Stories from inside Microsoft’s journey to design a more accessible world
She did not want to stop at the hospital. She had a flight to catch, an accessibility conference to attend in California, and more people to enlist in her journey to build a more inclusive world.
She had to get to that event.
But Jenny Lay-Flurrie’s left leg was positively throbbing. The mysterious pain, which had erupted 24 hours earlier, was only growing. So, despite the packed bag in her car and the pressing mission on her mind, she grudgingly agreed when her husband, Tom, suggested that they pause their drive to the Seattle airport and instead visit a nearby emergency room.
Tom’s insistence saved her life, she would say later.
Within an hour, doctors had their diagnosis: A 2-foot-long blood clot snaked from her foot to her stomach, reaching perilously close to her lungs. A previously undetected anatomical defect was the cause. That day in March 2019, Lay-Flurrie was admitted to the intensive care unit. Her flight was canceled. Emergency surgery was scheduled. More would follow.
“I never expected, at my age, to hear a message from doctors: ‘You may not live through this,’” she recalls.
Surgeons successfully reduced the clot’s size. But the embolism caused long-term leg damage. After leaving the hospital, she relied on two canes to walk. The leg began to heal. More than a year later, she still needed her two canes on some days.
Yet to the surprise of no one in her life, Lay-Flurrie found both whimsy and wisdom in the harrowing episode.
First the humor. She decided to name her clot. She called it “Gerry.” Then she named her canes, a.k.a. her “trusty steeds,” dubbing them “Michael” and “Rosie.” She derided Gerry as “stubborn, sneaky and attention seeking” but soon reported that “Gerry and I have figured out how to cohabitate.”
Next came the insight. Microsoft’s chief accessibility officer – a tech exec who is profoundly deaf – now had a visible disability. More than 1 billion people live with disabilities and about 70% of those are not immediately apparent, such as deafness. On that level, the clot had shoved Lay-Flurrie into a somewhat different reality.
Early in her career, until about age 30, she purposely hid her severe, ever-increasing hearing loss, originally caused by childhood measles and multiple ear infections. Back then, she feared it would define her. So, no hearing aids, no sign language interpreters. Video captioning at work was not yet a thing.
But her perfect diction and exceptional lip-reading skills – honed by practicing in the mirror as a little girl – allowed her to cloak the deafness. Of course, that made workdays exhausting. In time, Lay-Flurrie accepted and then celebrated the disability, though some colleagues still didn’t know she had one.
When Gerry came along, everyone saw the canes.
Strangers asked Lay-Flurrie how she’d been injured. Other people offered advice, some of it helpful. A few well-meaning folks spotted her trudging through hallways and scurried to open doors, once causing Lay-Flurrie to lose her balance and crash to the floor.
Yet all of it gave her a fresh view of how millions of folks – people for whom she advocates – depend on mobility equipment, power entry doors and disabled parking spots – and how they often navigate their days in front of wide eyes filled with fascination, pity or both.
“I've had 30, 40 years to get used to the deafness thing,” Lay-Flurrie says. “This thing literally happened in the space of 90 minutes. The learning was immense. Still is. Every time those canes come out, the questions come with them.
“It’s in no way representative of what other people live with on a permanent basis,” she adds. “But good grief, 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.”
The episode laid bare many of the personal traits that have aided Lay-Flurrie since becoming Microsoft’s accessibility chief in 2016 – characteristics that enabled her to bring big changes to a big company.
Colleagues say Lay-Flurrie’s leadership style blends relentless honesty, contagious energy and masterful communication. They describe her as unapologetic about who she is – or what must be fixed – charismatic, convincing and empathetic. They say she is utterly grounded yet adept at challenging coworkers to rise to the moment.
The Gerry experience only deepened Lay-Flurrie’s drive to elevate accessibility from afterthought to foresight, from a corporate novelty once beset by ROI questions to simply smart business.
That calling was heard by many across the company, igniting a shared spirit to reshape Microsoft and its products while also influencing change inside industries near and abroad.
It also meshed with a new business culture fostered by Microsoft Chief Executive Officer Satya Nadella – a culture that “needed to be about realizing our personal passions and using Microsoft as a platform to pursue that passion,” as Nadella wrote in his 2017 book “Hit Refresh.”
It takes a village, an army of passionate, incredibly talented people to drive change.
“For me, my greatest satisfaction has come from my passion to see technology become more accessible for people with disabilities,” he wrote, “and to help improve their lives in a myriad of ways.”
Capturing the complete portrait of Microsoft’s accessibility progress would require far more than a single, lengthy post. That story would fill a fat book.
It is a sprawling tale informed by the feedback of thousands of customers and fed by the collective efforts of thousands of Microsoft employees who built a half decade’s worth of products and services to enrich the lives of people with disabilities.
The accessibility gains made never would have been achieved without those tens of thousands of collaborators inside or outside the company. What follows is one trek through selected pieces and people embodying that vast, ongoing pilgrimage.
To see the birth of the Inclusive Tech Lab, you’ll need to trek back to the year 2016, locate Bryce Johnson on the Microsoft campus and take a quick look under his desk.
