By Chris Barry, President of Microsoft Canada
December 3rd is International Day of Persons with Disabilities, an annual moment to bring awareness to disability issues, promote inclusion, and embrace people of all abilities. Statistics Canada reports that one in five Canadians aged 15 years or older live with one or more disabilities. Even if you do not live with a disability today, that can change as you age or move through life stages. As Dave Dame, our Director of Accessibility says, “one day, we’ll all age into a disability.”
The theme of this year’s International Day of Persons with Disabilities is “transformative solutions for inclusive development: the role of innovation in fuelling an accessible and equitable world.” Today, we are living through an extraordinary time in history where the true potential of technology is revealing itself. From the launch of the world’s first Malaria vaccine which will save hundreds of thousands of lives to the creation of self-fertilizing crops that are tackling climate change head on, innovation is moving the needle on our most pressing challenges.
At Microsoft, we understand the power of technology and how impactful it can be in creating a more accessible and equitable world where everyone thrives. Our technology is designed with accessibility in mind – it is built with the disability community not for the disability community, and we prioritize technology that the disability community would choose to use. In October, we launched our new Microsoft Adaptive Accessories crafted in partnership with the disability community to help support a variety of unique needs and wants. Recently, we introduced sign language view, a new meeting experience in Microsoft Teams. This feature is especially designed for the Deaf/hard-of-hearing community to keep interpreters and other signers front and center on calls.
But our commitment to expanding accessibility goes beyond just our technology. We work with other organizations in the Microsoft ecosystem including partners and customers to share what we’ve learned about accessibility and inclusion to help create more opportunities and experiences for people everywhere. This year we joined forces with Haleon, a global leader in consumer health, to expand functionality in the Seeing AI app to provide consumers who are blind, have low vision or low literacy levels with more accessible labeling information across 1,500 consumer health products in the U.S. and U.K. And just this month, we launched the Microsoft Accessibility Nonprofit Tech Accelerator program to provide disability-focused nonprofit organizations with access to enterprise technology and grants to best serve the disability community.
Read below to learn more about two impact-driven Canadian organizations within the Microsoft ecosystem who are promoting disability inclusion and cultivating accessible experiences through technology.
SenseTech Solutions Inc.
What originally started as a fourth-year engineering project for two University students to make accessing a classroom easier, quickly became a solution that could support disabilities communities across Canada.
In 2018, Robert Ingio and Ali Raza founded SenseTech Solutions, a Toronto-based software company specializing in the development of virtual reality simulations for persons with disabilities. Their initial project involved creating a virtual reality simulation for the Canadian National Institute for the Blind that could capture the challenges that a youth with sight loss might experience when entering a classroom for the first time, like finding their desk. With the addition of a virtual reality headset, a parent could ‘jump in’ to the same simulation and experience those novel challenges through the same perspective as their child.
That deeper understanding and connection between parent and child is what sparked a conversation for Robert and Ali around the opportunities for virtual reality in accessibility. Now their virtual reality solutions help make e-learning accessible and interactive, facilitate job readiness training for people with and without sight loss and help the blind community train and develop skills in simulated high-risk environments like street crossing.
“Microsoft has been a major partner in helping us deliver impactful and accessible software tools to our clients. By embedding Microsoft technologies such as Microsoft Azure and Office into our products, we have allowed our clients to engage digital content in an inherently accessible and user-friendly format,” says Ingio. “We look forward to continuing our work with Microsoft as we pioneer new methods of accessing digital content, and further explore how technology can empower users with disabilities worldwide.”
Seleste Innovations Inc
Seleste is a Vancouver-based wearable technology company co-founded in 2021 by Shubh Mittal and Smit Patel, graduates from the University of British Columbia. Shubh’s background in Computer Science and fascination for smart glass technology is what drove him to the world of wearables. After looking more extensively at the research and technology behind smart glasses, he noticed that current products on the market were limited in their capabilities and usefulness for people with disabilities.
This prompted him to consult closely with a friend named Smit who is blind (and is now Seleste’s Chief Technology Officer) to better understand the challenges of living with sight loss or low-vision and discover what features the community could benefit from in smart glasses. Smit’s feedback inspired Shubh’s mission to make access to assistive technology for people with low-vision more affordable, through their very own smart glasses.
Leveraging Microsoft’s Seeing AI technology, Seleste smart glasses feature a small camera to deliver advanced features like call a friend, voice assistance and scene description to better meet the needs of people with low vision today. The Seleste team plans on adding more functionalities to their glasses over the coming years to advance their positive impact within the community.
“We often interview our visually impaired customers about their lives and so many people have told me that they use SeeingAI and how it has helped them get back independence in their lives,” says Mittal. “However, they also tell me that having to hold and point a phone has always been a challenge and limits what they can do. We knew that our glasses solved this problem and so it was always a goal of ours to provide Microsoft’s amazing technology through our glasses. I believe this partnership will give visually impaired people the confidence to take back control of their lives and be able to tackle tasks completely by themselves.”
Lastly, to bring awareness to disability issues is to hear directly from the community. Recently we spoke with Juan Olarte, founder of Digita11y Accessible, about how Microsoft’s assistive technologies helped him reach new levels of productivity at home and in the workplace. Watch Juan’s story here.
More innovation like SenseTech’s virtual reality simulations or Seleste’s smart glasses and listening to stories like Juan’s are needed for an accessible and equitable world. We must all join in the call for accessibility and inclusion and work together on innovative solutions that can uplift all communities and make our society better.
To learn more about Microsoft’s assistive tools and technology, visit microsoft.com/accessibility.
Register for The Include Challenge to learn more about the fundamentals of accessibility