Since 2016, Chief Accessibility Officer Jenny Lay-Flurrie has led Microsoft’s efforts to create a more inclusive workplace for people with disabilities through products, services, and thought leadership. She and her team have rolled out features like the adaptive Xbox controller for gamers with limited mobility and live captioning on Microsoft Teams. Lay-Flurrie lost her hearing as an adult, and in this episode she shares her unique insights on why accessibility matters to everyone and what business leaders can do to empower their teams
Jenny Lay-Flurrie is the sixth guest for season 4 of Microsoft’s WorkLab podcast, in which hosts Elise Hu and Mary Melton have conversations with economists, technologists, and researchers who explore the data and insights into why and how work is changing.
Three big takeaways from the conversation:
There is a bias from business leaders to believe that they don’t work with any disabled people. “You absolutely do,” Lay-Flurrie says. “It’s whether or not they actually feel safe enough to identify themselves as such.” Seven years ago when she hired her team, 50 percent of members disclosed that they had a disability during the interview process. A year later, that number was 95 percent.
Be mindful of the “ROI trap,” as Lay-Flurrie puts it, referring to a deprioritization of an accessible feature based on the belief that it only serves the disability population. For example, the audiobooks that many people enjoy today were originally designed for the blind.
Lay-Flurrie believes that AI has enormous potential to create a more accessible world, but “we have to make sure that we’re doing it in a grounded way, and make sure that the data we lean on is disability representative.” Right now we’re going through a hot and fast innovation curve, and we’re still learning every day.
WorkLab is a place for experts to share their insights and opinions. As students of the future of work, Microsoft values inputs from a diverse set of voices. That said, the opinions and findings of the experts we interview are their own and do not reflect Microsoft’s own research or opinions.
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Here’s a transcript of the episode 6 conversation.
MARY MELTON: This is WorkLab , the podcast from Microsoft. I’m your host, Mary Melton. On WorkLab , we hear from leading thinkers on the future of work. Economists, technologists, researchers—they all share surprising data and explore the trends transforming the way we work.
JENNY LAY-FLURRIE: I see enormous potential with AI, but we also have to make sure that we’re doing it in a grounded way, making sure that the data that we lean on is disability representative so that you can learn from it.
MARY MELTON: That’s Jenny Lay-Flurrie, Microsoft’s chief accessibility officer since 2016. Jenny lost her hearing entirely as an adult. Since then, she has been on a mission to make life easier for people with disabilities. She and her team have rolled out features like the adaptive Xbox controller for gamers with limited ability and live captioning on Microsoft Teams. In this episode, Jenny shares with us her personal story, why accessibility matters to everyone, what business leaders can do to empower their teams, and how AI might help along the way. Here’s my conversation with Jenny.
MARY MELTON: Hi, Jenny. Thank you so much for joining us today on WorkLab .
JENNY LAY-FLURRIE: Thank you for having me.
MARY MELTON: Can you tell us about your story as a person with disabilities?
JENNY LAY-FLURRIE: So yes, I live with disabilities. There is a journey of disability identity that we all go through, and I went through mine as a person with declining hearing, getting a music degree, and then going into IT, and I didn’t have that sense of empowerment with my disability. And so I learned very quickly it was easier at the time to hide it and not ask for what I needed to be successful, and bluntly realized that that was the hard path. When I came to Microsoft, I took the easier path, which was seeing my disability for what it is—a part of my human—and asking for what I needed to be successful. So I’ve definitely learned a lot over the years and have a lot of empathy for people, no matter where they are on that journey. Most people with disabilities come to this gig through accident, injury, and illness. Most are not born with, about 5 percent are born with. It is one heck of a ride. But I’m very proud of who I am, including my disabilities. And I’m proud of using the word. I’m a deaf, disabled woman, and I’m also a mom, a wife, a dog mom, a stepmom. And I work in corporate America.
MARY MELTON: Well, the numbers are pretty high, Jenny, and I actually look at the statistics: more than 1 billion people live with disabilities. So we’re looking at one in eight people in the world are living with some kind of disability, and 70 percent of those are not immediately apparent.
JENNY LAY-FLURRIE: The numbers and the metrics that we all lean on is that 1 billion, which came from the World Health Organization in 2010. And here’s the realism: We’ve just gone through a mass disabling event. A pandemic is such. We also saw as a consequence—and this was happening before the pandemic, let alone during and after—certain areas bluntly exponentially growing. Mental health being one of those. And so understanding that true metric, I think we’re going to learn a lot in years and decades to come. And I look forward to learning from the scientists in front of it.
MARY MELTON: Yeah, I feel like even the conversation around this has opened up tremendously. One of the offices I work with, there’s a channel now that’s devoted to neurodiversity. I’m the mom of a neurodiverse son, and it really heartens me to think about how this conversation is going to change generationally, but how it’s changing right now, that this is something that’s more openly discussed in workplaces.