There, piled into several metal toolboxes, Johnson kept a collection of alternative gaming controllers, all made by different companies. He would often pluck them from the boxes, then place them in meeting rooms or other campus gathering spots, encouraging colleagues to try them out.
“We needed to show people that not everyone can use a traditional controller,” says Johnson, the inclusive lead for Microsoft devices.
In other words, Johnson helped demonstrate how some consumers were not using Xbox – because they were physically unable to manipulate the controls. Other Xbox users, meanwhile, were forced to hack their controllers to match their disabilities.
Across the Xbox team – and throughout the disabled gaming community – the seeds were sewn for a revolution that, in 2018, culminated with the launch of the Xbox Adaptive Controller, designed for gamers with limited mobility.
The Xbox Adaptive Controller became part of a growing list of accessible Microsoft products dreamed up and developed since 2014, many “hacked” on the fly by company employees to boost productivity at work and fun at home.
“Xbox had such a clear mobility problem,” Johnson adds. “We had a barrier that we needed to get rid of.”
In fact, the vision for an Xbox controller that many more people could adapt and use flowed from a team of Xbox employees, says Chris Capossela, Microsoft’s chief marketing officer.
“It’s just another example of teams being innovative in their own spaces, totally independent from top-down management,” Capossela says. “People feel like they can take risks like this, do unusual things. We’ve unleashed this machine.”
That machine geared up as Microsoft President Brad Smith prioritized accessibility across all products, touted that quest in his conversations with other senior leaders at the company and, in 2018, invested millions of dollars toward the mission.
People with disabilities need to be more involved beyond user research. It is not good enough to just say, ‘Here, we made a product. Is this useful?’
Smith funded the AI for Accessibility program as part of Microsoft’s AI for Good initiative, investing at least $25 million over five years, including grants to organizations and entrepreneurs building artificial intelligence tools for people with disabilities.
“Back in 2016, we doubled down on accessibility and our vision to empower more than 1 billion people around the world with disabilities by providing them with technology,” Smith says.
“What we have learned since is that it takes a village, an army of passionate, incredibly talented people to drive change,” Smith adds. “But when you activate a company like Microsoft, amazing things can happen.”
So, back to those toolboxes that once sat beneath his desk. Johnson and his team realized they needed a dedicated place where people could drop by, interact with the alternative gaming controllers and find the empathy to develop something fresh, something more inclusive.
They needed a spot where people could feel what it’s like to be a gamer with a disability, an embassy to show other Xbox employees “that this was a problem for a certain segment of the population,” Johnson says.
With minimal budget and scrappy attitudes, they took over a room at Microsoft, painted the walls green and gray, installed desks, office chairs, tables and sofas purchased from Ikea, made it all as accessible as possible and, in 2017, launched the Inclusive Tech Lab.
It is an airy space filled with individual nooks furnished with flat screens and gaming consoles where more than 7,000 visitors have sampled a patchwork of gaming demos that force users to compete while using parts of their bodies – a knee or a foot or a mouth. They can control a game with their voice or blow into a sip-and-puff joystick used by gamers with quadriplegia.
In that lab – designed “for people with disabilities, not about people with disabilities” – the Xbox Adaptive Controller came to life, Johnson says. It has large, programmable buttons and connections to external switches, buttons, mounts and joysticks, letting users create a custom controller experience.
“It was the first thing we started but the last thing we launched,” Johnson says.
In early 2019, the Xbox Adaptive Controller was featured in its own Super Bowl ad as young gamers with disabilities focused, played, laughed, cheered and tasted victory. The commercial offered the tagline: “When everybody plays, we all win.”
“This is the thing,” Johnson says. “We, as Microsoft employees, live off this idea of empowerment. We all want to make a difference.
“Accessibility before 2015 didn't feel like we were making a difference,” he adds. “It felt like we were throwing buckets out of a leaky boat. The new focus on accessibility brought ... the fun and the passion. And honestly, the community.”
An array of other accessible Microsoft inventions and inventors has broadened both the product catalogue – and that community.
At his home in northern Virginia, Eric Bridges discovered some creative uses for a Microsoft app called Seeing AI.
Bridges, who is blind and serves as executive director for the American Council of the Blind, activated Seeing AI on his smart phone to scan schoolwork completed by his son, Tyler, 5. The app, which describes the world around you, read Tyler’s hand-written answers, allowing Bridges to review the tasks and guide his son.
There was more.
“I also use it for wine. We're in a wine club and we just got our shipment. So, I pulled out Seeing AI to read the wine labels,” he says.
“The cool thing is, there’s a suite of Microsoft apps out there that blind people can use, including Seeing AI and Microsoft Soundscape – which gives you information about where you are and what’s around you. Microsoft developed these applications and makes them free to use,” Bridges adds.
Seeing AI, which uses computer vision, speaks text as soon as it appears in front of the camera. It also scans barcodes to identify products, describes perceived colors, identifies currency bills, and recognizes friends and the people nearby, including their emotions.
Bridges worked with the creators of Seeing AI on the initial beta testing. The driving force behind the app, Microsoft software engineering manager Saqib Shaikh, has something else in common with Bridges. Shaikh is blind. He lost his sight at age 7. During his college days in the U.K., Shaikh began noodling with the concept of tech that can see.
