Microsoft’s accessibility push is promising – but there’s plenty more to do

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Microsoft hosted its thirteenth Ability Summit earlier this year. The event, which featured speakers such as musician Gaelynn Lea and non-profit leader Dom Kelly, among other key figures, centered around the tech giant’s commitment to accessibility – as well as the IT industry’s impact. The sessions can be watched back here.

“Accessible technology is a fundamental building block that can unlock opportunities in every part of society and empower people across the spectrum of disability,” said Microsoft’s chief accessibility officer Jenny Lay Flurrie, at the time. “But it’s not just about technology. We are committed to tackling the disability divide and learning through our technology led strategy with three additional pillars, People, Partnership and Policy.”


The firm has recently been praised for initiatives like the Xbox Adaptive Controller and, even beyond the 13 iterations of the summit, this is far from the first time Microsoft has jumped into the pool of accessibility. For example, the company announced in 2021 it had bought Nuance, the firm behind industry-leading dictation software Dragon Naturally Speaking. 

Microsoft products and services are ubiquitous in the enterprise – from Microsoft Teams to Windows 11 – and there’s hope that one of the biggest companies in the world taking accessibility seriously will improve the lives of countless professionals. 

Creating new standards for accessibility 

The optimism about the impact IT can have on accessibility during the keynote sessions is also felt within Microsoft’s ecosystem. Arunansu Pattanayak, an IT consultant and cloud architect at Microsoft, says his hope is for events like the Ability Summit to usher in an era of increased compatibility when it comes to accessibility.

“This is a really good cause that a lot of big tech companies like Microsoft, Google, T-Mobile are committed [to],” he tells ITPro. “So I'm hoping that that can bring people together and we can finally figure out a way to create those open standards to make this technology available and work in an interoperable manner.”


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But where there’s proposed action, which the summit was full of, there’s also the power of implementation. For his part, Eric Sugar, president at full stack provider ProServe IT, says Microsoft’s continued focus on accessibility is providing fresh opportunities and will continue to pay dividends.  To do so from a technical perspective, however, requires being open to what you don’t know. 

“The difference between the organizations that are successful in helping people work or helping feel like they're contributing is that trust and willingness to be uncomfortable… the understanding that I'm going to ask the wrong question, I'm going to make a mistake and as long as we're in an area of trust, it's going to be okay but it's [also] acceptable.”

Integrating accessibility into your workflow

For Darren Stordahl, VP of sales and marketing at FMT Consultants, creating access translates down to the basic building blocks of business, like standard operating procedure documentation.

“What we’re currently excited about is that we’re planning to ensure that our company has tech staff who are familiar and capable of integrating American Sign Language (ASL) in our products and in the SaaS partnerships we build.”

Meanwhile, Sugar’s starting point is with dictation. His firm has strong ties to the non-profit sector, including working with the Canadian Institute for the Blind on IT solutions and he says that Microsoft’s attention to detail is what allows this creation of access. 

“Microsoft's done a very good job designing their platforms to allow for accessibility. We, as the integrators, have to then do the same. Like, our version of that design thinking is then, ‘Okay, how do we integrate this into your daily life or my daily life?’”

Dictation came into Sugar’s life in a significant way when he broke his hand. There’s a saying in some areas of disability activism that everyone on earth is only temporarily able-bodied, an experience that the longtime tech worker felt keenly.

“I couldn't type for eight weeks, and I couldn't type well for probably closer to 12 or 13. So I started the experience. I had an eight-week experience that was incredibly disruptive for me and my life and my family and the people I care about. Knowing that people live with this all the time makes it important.”

Lending a helping hand

That accessibility is seen as being a helping hand is right in the name. For Pattanayak, he sees tools within Office 365 and the firm’s internal tools as key to moving accessibility forward in the IT space.

“If you're building plugins with an Office tool, or if you're developing any Office-related product, the accessibility assistant is a great tool for checking against accessibility. If you’re building a general purpose application using Java; you’re building a website using HTML; you develop your application from scratch, that's when the accessibility checker is going to be helpful.”

Pattanayak says the issue is less about difficult conversations with people when it comes to accessibility and more about publicizing that the tools themselves are available. Much of that information is online, including a toolkit focused on inclusive design, the aforementioned accessibility assistant, and the long-running application Seeing AI. 

Despite the progress, we should still be wary

Much like those behind the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), Sugar and his colleagues continue to stress it’s important to go beyond a checkbox when it comes to accessibility in the digital world – no matter who your client is.

“If we take the time to treat accessibility as a GPS system, where we're going to change the route based on what's happening in front of us and the answers we receive, as opposed to coming in with a preconceived notion… businesses working to help businesses enable people will come up with better answers.”

Disability and technology are never an open-and-shut case. Something Sugar is committed to pointing out at every opportunity. “This is not a technology conversation. It's a trust and vulnerability conversation.”

John Loeppky is a British-Canadian disabled freelance writer based in Regina, Saskatchewan. His work has appeared for the CBC, FiveThirtyEight, Defector, and a multitude of others. John most often writes about disability, sport, media, technology, and art. His goal in life is to have an entertaining obituary to read.