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Design for disabilities, empower everyone

By Anant Maheshwari, President, Microsoft India. This article was originally posted on LinkedIn.

2008, a decade ago was a watershed year for me to step up my understanding of disability and how much more needs to be done to support people. I was afflicted with a severe case of labyrinthitis and vertigo, causing severe challenges in being able to stand, walk, eat, drive, read, and many other human faculties that I used to take for granted. I had to reassess and rebalance all aspects of life: work, social, community, family and day-to-day personal functions. It took a few months to get back to my regular life, but it left behind a life-altering learning experience: any disability can be very limiting, in the absence of a supportive environment. However, if adequate support is available, we can bring so many more people to contribute to and benefit from the mainstream of our society.

Indeed, for a long time, disability was understood as the result of an individual’s condition – which put the focus squarely back on the person. But that’s not how it really manifests. Disability happens at the points of interaction between the individual and their environment. Being in an environment that does not support you in achieving what you want – that’s when physical, cognitive and social exclusion happens.

Over a billion people – roughly 15% of the world’s population – are estimated to live with some form of disability. Of these, nearly 200 million experience significant difficulties in functioning. Disability is on the rise – ageing populations and chronic health conditions are major factors. It’s an unequal world – people with disabilities experience barriers in accessing services like health, education, transport, employment and information. The challenges are real and enormous.

Leaving behind a billion people is contrary to our mission of empowering every person on the planet to achieve more. Inclusion is at the heart of everything we create at Microsoft. We work at making inclusive interactions that allow everyone to consume, communicate and create. Our design principles seek out exclusions and use them as opportunities to benefit people universally. AI has the potential to improve assistive technologies in many ways.

Take the Seeing AI app, which turns the visual world into an audible experience. Leveraging our AI capabilities in computer vision for the blind and the low vision community, this app uses OCR to read text, scans barcodes and recognizes faces, emotions and objects to describe the world around you. Microsoft Translator is a brilliant example of technology being designed for one audience and built for many. Its core function is to break the language barrier and have conversations translated across devices for one-on-one chats and interactions in larger groups. But people who are deaf or hard of hearing derive immense value from the transcriptions and real-time captioning as well.

I see the use of AI at work all the time. Design ideas use AI to suggest formatting and image placement on PowerPoint slides – great for people with limited time, mobility or even design aesthetics. Accessibility checker in Office helps one to ensure all content is accessible to all, with the use of alternative text for images or videos. Whether at work, or at home, the Windows 10 cloud-based platform provides built-in assistive technology that’s on the move. For people who are hard of hearing or need help focusing, Windows allows to quiet visual distractions, highlight content in Edge and customize visual alerts. With Narrator, Speech Recognition and Skype Translator, people with vision loss or limited mobility can easily surf the web, collaborate and communicate real time.

There’s the amazing story of former NFL athlete Steve Gleason, who has lost the ability to move his limbs and inspired the creation of the Eye Gaze Wheelchair. This is technology that empowers – there are so many people living with ALS and others from around the world who wants to access this technology right away.

Disability isn’t rare, it’s human – almost every person in the world is permanently, temporarily or situationally impaired at one point or another. This is our opportunity and responsibility to invest in the future and support our partners and customers in our shared goal of an inclusive world. We must make disability our stepping stone to success, not “an obstacle to success”.


December 3 is United Nations International Day of Persons with Disabilities. This year’s theme focuses on empowering persons with disabilities for an inclusive, equitable and sustainable development as part of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.