“We had ideation sessions in the dormitory,” Shaikh has said. “We’d say things like, ‘Okay, we should make a pair of glasses with a camera on it that can look around at everything and describe it out loud.”
As an engineer, Shaikh collaborated with scientists at Microsoft Research, the company’s research and development arm. They relied on cloud computing, which enables a computer to describe the scene in a photo – a breakthrough for Shaikh’s dream. His team launched Seeing AI in 2017.
Microsoft seeks people with disabilities for roles across the company, from Azure to Windows to Office, to draw on their experiences and talents to help embed accessibility into its products and services.
“Seeing AI was successful, in part, because so many employees at Microsoft who are blind and low vision were a part of it,” says Mary Bellard, Microsoft’s senior architect lead for accessibility. In 2015, she played an early role in helping to develop the app at the company’s annual Global Hackathon.
“People with disabilities need to be more involved beyond user research. It is not good enough to just say, ‘Here, we made a product. Is this useful?’ It has to be more ingrained than that,” Bellard adds.
Globally, only one in 10 people with disabilities has access to assistive technologies and products, according to the World Health Organization. AI solutions may offer a path to close that gap.
That helped lead Microsoft to launch its AI for Accessibility initiative. Bellard manages the program.
Grants are already supporting innovations like Braille AI Tutor, which helps students practice and improve their Braille literacy skills via gamification.
It’s built on the very same spirit that fueled Seeing AI, Bellard says.
“When the history of accessibility is written,” Bellard says, “there's going to be a big chapter on Apple's iPhone and, at some point in that book, there's also going to be a chapter on Seeing AI.”
Years later, Rico Malvar can recall the conversation. And the words still make him smile.
Steve Gleason, a retired NFL safety whose blocked punt electrified a New Orleans Superdome crowd in the first game after Hurricane Katrina, and a man whose body was later stilled by amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), once revealed a fresh hope to Lay-Flurrie.
“Look,” Gleason said, his voice softening though still audible in 2014, “I'm here in a wheelchair. I can't move anything. I just have my eyes.
“Can you give me some eye tracking,” he asked, “so I can play with my son and argue with my wife?”
That conversation had started with an email Gleason sent to Microsoft after he was featured in the company’s 2014 Super Bowl ad on technology’s power to help humanity achieve a greater good. His email reached Microsoft CEO Nadella, who shared it with Lay-Flurrie.
The challenge galvanized a group of Microsoft engineers, program managers, marketers and advocates – including Lay-Flurrie – to design and build a wheelchair Gleason could drive with his eyes.
They dubbed themselves the Ability Eye Gaze team and formed to compete at the 2014 Microsoft Global Hackathon. It marked Lay-Flurrie’s first Ability Hack – then a new category within the Global Hackathon, enabling employees to focus on creating technologies that enrich the lives of people with disabilities.
Lay-Flurrie had 10 Ability Hack projects that year. She kicked off Ability Eye Gaze after speaking with Gleason, his father-in-law and one of the leaders of Team Gleason, a foundation started in 2011 by Gleason, his friends and family. The organization helps provide technology, equipment and services to people with neuromuscular diseases or injuries. Lay-Flurrie later became a foundation board member.
The Ability Eye Gaze team, which spanned more than 30 members, put Gleason’s idea into action. They overhauled a wheelchair, strapped it with electronic gadgetry as well as slices of Styrofoam and lots of duct tape. Gleason was able to operate the chair just with his eyes.
That year, the Eye Gaze Wheelchair won the Hackathon’s grand prize.
You know, you’ve got to dress for success. And sometimes you need to dress to be a superhero.
From the project’s inception to its completion, Gleason remained their guiding star and their honest chief analyst. Later that year, when Nadella met the Ability Eye Gaze team to celebrate the win, Malvar was introduced to Gleason and soon began heading a team to bring Eye Gaze to the market.
“Steve is one of the most wonderful people you could possibly meet,” says Malvar, leader of the Microsoft Research NExT Enable group, which creates technology innovations that improve the lives of people with disabilities, including Microsoft Soundscape and the Hands-Free Keyboard.
“He’s very critical, very pragmatic. If we bring him prototypes, he will say, ‘Improve it this way’ or ‘Let’s do this.’ It’s wonderful. We learn a ton from him.”
Gleason later described how the experience changed his life.
“I was at a point in my disease progression where I could no longer drive myself. Stuck,” Gleason said.
“I am no longer confined to my wheelchair; I am set free by my wheelchair.”
Eventually, that Hackathon invention resulted in a new accessibility feature called Eye Control for Windows 10, which allows users to operate an onscreen mouse, keyboard and text-to-speech features, using only their eyes.
Not long ago, Lay-Flurrie opened the front door to her home and spotted her husband and daughter, awaiting her arrival. Both were watching her. Both were giggling.
Her phone had triggered a smart speaker in the house to automatically play one song: “God Save the Queen.”
As the royal anthem from Lay-Flurrie’s native country blasted away, her husband, Tom McCleery, and 12-year-old daughter, Fira, broke into full laughter. Their joke was laced with the family’s beloved brand of dark humor: Lay-Flurrie could not hear any of it.
