By Emma Da Silva, Vice President Marketing and Operations – Microsoft Canada
According to Stats Canada one in five (22%) of the Canadian population aged 15 years and over has one or more disabilities. And at some point, most of us will face some type of temporary, situational, or permanent disability.
Today on, International Day of Persons with Disabilities, we are reminded that the pandemic has affected everyone. It has disrupted how we think, act and how we operate in our daily lives. But for the 6.2 million Canadians or more than one billion people in the world living with a disability, the effects of the pandemic have been even more acute. In many circumstances, people with disabilities have been subjected to higher risks of COVID transmission while others have faced challenges because of lockdowns and regulations that have distanced them from their communities and necessary support systems.
Individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing, that rely on visual cues, are challenged by a new world of masked faces; those who are blind or low-sighted have had to adapt to the spatial reconstruction of known environments due to social distancing; and people with mental health issues are relying on more support services due to overwhelming feelings of prolonged stress, fear, and anxiety.
As a technology company, Microsoft recognizes the power of digital tools and solutions to reach and empower people with disabilities. We partner with organizations around the world to create policies and programmers that promote digital inclusion and provide all people with better access to education, employment, and public services. Today, on IDPD (International Day of Persons with Disabilities), I want to reflect on the tremendous advances driven by our team, partners and by the dedicated individuals and businesses with whom we are so pleased to work with.
Accessibility starts at home
Microsoft is striving to promote an inclusive culture companywide. Our global teams work tirelessly to put processes in place that create and sustain a diverse and inclusive culture. This includes; attracting and recruiting people with disabilities via our global Inclusive Hiring Program; training managers to understand the needs of those with visible and non-visible disabilities; assessing people for roles with more flexibility so those with disabilities have the best opportunity to show their skills; adjusting workplaces to include sign language interpreters; and ensuring all staff have access to disability equality awareness training.
One such program is Ability Hack, an annual one-week Hackathon that brings together employees from across the company to hack solutions to some of the world biggest challenges. The Ability Hack focuses on programs that enable people with disabilities through technology. We also have accessibility roles across a variety of disciplines. Our inclusive hiring career site provides details on hot jobs, upcoming events, employee stories and frequently asked questions for candidates with disabilities, as well as a disability hiring toolkit for recruiters, information about the Microsoft Autism Hiring Program, and other resources.
Using technology to ensure global independence.
As Executive Sponsor to the Disability Employee Resource Group at Microsoft Canada, I believe that access to the right technology is a powerful force for inclusion, and at Microsoft we are on a mission of enablement and empowerment for all people with disabilities in Canada and all over the world. Through the efforts of our engineers and accessibility experts, Microsoft endeavors to meet or exceed new accessibility requirements. Leveraging technology like artificial intelligence (AI) – which we consider to be a catalyst for inclusion – Microsoft is taking innovations that could help a small group in society and expanding them out.
AI enables technology companies like Microsoft to develop products and services that can perceive, learn, reason, and assist users all over the planet – including individuals living with disabilities. That is why Microsoft is infusing AI into its products, features like auto-complete that may seem trivial to most of us help make the world better for someone for whom the most trivial thing is complex. Text prediction has at its heart machine learning, the foundation of artificial intelligence. The more we type, the better AI gets at predicting what we will write next. Real-time speech-to-text transcription, visual recognition services, and predictive text functionality empowers people living with vision, hearing, cognitive learning, and mental disabilities.
Our AI for Accessibility initiative, aims to amplify human capability through grants, investments of technology, and expertise. We want to invest in ideas that are developed by or with people with disabilities. If you are passionate and have such ideas, apply for our AI for Accessibility grant here.
Recently, Microsoft announced the availability of Surface Adaptive Kit. Created from within our Inclusive Tech Lab, the Surface Adaptive Kit is the result of designing in partnership with people with disabilities. This kit is designed to make devices more accessible without compromising on form or function. Keycap labels, bump labels, port indicators and even device openers make finding, opening, and using devices easier than ever. Easier for anyone.
Accessibility features on Windows 11 such as Magnifier, high contrast, and Braille are helping the blind and low vision community. We also added Input Learning Mode in the Narrator feature to give users the ability to send commands from a keyboard, touch, or braille display, and receive feedback about what the command does without invoking the command. Narrator was further enhanced to include Intelligent Image descriptions, giving Narrator the ability to use AI to generate descriptions for images that lack alternative text on demand.
Gaming for everyone
At Xbox, we are proud of the work we have done to make gaming more accessible for the estimated more than 400 million gamers with disabilities across the globe. If the pandemic has taught me anything over the last couple of years, it has reiterated the power gaming has to maintain and create connections, the importance of play and what it means to be inclusive. On our accessibility journey, we know that to achieve our goals to make gaming a place where everyone can have fun, we need to continue to innovate and bring new accessibility features such as Magnifier, which makes part or an entire screen bigger, so users can see words and images better, or the Xbox Adaptive Controller, which empowers gamers with limited mobility, to our platform and games. It is about empowering our players to play in the way that is right for them, see this video of Steve Saylor, a blind gamer, conquering the gaming universe with the power of technology.
Celebrating IDPD to promote Inclusion
Accessibility, accountability, and inclusion are built into Microsoft’s DNA and are reflected in the products and services we design for people of all abilities. As we mark International Day for the Person’s with Disability, I leave you with an inspirational conversation with Microsoft’s Director of Accessibility, Dave Dame. In 1971, Dame was diagnosed at birth with Cerebral Palsy. Lend an ear, as he talks on how you can play your part to foster inclusion.