Post by Kevin Peesker, President of Microsoft Canada
More than one in five Canadians live with a disability. There are more than a billion people with disabilities around the world, yet only 1 in 10 has access to assistive devices and products. And these can be life changers for people, as they are able to use technology to hear, see and move more easily and more safely.
This year, the challenge is heightened. The COVID-19 pandemic has been felt most acutely by those living with disabilities. It has impacted access to doctors and personal support workers, PPE and the huge spike in demand overall for services like grocery delivery has made other supports especially challenging to come by.
As we mark Global Accessibility Awareness Day, I reflect on the tremendous advances driven by our team, and by the dedicated individuals and businesses with whom we are so pleased to work with.
At Microsoft, we’ve been focused on improvements to real-time speech-to-text transcription, visual recognition technology and predictive text functionality. For example, we recently added new capabilities to Microsoft Soundscape including the ability to share Markers and filter for ‘Essential Services’ so people who are blind or have low vision are better supported in a contactless world.
Advances like these better enable people with disabilities to do more in key areas like employment, modern life and human connection.
There are so many amazing Canadians doing great work in this space. These are change-makers who refuse to simply aspire to raise awareness about the importance of access and inclusion; they are using their expertise to have a meaningful impact every single day. They are the kinds of people whose passion and determination to bring about change for the betterment of others is making the world a more accessible place, for the benefit of people all over the globe.
- Maayan Ziv, founder of AccessNow is a great example. Maayan started her venture five years ago, when she was frustrated by shops, restaurants and other destinations in Toronto that were inaccessible to people living with disabilities. The mapping app that Maayan developed crowdsources intel from users on all aspects of accessibility at an incredible range of locations – and now boasts more than 36,000 “places pinned” in 34 countries around the world. It is a tremendous resource that is making life far easier for thousands of people around the globe. In response to COVID-19, Maayan and her team are actually working on a new initiative for AccessNow called Access From Home, which connect users to a variety of accessible businesses and services from home. With her forward-thinking approach on building an accessible Canada, it comes as no surprise that Maayan was recently awarded with a Microsoft Entrepreneurship Grant.
- “Absolutely tireless” is an appropriate descriptor for Marco Pasqua, entrepreneur and accessibility consultant. He’s not only a captivating public speaker, he works closely with all types of businesses and organizations to help them clearly identify the accessibility challenges they may be presenting to employees and customers alike, and to take real action on removing barriers – which, as he says, often starts off as barriers of attitude. Marco recently emceed an online event and fundraiser called the “Stay At Home Gala,” and he’s marking Global Accessibility Awareness Day by hosting a webinar for the Rick Hansen Foundation’s Accessibility Professionals Network. He doesn’t just talk about making things happen for better accessibility – he does it every day!
- Some dream of changing the world. Bin Liu and Arjun Mali are actually doing it, by leveraging crowdsourcing and AI to empower people with personalized navigation and actionable data in real time for safe, convenient and memorable trips. Together, they founded iMerciv, born out of Bin’s desire to find a way to help his dad better navigate his days while living with glaucoma. We were very proud to be early backers of iMerciv at the startup stage through Microsoft’s AI for Accessibility program. Their latest app, Mapinhood is built for the flexibility of pedestrian travel, resulting in the most inclusive navigation experience. For example, it can provide the most accessible route to a user in a wheelchair using gradient and accessibility relevant data. During these difficult times, they’ve also added new updates that can help the public practice safe physical distancing with an ‘avoid crowds’ features. Check out the beta version of the MapinHood app, free to download on Android or IOS and available through Canadian app stores now.
- The traditional ways that we teach kids to code are often not very accessible, especially those that are blind or low-vision. The incredible innovators at Code Jumper recognized this and developed a device that makes digital learning more accessible for everyone. The high-touch device uses brightly coloured plastic pods, connected with thick white wires to generate computer programs that can tell stories, make music and even crack jokes! Suddenly, the world of coding – previously inaccessible to students with low vision – is now a viable option for kids that deserves the same chance to excel.
- Our commitment to build accessible classrooms across the country is unwavering. With 1 in 5 students impacted by dyslexia – we want to empower every student to achieve more. That’s why we’re working closely with local districts like the Louis Riel School Division in Winnipeg, Manitoba to incorporate Microsoft Learning Tools into the classroom to help students of different abilities learn, free of cost. Learning about dyslexia provides an opportunity for educators to positively shift the entire curve. Join Kate Griggs, Founder of Made By Dyslexia, in part 4 of our Discovering Dyslexia Series titled “Dyslexia, and the Future” as she explores the role dyslexics play in the new world of work, and how educators play a role in helping dyslexic thinkers harness their potential.
So, on this Global Accessibility Awareness Day, we truly have cause for celebration, thanks to the tireless champions who dedicate themselves every day to breaking down barriers and making the world a more accessible and inclusive place. When we innovate to make the world more accessible for people living with disabilities, we make it better for everyone.