Welcome to the family’s lively Mercer Island, Washington home, a “goofy old hippie house,” Lay-Flurrie says, packed with music, joy, pranks, action movies on the TV, a golden retriever named Jack, a cat named Bitesize and – “somewhere around here” – two rabbits.
“We call it ‘the McFlurries.’ It’s chaos. Chaos is what my house is,” Lay-Flurrie says.
No wonder she purposely chose a shady garden shed to install her home office. It is a private and peaceful space where she often works on all things Microsoft accessibility, sometimes flanked by a snoozing Jack, “who is quite popular on Twitter,” she says.
But occasionally, McCleery and his daughter will roll into the shed unannounced and abruptly appear on camera during her Microsoft Teams video meetings. When that happens, Lay-Flurrie is likely to smile as the intruders trade their usual banter – now for her colleagues to also enjoy.
“Everything is beautiful, and nothing hurts,” McCleery announced (channeling author Kurt Vonnegut) as he and Fira recently popped into a video call.
“What are you two doing?” Lay-Flurrie responded with a chuckle.
“She calls us ‘The Crashers,’” Fira told the camera.
“You,” McCleery said, “are a goofball.”
“Well, I get my goofiness from you.”
Lay-Flurrie and McCleery met about 10 years ago. He has roots in Texas and Oklahoma, loves landscaping his yard and works at Microsoft as a principal engineering manager, focused on cloud-based networking.
A human resources employee at Microsoft set them up on a blind date. They had dinner out. They were still talking at closing time. The restaurant manager gently nudged them to exit.
Together, they have four kids, including three from Tom’s previous marriage – Aubrey, 27, Reilly, 23, and Aiden, 19.
“He’s way smarter than me,” Lay-Flurrie says. “He's an English major. I'll sit there playing video games. He sits there reading the memoirs of Winston Churchill or Napoleon.
“My family is everything to me,” she adds. “I would do anything for any of them.”
Fira plays the flute, paints and possesses her mom’s personality – “a little stubborn, a little goofy and too smart for our own good,” Lay-Flurrie says. “Fira means ‘fiery,’ which was relevant to us when she was born but, man, don’t call your kid something like that!”
Inclusive design is not one size fits all; it’s one size fits one.
About the only time Lay-Flurrie will wear her pair of purple hearing aids is to listen to Fira. (“Otherwise, I’m actually quite happy not hearing. You guys are way too noisy,” she recently told colleagues.)
Despite her progressive hearing loss, Lay-Flurrie adores music, grooving to the distinct vibrations she can feel when it’s played loudly, sensing the purpose of pianists as they pound the keys, trading downloaded songs with Fira, and collecting a cabinet full of sheet music from the 1920s, ‘30s and ‘40s.
She can read and play all those old charts with the many instruments she has at home, including a piano and a clarinet. (A photo atop her LinkedIn profile shows Lay-Flurrie playing the piano.)
In 1997, she earned a bachelor’s degree in music from the University of Sheffield, located in South Yorkshire. She also earned an MBA in management from the University of Bradford in England, managed European support for T-Mobile and, while based in London, led broad-scale, customer-support operations for Microsoft.
More than a decade after moving to the U.S., Lay-Flurrie retains her British accent and fills her life with pieces of England – British flags, a Union Jack sleeping blanket for (of course) Jack and, in her Microsoft office, a large replica of a double-decker London bus, built entirely from Legos. The banner image on her Twitter profile – @jennylayfluffy – shows three jars of Marmite, one labeled “Jenny,” one “CAO Flurrie,” the third, “Britabroad.”
Her British grace, disarming charm and easy humor infuse her, colleagues say, with a beguiling sway, allowing her to aggressively promote accessibility across a global company, fiercely advocate for hiring more people with disabilities and guide the development of inclusive technologies.
She uses some of those same technologies in her job. Those include captions for Teams meetings and the Teams Background Blur feature, which allows her to concentrate only on speakers’ faces, reducing visual distractions as she lip reads their words. In addition, she tracks live conversations by watching the face and hands of her American Sign Language interpreter, whose image is pinned to the Teams video wall.
“It is a unique experience to live with someone with a higher purpose,” says her husband. “She bounces out of bed in the morning ready to go save the world. That is her love.”
For years, Swetha Machanavajhala has made almost daily video calls to her parents back in India to share her personal updates and catch up on tales from home.
Connectivity is poor where her parents live, which often made the video glitchy on her screen. That, in turn, diminished the ability of Machanavajhala, deaf since birth, to read their lips as they spoke.
“I used to tell them, ‘Please turn off the lights in your background so I can focus more clearly on your faces.’ I kept repeating that every day,” says Machanavajhala, a program manager at Microsoft. As a college student in India, she developed a one-of-a-kind text-to-speech synthesizer for the Tamil language, incorporating the emotions of the speaker.
“I thought, why can’t I do something with a technology that would automate these things?” she adds. “That’s when I came up with an idea.”
In time, she helped influence the development of Background Blur in Teams and Skype, one of the collaboration tools offered by Microsoft Office. Speakers in Teams remain clear while all details behind them are obscured.
