Creating a better future through accessibility and inclusion

Hector Minto has worked at the cutting edge of Assistive Technology (AT) for 20 years specialising in Alternative Communication (AAC) and Home Automation (EC) for people with physical and learning disabilities and, most recently, driving the growth and awareness of eye gaze technology across Europe.

Hector’s role at Microsoft as an Accessibility Evangelist, sees him engaging across the European workforce and stakeholders to showcase, product accessibility, inclusive design, the inclusive hiring program and accessibility innovation from Microsoft Research. A critical part of Hector’s role is to learn from Microsoft customers how we can continue to adapt to the changing needs of the diverse population we support, and to provide this feedback directly to the Microsoft product teams for ongoing improvement of the accessibility of our products, websites, and services.

Microsoft’s mission is to empower every person and every organisation on the planet to achieve more.

We are passionate about creating a future where we push the boundaries to create products and tools that have the potential to transform lives for the better.

As Technical Evangelist for Accessibility, I am proud to be part of a diverse community that wants to equip and empower everyone to be their best selves.

It could be creating apps to help people work better or make the day-to-day easier. It could be empowering young adults or children into STEM careers via our community programs. It could even be an individual taking the time to volunteer at a charity or organise fundraising.

How about you start your journey to becoming more accessible for everyone – did you know that you can check all your Microsoft documents, presentations, and even emails for their accessibility? All it takes is a click of a button.

Creating tools to empower everyone

To survive the world as it is today, technology is necessary for schools, the workplace, or to access social services, utilities, or technology. There are over 1 billion people with disabilities globally, according to WHO, who face barriers in their daily lives.

We need to globalise the solutions we make, and make sure everyone accessing technology can personalise and do so in a way that suits and empowers them. Disability is not a personal health condition. When we view disability as a mismatch in human interaction, we can design products and services that deliberately include a wider range of abilities.

Every day at Microsoft, people are empowered to invest their time and use their skills to help others. It could be working in the Microsoft Research Labs making breakthroughs in AI, human-computer interaction, healthcare and more; or finding solutions in the day-to-day business.

The Microsoft Enable Lab for example, focusses on creating technologies that empower people living with disabilities. The Inclusive Technology Lab increases awareness of gamers with disabilities. Microsoft also hosts an Ability Summit, that brings together our disability community and allies, and hosts annual hackathons globally.

It was at the first hackathon in 2014, when former NFL player Steve Gleason, who has ALS (MND), challenged Microsoft to create something to help him move his wheelchair independently. The challenge was met with gusto and a team created a solution that allowed Gleason to move his wheelchair with just his eyes.

This led to the implementation of the same technology in Eye Control for Windows 10, making this technology more readily available for all, and for us to reach a more global audience with disabilities.

In 2014, Anirudh Koul, a data scientist working with machine learning in Bing, realised his grandfather was gradually losing his vision and was unable to recognise him on Skype. Koul had an idea to use images to navigate users around their environment.

A year later another team of Microsoft Researchers developed a vision-to-language technology that was more accurate than humans at recognising objects in images. This brought to life Koul’s idea and he brought together a diverse team to create and test the software.

The project won the 2015 hackathon award and now Seeing AI is a free app available globally.

The hack culture that delivered both Eye Control and Seeing AI is one we are keen to promote globally. When we invest in people centred solutions and invest our time learning about disability inclusion, we discover amazing ideas that help a much wider audience. We describe this process and the story behind our hack culture in The Ability Hacks, available for download.

Emma Lawton was 29 when she was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease. As a graphic designer, the tremors Emma had meant it was virtually impossible to draw.

Enter Haiyan Zhang, Innovation Director at Microsoft Research, Cambridge. On BBC Big Life Fix, the two were introduced and Zhang was faced with a challenge – help Lawton draw again. She devised a watch which vibrates and distracts the brain. Dubbed ‘The Emma Watch’, it helped Lawton draw again.

Zhang continues to focus on projects that make people’s lives easier – she’s gamified breathing exercises for children with cystic fibrosis to make it more fun and helped create a new way to teach programming languages to children with vision impairments. She was also back on our screens this year for a second season of Big Life Fix where she helps a four-year-old-boy who has a rare form of epilepsy.

Sometimes all it takes is a simple use of technology that can change someone’s life. Microsoft Learning Tools leverages technology to improve reading and writing for people, regardless of their age or ability. It offers simple ways to change and highlight font, reads aloud and has focus modes

Or perhaps, it’s just offering the use of current tools to empower. At the City of Westminster of College, Esam Baboukhan, a computer science teacher, wanted to bridge the communication gap between his students. One of his students, Kabir, has a hearing impairment and while he is accompanied by an interpreter in classes, neither Baboukhan or the other students knew British Sign Language.

With the simple introduction of Microsoft Teams, an online collaboration app, the communication barriers fell. Kabir now feels more confident to communicate with his peers. Baboukhan now uses Teams in all his classes to increase collaboration.

And what’s good for one person is good for others. Technology created to help someone with a permanent disability can help those with a temporary injury or a situational disability. Accessibility for the few, more often than not, becomes usability for many.

Did you know that any webpage can be read aloud by simply right clicking (or holding a touchscreen) and choosing that option? Suddenly webpages become accessible to a much wider audience.

Technology is reaching further into society and as it does, we must consider the specific needs of this wider audience. Consider the number of people in the world with low levels of literacy or dyslexia. Take for example, the Immersive Reader, created as part of the Learning Tools.

It can be leveraged for a wide range of uses, from helping those with vision impairment, non-native language speakers learning new languages, to those recovering from eye surgery, or in a situation where someone can’t read their screen. Teachers are now even using it to help them mark their student’s work.

Being inclusive and diverse

These projects would never have happened if the teams weren’t able to draw on different backgrounds, experiences, and abilities. Having people with different experiences means we can solve different challenges across society and meet the needs of our increasingly diverse world.

Microsoft prides itself on empowering people to come as they are and do what they love. This means having inclusive hiring practices and workplaces that echo the great mix in our society. Our Autism Hiring Programme, LEAP, and intern, graduate and apprenticeships schemes help us to expand the pipeline of talent within our organisation.

With programmes such as DigiGirlz, Digital Skills, Microsoft Imagine, and YouthSpark we aim to increase the digital skills in young people to help solve the world’s greatest challenges. We not only partner with not-for-profits, governments, educators, partners, and other organisations, we empower our staff to use their skills to make a difference in the community personally.

We have one of the more diverse leadership teams in the technology sector. There are also over 50 community groups in Microsoft that offer support, mentoring, product input, and more.

We’re open to learning our own biases and changing our behaviours, so we can tap into the collective power of everyone at Microsoft. Over 70,000 employees have completed our unconscious bias training and we’ve opened the course externally too.

Best of all, we are surrounded by supportive and encouraging co-workers and managers to help us achieve our work and personal goals. It’s also easy to create a difference, both locally and globally, as Microsoft supports us when we volunteer or raise money for charities.

Being inclusive is synonymous with Microsoft. We’re constantly discovering new tools, exploring new perspectives, solutions and innovative ideas to better the community.

Find out more

Empower young people to pursue STEM careers

Sharing skills to create the world of tomorrow

Hire an apprentice: invest in the future of your workforce

Microsoft’s diversity and inclusion resources

Bring accessibility awareness everyday

The future of Windows 10 accessibility

Inclusion in action

Read about the transformative power of technology