Accessibility solutions for people with disabilities enable the use of digital products and services by more than a billion people worldwide. Usually, when talking about aids for people with disabilities, various physical devices come to mind – wheelchairs, adapted cars, ramps, audiobooks, and hearing aids. Even animals. For example, assistant dogs. However, people with disabilities also work, often in a virtual environment. There, as in the physical environment, aid is needed. The global software development company Microsoft has been working on adapting its tools for users with disabilities for many years. About accessibility and its solutions, we talked with Michalis Moschos, Global Business Solutions Director while also leading Accessibility for Microsoft in Central and Eastern Europe.
Why are accessibility solutions for people with disabilities important to Microsoft and the IT industry as a whole?
About 15% of the world’s population has some disability, which is about 1 billion people, according to the World Health Organization. In addition, disabilities such as mobility limitations or the loss of an arm or leg are visible, but other disabilities are not obvious. Some people may have had a disability earlier in life, or they may acquire it at a specific point in their life; for some, it is only temporary. So, when we talk about defining accessibility, we are trying to make it possible for all people to enjoy products and services, not just those without any limitations. I’ve only been running this accessibility program for three years, but Microsoft has been working on it for much longer.
How is the work with accessibility solutions going?
We have an inclusive solutions lab, the Microsoft Inclusive Tech Lab, where people with disabilities work with the company to develop technology and gather feedback on the already available tools. Moreover, our approach goes beyond this community – it affects the entire corporate culture, and every company employee should be aware of it. Many people don’t know this, but joining Microsoft requires mandatory accessibility training. So, 100% of new hires must go through Microsoft accessibility training. We have also started offering higher level training, which 40% of our employees in Central and Eastern Europe have passed. Specifically, in Latvia, 60% of our employees have passed both basic accessibility training and higher levels, obtaining a unique Accessibility in Action Badge, which requires extra effort in learning. In April 2021, we started working on a five-year action plan to accelerate the development and implementation of accessibility solutions. Since then, we have started to accelerate. One of the goals we announced at the time was to build accessibility technologies right into Windows 11, which includes many features that improve the experience for people with disabilities.
What are some of those solutions?
For example, Voice Access focus mode. We also have an accessibility checker for the Office suite, which is widely distributed in the Windows environment. When it comes to hard-of-hearing or deaf people, one of the things they will use is Closed Captioning, which shows what is said in the video recording. You can also activate Live Subtitles in a Microsoft Teams group video call. Of course, now it can also be supplemented with translation. It’s an additional feature, but we already introduced subtitling two years ago when we launched Teams. One of the new features is the direct decoding of such calls. (Also, this interview in English was almost immediately deciphered and transmitted by the interlocutor – ed.)
We understand that Microsoft’s accessibility solutions are useful for individual users. An employee with a hand injury can dictate e-mails with their voice, a hard-of-hearing person participates in a video conference by reading automatically generated subtitles, etc. However, Microsoft solutions are most often bought and implemented by companies and organizations. What do they gain from accessibility solutions?
First of all, accessibility is our responsibility as a company to society, but it is also an opportunity. If you develop solutions but do not include people with disabilities, which make up 15 % or 20% of the population, your chances of addressing this part of society are lost. We have seen that inclusive organizations are the ones that outperform their competition; they also attract and retain top talent and especially millennials and younger generations who value inclusive employers. Diversity is at the top of the agenda for such companies. In 2018, Accenture conducted a study in collaboration with US organizations for people with disabilities, which found that 45 companies known for excellence in their fields are also leaders in terms of employment and inclusion of disadvantaged people. These companies had 20% higher revenue on average and 30% higher profit margins than their competitors. We offer our own accessibility solutions framework, but individual companies and organizations can also develop their own specific accessibility solutions. We encourage companies to realize that there are talented people in the world, and it doesn’t matter if they were born blind, for example. One should never think that this person is incapable of delivering excellent work. We have such a person working in the Central and Eastern Europe department, a fantastic solution developer.
We have discussed “classic” disabilities – poor vision or lack of vision, hearing impairment or loss, and movement limitations, but there are also various visual impairments, such as difficulty reading printed texts.
One of the standard tools for people with dyslexia is the so-called Immersive Reader. It helps the user to focus. Since dyslexic people have difficulty concentrating, the reading tool has several features, such as letter magnification and focus, which helps with reading documents. I also want to touch on the opportunity that serving people with disabilities creates for entrepreneurs or enterprising developers. Several years ago, we gathered startups in a global hackathon, and the idea for developing a reading tool was born right there. To develop something in the field of accessibility, we cannot act alone. We at Microsoft aren’t doing it alone, either. Ideas can come from the disability community, governments, a client’s need, or an opportunity found by a partner. We push and expand the boundaries together. The inclusion of people with disabilities makes us all stronger as a society.
What role do technologies such as artificial intelligence, cloud services, and newer generation mobile data networks such as 5G play in the development and deployment of accessibility solutions?
I think AI will help us progress much faster and give us the flexibility to develop many more features. The same is undoubtedly true of cloud technologies. 5G can also help accessibility. For example, driving someone with augmented reality glasses or moving with a hearing aid. These new technologies are not great because they are new, but because they provide an opportunity for the developer and the entrepreneur to develop things that can be solved quickly and with high intellectual added value. Cloud solutions also help us and other developers keep our solutions up to date.
Do you cooperate with Latvian companies when it comes to language and accessibility, for example?
We have previously worked with the language technology company Tilde. Tilde is a strong partner in Latvia is working on solutions as piloting a program in schools for students with hearing impairment. The company specializes in rare languages, as is my native Greek.
What can we expect in the future, specifically in the field of accessibility solutions?
I think we can expect a humanoid robot that will be able to use artificial intelligence to communicate in English or even, say, sign language. There are so many things that we think are impossible today, but in the future, they can come true and help us move forward by developing new solutions.