“If there is a lot of light coming from a window behind the speaker during a video call, or if there are people walking behind them, it’s very hard to follow what they are saying through lip reading,” she says.
“For me, it was exhausting,” adds Machanavajhala, who also founded Hearing AI, a Microsoft app that alerts users to sudden changes in vital sounds. A life moment also inspired that app: Her carbon monoxide detector beeped for days without her noticing – fortunately due to a low battery, not a lethal gas.
Microsoft seeks people with disabilities for roles across the company, from Azure to Windows to Office, to draw on their experiences and talents to help embed accessibility into its products and services, says Neil Barnett, director of inclusive hiring and accessibility at Microsoft.
“Can you imagine when more companies hire software engineers who are blind or low vision?” Barnett says. “The code that blind developers produce is accessible and their coworkers are going to understand how to do that a lot faster.”
“We identify the people who can make Windows easier to use, bring them onto the team, then design experiences with them and for them,” adds Jeff Petty, principal program manager for Windows accessibility.
Case in point: Magnifier, part of Windows, enlarges a user’s screen and provides an adjustable “lens view” that simulates moving a magnifying glass around the screen. People with low vision often suffer eye strain and fatigue while reading their screen, causing headaches and cutting productivity.
“We just built a new feature into Magnifier, a simple reader,” Petty says. “Somebody now can zoom into the words and have the content read aloud without having to be an expert in technology – just play and pause.
“As part of a usability study for Magnifier, a (low-vision) participant saw that we had updated the application. When she hit the play button and it started reading the content aloud, she was so happy she started crying,” Petty adds. “These are the reasons we do what we do.”
Then there’s Narrator, a screen-reading app in Windows, supporting 27 languages. It lets users interact with Windows apps without viewing a screen and displays Braille. Color Filters in Windows is made for people with color blindness, which include about 8% of men. It changes a screen’s color palette to help users better distinguish words and images.
Within Microsoft 365, Accessibility Checker instantly alerts users when and if their content is difficult to access for people with disabilities because their text is too low-contrast to read or because the font color is too similar to the background color.
And Microsoft Learning Tools – available in Word, OneNote, Outlook Online and Microsoft Edge – are free tools that implement proven techniques to bolster reading and writing for learners, regardless of their age or abilities.
Within Learning Tools is Immersive Reader. It helps students and others with dyslexia, ADHD or dysgraphia decode the text in front of them through features like Picture Dictionary, which shows a related photo when a user clicks on a word. A free tool, Immersive Reader also reads text out loud, breaks text into syllables, lets users change the language of the text they’re reading, and increases spacing between lines and letters. It is gaining fans beyond the classroom as well.
Petty envisioned Learning Tools, including Immersive Reader. He drew inspiration from his father. Paul Petty was a Cold War-era engineer who helped develop the U.S. spy satellite program called Hexagon (popularly known as “Big Bird”). Some credit Hexagon with preventing World War III.
“It was always mission-driven work for him,” Jeff Petty says. “It was always about making a difference in the world. That was instilled in me.”
He partnered with Mike Tholfsen, a Microsoft principal product manager, in the creation of Learning Tools and Immersive Reader. (Every month, they empower more than 23 million people with dyslexia and learning disabilities.) Tholfsen had his own family inspiration – he is the son of a teacher and a librarian.
Together, they worked with colleagues across Windows, Microsoft Research and Office to bring the vision to life through the Microsoft Global Hackathon in 2015. Eventually, Tholfsen brought Learning Tools to market.
“Mike has always been passionate about and a leader in Microsoft Education and scaled Learning Tools beyond our original hopes,” Petty says.
At the Hackathon, as Learning Tools was emerging in a rudimentary form and shortly before it won the event’s grand prize, Tholfsen took a moment away from the exhaustive build to huddle with Petty.
“Oh my gosh, this is going to be revolutionary,” Tholfsen quietly told Petty.
“When I recalled that conversation later, I felt this sort of tingling,” recalls Tholfsen. “I haven't had that feeling too often in my career.”
Recently, a teacher in Argentina offered Tholfsen some feedback on Immersive Reader. It came straight from her classroom.
“I just wanted to let you know that today a mom spoke to me and she started crying,” said the teacher, Jennifer Verschoor. “Her son was finally able to read on his own thanks to the Immersive Reader. I am currently changing the lives of so many children.”
A woman stood outside Jenny Lay-Flurrie’s Microsoft office wearing a smirk and a cape.
In addition to a blue t-shirt and white shorts, the woman was bedecked in a black mask and a pair of black-and-white Avengers gloves. The black cape, which dangled down to her calves, was festooned with the letters: “ABILITY HACK.”
Facing Lay-Flurrie, she raised a gloved hand to her forehead, snapped a jaunty salute with two fingers then whirled 180 degrees and – cape fluttering – silently ran 50 feet down the carpeted hallway, her arms rhythmically chugging like pistons. Then she bolted outside into the July heat, joining the mass of people and tents assembled for the 2019 Microsoft Global Hackathon.
