compatible products,” says Sinclair, who is one of the chief architects of Microsoft UI Automation. “And Microsoft does a lot of work in the middle to streamline and package the information for easy consumption, which makes less work for developers and lowers their costs.”

Another innovation in Microsoft UI Automation is a new and more efficient way for developers to incorporate UI commands and controls in their applications. With other accessibility models, developers have to gather information directly from individual buttons, menus, or other controls. Unfortunately, every control type comes in dozens of minor variations. So even though 10 variations of a pushbutton may all work the same way and perform the same function, AT developers are forced to treat each one as a unique control. Their product has no way of knowing these controls are functionally equivalent.

To address this challenge, Microsoft identified the 18 core behaviors, called control patterns, which represent everything a person can do with UI elements used in applications and Web pages today. “By combining these 18 control patterns, developers can represent the full range of functionality in thousands of user interface elements,” Sinclair says. “The concepts are so powerful they apply to every function and control we’ve been able to identify.” Because the architecture can be extended to expose new behaviors that may be introduced in the future, an AT product built using Microsoft UI Automation can support controls that have yet to be invented.

The Development of an Accessibility Leader

Sinclair earned bachelor and master degrees in computer science from New Mexico State University, where he focused on software usability and user-centered design. While still in graduate school, he founded a small software consulting company that helped businesses synchronize their operations by applying technology at carefully selected points in their workflow. Later, he worked in a variety of roles in the software industry, including graphic design, development, testing, documentation, training and public relations.

Sinclair joined Microsoft in 1997 as a developer support engineer in the Premier Support Group, where he provided technical and business support for some of the company’s largest customers. In 1998, he accepted a job as an ATG program manager. Over the next five years, he held a series of increasingly influential roles in ATG, eventually becoming group manager in charge of development, testing and program management.

A talented nature and wildlife photographer, Sinclair left ATG in 2004 to join Microsoft’s digital photography and imaging team, a job that allowed him to combine his personal love of photography with his professional passion for technology. A year later, he had the chance to return to ATG as director, and he jumped at the opportunity. As Sinclair sees it, the timing couldn’t be better.

“The industry is beginning to view accessible technology as more than a niche market that serves a small number of people. People are recognizing that accessibility benefits all of us,” Sinclair says. “Microsoft is leading that change throughout the industry and around the world, and I’m excited to be playing a key role in that effort.”

A Growing Market for Accessible Technology

According to Sinclair, the market for accessible technology is expanding rapidly. More people are realizing accessible technology can help them customize their computers to meet their personal needs and preferences. Another reason is that aging baby boomers and older workers worldwide are seeking technology solutions that can help them mitigate age-related impairments and keep their competitive edge at work.

A research study, commissioned by Microsoft and conducted by Forrester Research, shows that 57 percent of working-age computer users (ages 18-64) in the U.S. are likely to benefit from using accessible technology. The research also confirms that the number of people who could benefit from accessible technology is increasing rapidly as the global population grows older and more people experience age-related difficulties and impairments related to vision, hearing and dexterity.

According to Sinclair, with what developers know about technology today there is no reason to limit the way people send and receive information, and no need to force people to use only one modality, such as a keyboard or mouse. That’s another reason he is happy to be leading ATG. He believes his vision of a computer system that can adapt to the needs of any user is no longer a dream, but an achievable goal.

“The field of accessibility is one of the most exciting places to work in the industry,” Sinclair says. “That’s why I chose to return to this field. At Microsoft, we have a huge opportunity to improve the way everyone interacts with technology, and we have the vision, motivation and engineering power to make it a reality.”

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