This October marks 75 years of National Disability Employment Awareness Month in the U.S. – with increasing access and opportunity as this year’s theme.
In today’s workplace, it has never been more important to include everyone, and accessibility is the vehicle to inclusion. It is a responsibility and an opportunity. Microsoft is passionate about creating products that help people with disabilities unlock their full potential at work, school and in daily life. Designing with and for people with disabilities leads to innovation for everyone. As Microsoft chief accessibility officer Jenny Lay-Flurrie says, “A diverse and talented workforce brings new perspectives that help advance our ability to delight all of our customers.”
This month, Microsoft celebrates those talented and diverse teams, and shares some of their stories.
Angela Mills uses the Seeing AI app to confirm the location of a meeting room.
Angela Mills, Director of Program Management, Game Developer Experiences
Angela leads a team on the PlayFab game developer platform. Her colleagues knew she used a screen reader, but it was only 20 years after joining Microsoft that she began to tell people about her visual disability. In 2018, Microsoft released Seeing AI, a mobile app that describes nearby people, text and objects for users with low vision. It meant she could find meeting rooms and choose her lunch without help. She says, “Every person with a disability has honed skills to work around the limitations that their disability brings. I cannot imagine having been more successful in my career if I didn’t have the disability.”
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Anne Taylor, Director of Supportability, Accessibility
At 7, Anne told her family in Thailand she wanted to live and work in the United States. A scholarship helped further her dream, and she eventually joined Microsoft as an agent of change. Anne, who is blind, works with engineering teams to ensure products are designed with disabilities in mind. She says, “I want to encourage, inspire and motivate teams to think outside the box and innovate with accessibility design as an essential component to any product or service.”
Craig Cincotta, Senior Director, Communications
In 2013, while director of communications for Xbox, Craig took two months’ leave to treat debilitating panic attacks with cognitive behavioral therapy, meditation and medication. He opened up to his manager about having obsessive-compulsive disorder and generalized anxiety, and the move allowed him to be his authentic self. He says, “Any time you have a more inclusive environment, you’re able to see fresher ideas, broaden your perspective and get the best version of people.”
Dona Sarkar, Principal Cloud Advocate
Dona had already been at Microsoft for a decade when she was diagnosed with dyslexia, which means she can find it challenging to read charts, graphs and metrics reports at work. But she kept the diagnosis to herself and managed, until she heard about a dyslexic boy who improved his reading with Microsoft Learning Tools. In 2018, she started to talk about her disability and encourage other leaders to do the same “to make a far safer space for employees to open up about their disabilities.”
[Read more: Understanding accessibility through ABCs]
Heather Dowdy, Senior Program Manager, AI & Accessibility
Heather was just six months old when she started learning sign language – to communicate with her parents who had both lost their hearing as toddlers. “My life has given me a special lens for people marginalized by the intersection of race, gender, class and disability,” she says. She trained as an electrical engineer and joined Microsoft in 2016 to develop strategies and drive change to make the internet accessible for everyone.
Jenny Lay-Flurrie, Chief Accessibility Officer
Measles and ear infections in childhood left Jenny with hearing loss, something she tried to hide until her 30s, before she slowly began to accept and celebrate her disability. But then came an embolism, which has left her with long-term damage to her leg and needing canes to walk. “It happened in the space of 90 minutes. The learning was immense,” she says. “There are things we need to do better. This experience has been a good reminder of why we need people with disabilities to be in the process of product design.”
Jessica Rafuse, Director of Strategic Partnerships and Policy, Accessibility
An employment attorney, Jessica joined Microsoft in 2016: “I really wanted to be a part of what they were doing for people with disabilities.” Her role involves going out into the community and asking experts for their perspectives. “I love that idea that the things I do day in, day out can help someone get a job someday.”
Joey Chemis, Data and Applied Scientist
Joey came to work at Microsoft through the company’s Autism Hiring Program that started in 2015. Unemployment rates for those with autism are estimated at 70% to 90%. Joey had advanced skills in math but was finding it difficult to get interviews. The hiring process allows people with autism to “show their true colors and abilities,” he says.
Swetha Machanavajhala, Founder, Hearing AI
Swetha was born with profound hearing loss, so her role, using data and machine learning to enable people who are deaf or hard of hearing to better understand the world around them, is a personal mission. Inspired when her carbon monoxide alarm rang for two weeks without her noticing, Swetha founded the Hearing AI research project. This interface aims to visualize the surroundings of people with hearing loss, translating sounds such as alarms and volume changes into visual cues and written materials into speech in real time.