As the woman sprinted in her superhero costume – a prominent campus sight during the annual event – Lay-Flurrie recorded the moment with her phone camera, giggling loud enough to be heard in offices at the far end of the hallway. Then she tweeted the video.
“Every good Hackathon needs at least one fearless caped crusader. Meet Mary Bellard, leader of the Ability Hack!” Lay-Flurrie typed, adding a short text description of what the video showed.
Beneath the largest temporary tents in North America, thousands of people chatted near whiteboards and sat at picnic tables, tapping code into laptops.
Many had lugged their office monitors out to the tented tables – along with pens, power cords and water bottles – setting up for a week of outside work on the Microsoft campus in Redmond, Washington.
They represented every slice of the company’s org chart. But that day, they shared one common title: Inventor.
Loud, hot and hectic, the scene marked another moment at the 2019 Hackathon, part of One Week, an annual celebration of the company’s people, products and ideas as a platform for innovation.
The Hackathon alone attracts about 18,000 employees across 75 countries. Microsoft executives sponsor their own “challenges” to hack new products. Each year, Lay-Flurrie sponsors the “Ability Hack,” where Ability Eye Gaze, Learning Tools and Seeing AI first arrived.
Bellard manages the Ability Hack. In 2014, at the inaugural Ability Hack, she playfully donned a makeshift cape made from event swag. That year, a handful of employees built about 10 projects inside a campus conference room because the tents were not yet accessible.
By 2019, when a legion of Ability Hack teams engineered nearly 300 accessibility projects under the giant tents, the cape had become part of the Ability Hack branding – and how participants could spot Bellard among the throngs.
“It hangs on the back of my office door (throughout the rest of the year), in case I ever need it,” Bellard says. “You know, you’ve got to dress for success. And sometimes you need to dress to be a superhero.”
Many Ability Hackers are anxious to concoct products that get released to the market to bring accessible tech to more people.
“But there is more value, I think, in just having the space and time to iterate. That value is in the culture it fosters,” Bellard says.
“If products are released to the market, that’s icing on the cake,” she adds. “It’s the spirit of trying something new and thinking outside the box that has a much greater ROI.”
The event fuses collaboration and creativity to give customers more accessible tools for daily living, working and playing – a chance to dream up new tech strictly through the extensive lens of disability.
But it’s also part of something bigger at Microsoft, Lay-Flurrie says. Throughout the year, developers seize the opportunity to craft new products and apps that follow the maxims of inclusive design.
That methodology – the guiding design principal at Microsoft – draws on the full spectrum of human diversity to create tech that’s accessible to one person with highly unique needs, a consumer whose disabilities were historically overlooked by traditional product architects.
Through that process, engineers can devise better products that everyone can use, advocates say.
“Inclusive design is not one size fits all; it’s one size fits one,” says Johnson, lead designer of the Xbox Adaptive Controller.
In 2013, Johnson worked closely with August de los Reyes, then head of design at Xbox. That same year, de los Reyes had fractured his spine and damaged his spinal cord in a fall, leaving him permanently unable to walk.
Soon, de los Reyes and Kat Holmes helped pioneer the inclusive design approach for Microsoft. (Today, de los Reyes is the chief design officer at Varo, a mobile banking company that seeks to improve the financial health of Americans through mobile-centric design. Holmes is senior vice president of product design and user experience at Salesforce.)
“August always described the difference between inclusive design and accessibility. It’s still the way I think about it today,” Johnson says. “Accessibility practices were based in engineering: You have a barrier, what’s the facilitator that gets you over that barrier?
“Whereas inclusive design asks: What if we just didn’t have the barrier in the first place?”
That maxim is helping inform game design across the company, says Dave McCarthy, Microsoft corporate vice president of gaming and Xbox.
He points to Gears 5, a third-person shooter game published in September 2019 by Xbox Studios for Microsoft Windows and Xbox One.
“The reason I love Gears 5 as an example of inclusive design is because it’s a pretty hardcore game with blood and chainsaws. And that game has won an unprecedented number of industry awards for its accessibility feature set,” McCarthy says.
It’s a prime example of an area influenced by Gaming for Everyone – a Microsoft Gaming initiative to drive product-led inclusion in the gaming world and to ensure that Xbox remains fun for everyone. McCarthy is the program’s founding executive sponsor.
“In order for gaming to realize our aspirations as a global business that appeals not just to tens of millions of people, but to hundreds of millions if not billions of people, we had to embrace product-led inclusion,” McCarthy says. “If we're going to appeal to 2 billion gamers, nobody can feel unwelcome.”
That global embrace is just as crucial in moments when gaming systems or controllers aren’t working – or when accessibility questions prevent customers from playing.
Meanwhile, the Microsoft Disability Answer Desk is also available 24/7 via live chat to help people with disabilities keep playing or working on their Microsoft products. The team of accessibility experts offers a full range of customer support, guiding installations and talking through specific tech questions.
Conceived by Lay-Flurrie, the Disability Answer Desk provides customers with disabilities free support for their Xbox, Windows and Office products as well as third-party assistive technologies such as screen readers and speech-recognition software. On average, the answer desk fields 150,000 annual inquiries.