JENNY LAY-FLURRIE: Well, I love hearing that you have the neurodiversity channel. I think those communities are essential. There’s something very powerful about bringing together people to talk about their experience, to learn from others, to get best practices, to share when things aren’t going right. I lean on the community for that collective wealth and support. It’s been instrumental to my journey, but I think more importantly, it’s been instrumental to a lot of members in our disability community. And I think if you spoke to any company, big or small, knowing someone that has similar experiences, particularly employees with disabilities, but also carers and parents and making sure they have the right communities to coalesce in as well is vital. And I actually think as we went into the pandemic, those communities became essential.
MARY MELTON: Yeah, absolutely. Broadly speaking, when we talk about accessibility at work, what are we talking about really? Is it neurodiversity programs? Is it ensuring that elevators and ramps are on each floor, which may be, at this point, basic? Is it about making accommodations or having special tools and equipment in place? Is it all of those things?
JENNY LAY-FLURRIE: Yes. Accessibility is not one thing. What we’re learning is that, as humans, we don’t come in singular, gorgeous packages. You look at what an individual may need in a workplace, and it varies. Accessibility is the means, whether it’s physical, digital, or a combination of, let alone best practice language, etiquette—all of it goes to create a work environment where any individual can be successful and unlock talent and capability that will help you as a company deliver more. That is a ramp, in its simplest form. That is making sure that you have captioning on a video on this podcast. It is making sure that you have knowledge of what language to use. So you’re listening carefully to that person, how they like to be referred to, and you’re asking questions where appropriate. All of that and the above, so that we can empower inclusion, equity—all of the gorgeous things that we should have as humans.
MARY MELTON: What do you think is still misunderstood by business leaders about people with disabilities in the workplace?
JENNY LAY-FLURRIE: There’s some common misconceptions that I hear every day, every week. I had someone say this to me this week: Well, I don’t have any disabled people in my company. You absolutely do. It’s whether or not they actually feel safe enough to identify to you as such. And one, just brief, illustration of that, when I had the amazing opportunity to hire my team seven years ago, I knew that I had 50 percent disability based on what people had told me through interview process. A year later, that number was 95. And that’s by creating a conversation. Another common misconception is that “I’m sure it’s accessible.” If you don’t know if it’s accessible, it’s not. Don’t make those presumptions. There are some very quick and easy things you can do to validate that, and don’t think this is hard. There are tools and lots and lots of amazing people out there to help. Presumption can be your worst enemy here. Check the experts. That’s where people with disabilities can be an incredible asset to your company. You know, often I’ll shoot emails like, Hey, does this work for you? And I’m just making sure it’s good. So there’s lots of others, but I think it’s always—check your bias.
MARY MELTON: So are you seeing business leaders’ openness to this conversation or realization that they need to make modifications in the workplace?
JENNY LAY-FLURRIE: Well, one, you know, just to acknowledge, we’re still learning. So, one, I think we have to remind ourselves of that every single day, because accessibility is moving very fast right now. The wealth of opportunity, particularly as we look at AI and this generative AI chapter we’re in, is exciting. So, you know, I don’t think we’ve even captured an ounce of that. If I look outside, and chatting with the amazing folks I know in companies, not just here in the States but in Europe and Australia and beyond, yes, I am seeing it mature. I am seeing far more investment happening. Recognizing that disability inclusion must be in the diversity spectrum, and also recognizing that accessibility is a core fundamental right. I’m seeing that. But I will say that there’s far more need to accelerate it. I don’t think we’re keeping up with the rates of disability at all.
MARY MELTON: In the past, you’ve said something about being mindful of the ROI trap, which is business leaders wanting to justify the cost of an accessible product that maybe they think will only work for a small fraction of its customer base or of its workforce. And I’d love for you to talk a little bit more about that trap and help us frame up why inclusive design is a win really for everyone.
JENNY LAY-FLURRIE: Yeah, I use the phrase “ROI trap,” and my intent with using that was to describe a situation that I’ve seen play out multiple times, where accessibility has been connected to a disability demographic, but then used to de-prioritize investment. And so if you are looking to invest in a feature that will empower someone who’s blind and then you go and look at the demographics for any given country, and there’s lots that are available, and you come back and—I’m making up these numbers, but—you find out that for your particular area there are one point something percent of the population that will benefit from this particular gig. Well, there’s two ways of looking at that number. One way is saying, Great, that’s awesome, I’m going to get 1 percent. And actually, if I invest in this feature, maybe it’s going to grow capability that would actually empower a much broader segment of human. And we see that time over time, by the way. Seeing AI is a good example of that, where you can take a picture of some text and you can get it read out loud to you, and then actually we found that neurodiverse find that incredibly useful. So instead of it being 1 percent, it suddenly becomes an additional percent. And then you find, oh my gosh, actually it’s nice to get things read out to me in audio in a darkened room or in a restaurant. Who wouldn’t want this? And suddenly it’s not 10 percent, it’s 50 percent. And that, bluntly, is the power of accessibility. You just think about talking books were designed for the blind. But my husband lies next to me, listening to his books as I’m reading mine. That’s the positive use. The negative use is where that number, 1 percent, is like, oh, not worth it, let’s go. That in itself is a bit of a trap because you’re missing out on all of that potential upside and you’re not doing that extrapolation of how an innovation, and designing for a feature for a person, could actually have more profound impacts beyond the group that you’re designing for.