It is staffed by people with disabilities. Some are deaf. They communicate with customers on videophone while using American Sign Language. The desk also relies on the Be My Eyes app, which connects blind and low-vision people with volunteers for visual assistance through live video calls.
Those conversations lead to better products. Customer feedback is shared with Microsoft engineers, who use that intel to improve products and services, such as the narrator feature in Magnifier.
“To me, the biggest piece … is they (Microsoft) want our feedback,” says Bridges, the executive director of the American Council of the Blind. In addition to Seeing AI, he uses a Microsoft Surface Pro computer and Office 365.
“The feedback loop she's created is real and sincere,” Bridges says. “Having a person with a disability in that role gives them empathy, helps them understand the community’s needs.”
Bridges has long been an honest appraiser of Microsoft’s products.
“There are still accessibility gaps inside some products. But Microsoft has come a long way,” Bridges says. “I would characterize them in the upper echelon of companies, particularly within the tech industry. I still don’t think it’s where it ought to be – but I would never say that, even if it was.”
“Microsoft is not just on the accessibility journey; they’re sharing that journey,” says Jill Houghton, president and CEO of Disability:IN, a nonprofit resource for business disability inclusion with a global network of more than 200 corporations. Houghton has a learning disability. Lay-Flurrie serves as chair of the Disability:IN board of directors.
Companies should view compliance as the minimum requirement, Houghton says. In contrast, sharing and asking for feedback along the way demonstrates a true commitment to learn.
“The fear is by talking about it, companies may be met with scrutiny, or worse – legal action” Houghton says. “Microsoft paves the way, in stating they don’t have all the answers. But they are putting all their goodness into the open space, then asking the community where they need to do better, nonetheless. As they learn, other companies are also able to follow their journey.”
In fact, it’s about doing better together, Lay-Flurrie says.
By partnering with Disability:IN, the American Council of the Blind and other nonprofits working for people with disabilities, Microsoft has incorporated that community feedback to improve its products and experiences, advocates say.
Since 2015, those assessments have helped Microsoft build a sustainable culture of accessibility that’s designed to be durable well beyond Lay-Flurrie’s tenure at the company, says Clint Covington, a Microsoft principal program manager who oversees accessibility in Windows and Office products.
Rooted in a metric-rich assessment process, the engineering system now includes standardized accessibility testing for all Microsoft 365 products, Covington says. In conjunction, Microsoft works closely with people with disabilities to incorporate their feedback into future iterations.
In addition, product teams each create monthly scorecards that track (among other things) what percentage of the teams are compliant with accessibility standards and which teams are working to fix identified issues, in the process of redesigning the user experience or of moving to a new technology stack.
Every quarter, those scorecards and metrics are shared with Nadella and other senior leaders at Microsoft for top-down visibility on accessibility across the company.
“We didn’t want to get experiences into a good state and have them slowly regress,” Covington says. “It takes constant effort for products and standards to evolve.”
Through that journey, Microsoft has gradually built a blueprint that allows the company to manage accessibility like a business.
Now, Microsoft is publicly sharing that strategy, called the Accessibility Evolution Model, to help develop cultures of accessibility elsewhere.
The model offers eight overarching criteria that enable organizations to appraise their level of inclusion, assess milestones achieved and spot opportunities to make accessibility sustainable.
Jessica Rafuse dropped her laptop onto her office floor. This was a problem.
Rafuse, a senior program manager on Lay-Flurrie’s accessibility team, a lawyer and previously an administrative judge, uses a wheelchair, has limited mobility and could not retrieve the fallen Surface on her own.
She hollered to Crystal Jones, an accessibility escalation engineer who works just down the hall. Before joining Microsoft, Jones worked at the U.S. Department of Education as a management and program analyst, leading training efforts to ensure the agency was providing accessible documents to employees, students and the general public.
“Crystal? Can you please come pick up my laptop?”
This also was a problem. Jones is blind. The situation would require teamwork.
Jones walked from her office into Rafuse’s workspace. They quickly devised their own version of two well-known kids’ games: Marco Polo meets Hot and Cold.
“OK, a little bit closer,” Rafuse directed. “Little to the left. Little to the right. You’ve got it! Thank you!”
“Our team is many disabilities brought together,” Rafuse says later. “We embrace the things that we're good at. We also recognize and support each other when maybe we need a little bit of help.
“I always say we would make for a great reality TV show,” she adds. “With 90-plus percent of (our team) being people with disabilities, our experiences day-in and day-out are sometimes funny, sometimes stressful, but always prove that disability is a strength.”
The group spans colleagues who are blind, deaf and use wheelchairs, people with learning and cognitive disabilities as well as people with mental health conditions.
Visitors to the team’s Microsoft offices follow a tactile sidewalk strip from the parking lot to the front door. The strip helps people who are blind or low vision navigate with a cane or their feet. At the entrance, a button automatically opens the door. Rafuse uses that button.
They all occupy separate, first-floor offices.
“You come down our hallway, it is always very loud,” Rafuse says. “When Jenny's in the office, she is yelling down the hallways. She is a big personality, making her presence known. But she's also someone who is deaf and appreciates that communicating with others who are visual on the team needs noise.”
Their kitchenette’s cabinets and walls are filled with signs that contain large print and Braille. It’s also a place of training – team members are taught to always put food, beverages and equipment back where they found them, to help employees who are blind and low vision locate them when needed.
Across Microsoft’s campus, offices contain Braille signage, dimmable lighting, accessible entries as well as desks that can be raised to accommodate wheelchairs.
Some cafés offer touchscreen kiosks with audio navigation bars. Blind employees and those with low vision can plug their headsets into the bars. A screen reads to them and they make their selections using the keys on the bar.
Employees also have access to sign language interpreters on staff at Microsoft and can use assistive technologies, modified work schedules, and other accommodations. There are company-wide trainings on disability education and etiquette – part of an accessible culture that includes a focus on hiring people with disabilities.
The Autism Hiring program, for example, is built on the idea that traditional recruiting does not allow people with autism to demonstrate their strengths and qualifications.
Through the program, applicants with autism engage in an extended interview process that focuses on workability, team projects and skill assessment.
Mary Ellen Smith, Microsoft corporate vice president of worldwide operations, helped launch the program. She was moved by her experiences while coaching interview techniques to her son. Shawn is 24, and on the autism spectrum. She realized the typical Q&A interviewing techniques may not be the best way to display the talents of highly skilled, capable people on the spectrum.
There is one compelling truth to this accessibility world. The work will never be done.
“In many cases, people with autism seem to have been defined more by disability than ability,” Smith says. “Defined by the perceptions of society, placed into different categories with limits. I always knew that Shawn was capable of doing much more.
“Each person with a disability brings something unique in their ability to contribute. It’s a hidden, untapped talent pool society needs to capitalize on,” she adds. (Her son recently graduated from the University of Washington with a bachelor’s degree in environmental science.)
Through the program, Microsoft has hired more than 100 full-time employees for roles in Windows, Xbox, Azure and other engineering and business functions.
That benchmark is equally personal to Lay-Flurrie. Her daughter, Fira, was diagnosed with autism.
Yet the program also feeds something deeper: Lay-Flurrie’s definition of what makes a good day.
“If I've been able to throw a spark that delivers something that I know will have material impact, that's a good day,” she says. “Not every day is a good day. Sometimes there are two steps back to make a leap forward.
“And there is one compelling truth to this accessibility world,” she adds. “The work will never be done.”
Day to day, her job includes talking with customers and acting on their feedback, working with engineering groups, thinking about design, promoting product development, measuring and assessing progress, listening with employees and community members about all things inclusion, and planning conferences.
One of the biggest events on her calendar each year is the Ability Summit, which brings Microsoft employees and members of the disability community into conversation with leaders in government, business and academia to discuss building inclusive cultures and using tech to empower people with disabilities.
Ability Summit 2020 will be an all-digital event due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
At the inaugural Ability Summit in 2011, about 80 people attended. In 2019, about 2,500 people and 25 companies participated. There was a job fair and the keynote speaker – an Olympian with 23 gold medals – got personal.
“Michael Phelps was talking about mental health, suicide and therapy – taboo topics that aren't talked about enough,” Lay-Flurrie recalls. “I mean, I'm deaf, but I knew that you could hear a pin drop in that room.”
The mission may feel incomplete to Lay-Flurrie, but her work and the work of hundreds of accessibility advocates across the company is helping remake Microsoft and resulting in products with more usable experiences for all, colleagues say.
“There is no doubt,” adds Capossela, “our collective push around accessibility has made people feel like the company is more soulful, has more of a purpose.”
The two friends figured they would brave the ominous dark clouds, hop in a cab and reach the theme park well ahead of the rain.
Besides, they were headed to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter in Orlando.
“Priorities,” Lay-Flurrie recalls.
But before they could they see Harry, the Florida sky split open with a violent gush. They abandoned their plan and frantically hurried back toward their hotel, screaming in laughter.
“Just a couple of sopping wet girls with disabilities,” Rafuse remembers.
She was in her power wheelchair. Lay-Flurrie was on foot. They had traveled to Orlando together to attend an accessibility conference. Then, as the fat drops fell, the wheelchair motor died.
“Suddenly, Jenny was pushing me through the rain,” Rafuse recalls. “I’m yelling at her which way to go and she can’t hear me.”
Finally, they reached the hotel, drenched, exhausted and giggling even louder. But in the lobby, they saw the faces of several people who did not share their joy, who “scoffed at us and walked on,” Lay-Flurrie says. “Their faces were like, ‘What the hell are you doing?’ No empathy.”
Lay-Flurrie and Rafuse smiled at each other, sharing the same thought: Their moment was about people with disabilities who integrate into every element of life, whether that’s enjoying cocktails by the hotel pool or embracing a muddy slog with wild glee.
Disability should not feel foreign or unapproachable or somber, they reminded each other. It should never be bathed in syrupy sentiments like sympathy. And it should never be seen as “inspiring.”
It is real. It is simply part of being human. And, quite often, it is absolutely about laughing your way through the storm to spend an afternoon with Harry Potter.Originally published on 5/20/2020 / Photos by Brian Smale / © Microsoft