MARY MELTON: That’s such a great way to think about it. What are some other first steps for someone who’s just thinking, Well, where do I, where do I even start? Is it starting on the hiring level? Is it assessing current employees? Where do you recommend for leaders to go to first?
JENNY LAY-FLURRIE: We, like many companies, have published training on accessibility and disability etiquette. Every Microsoft employee has to take mandatory training on accessibility when they join the company. And why do we do that? We do that because we want to uplevel the conversation as people come in, and create that common ground where people can talk about disability and they feel confident and safe in doing so. And then we teach people some of the tools. Know that accessibility is in every single thing that you have, and play with the features that there are. And I’ll tell you, that we wrap into a 20-minute virtual online training that is just on demand. But just 20 minutes to get going. I’m pretty sure everyone can do that.
MARY MELTON: That’s such a great idea, and it’s such a simple thing to ask, especially for when you’re meeting others for the first time, which happens a lot in meetings. Stepping away from a business context quickly, what can you tell us about the work your team has done to make gaming more inclusive?
JENNY LAY-FLURRIE: Well, the first thing to state is that this isn’t me. This is the village of folks that are working on accessibility in every single part of Microsoft, and there are many partners and many peers. So the goal is that technology is easy to find, easy to use. It’s affordable, it’s discoverable, and it empowers you right where you are. So in Windows, one of the fun things with Windows 11 was we were able to put all of accessibility in the bottom right of your screen. It’s right there. My favorite is live captions, which was a feature that was designed by Swetha [Machanavajhala], who is one of our deaf engineers, and I can just turn it on. I can filter profanity, which matters. A deaf person shouldn’t have things filtered out for them unless they need it, and I don’t need to have Wi-Fi connectivity, it can be offline as well. Simple things like that are just incredibly important. And then you move to Office, where you’ve got features built in—Dictate and the new one, which is Accessibility Assistant, which means that as you’re building your Word document, your PowerPoint, it’s going to guide you on how to make that accessible: suggest the colors that work; suggest the picture descriptions and the alternative text, which is vital for the blind; help you with captions. I want you to be able to walk in the room, having run the accessibility checker and using the assistant, you run your PowerPoint, and no matter whether you know if someone in that room is disabled or not, you know it’s going to be an inclusive meeting. I would still suggest you ask, does anyone need anything? Really important at the beginning. But technology can help you to do that. But I’ve got a real big sweet spot for gaming, so I love what gaming is doing and I’m really proud of that team and what they do every day, from the adaptive controller to features that even do beautiful things like help manage triggers for mental health. I’ve got to love even a flippant one, but I hate spiders with a passion. I can now get warnings when there are certain things. And that’s, you know, very minor, but some of these are really important. I still want to be able to play some of those gruesome games, but you might not be a fan of some of the impacts of them. You can get trigger warnings. It’s digging into the needs of gamers out there, that mental health is a big one.
MARY MELTON: One I had not considered before researching this was how the Blur background, that is something that I think a lot of people use because they’re really embarrassed because their desk is a mess, right? Or who knows what’s going on behind them. But something that can be really beneficial is for people who have trouble with visual distractions.
JENNY LAY-FLURRIE: Background on Blur was again a deaf engineer trying to figure out how to make it easier to follow lip reading. That was actually the original scenario, and in fact what they did was reduce the whole thing so you could only see the face. And one demo, which by the way, was very quickly, we moved on from, was only seeing the mouth. That was the original scenario. Then in test, you find out, oh my gosh, this is great for ADD, this is great for autism, this is great for neurodiversity. And again, it was a beautiful example of where the implications were that it helps everyone.
MARY MELTON: I’m excited by what you said at the Microsoft Ability Summit, when you spoke about AI and said that it has the potential to be a game changer. There’s been tremendous breakthroughs in recent months. For people with disabilities, what do you see as the potential there? I mean, I alluded earlier, I have a son who has autism, and I’m thinking about, you know, he’s launching into college and thinking about, how different is this road going to be for him with the advent of AI and opportunities that arise?
JENNY LAY-FLURRIE: I see enormous potential with AI. But we also have to make sure that we’re doing it in a grounded way, making sure that the data that we lean on to power AI is disability representative. It includes pictures and images that matter to people with disabilities, whether that’s images of canes, hearing aids, wheelchairs. It’s got to be in there so that you can learn from it and you can provide intelligent results. And then you’ve also got to make sure that any application that leans on AI is also accessible as we go through this very hot and fast innovation curve, which is going to continue. If we look at generative AI. So the partnership that we have with OpenAI, and how we’re pulling that into Azure at Microsoft, and what does that mean for disabled communities? I think what we know today is probably tip of the iceberg to what we’ll know in six, let alone 12, months from now. Just look at the potential of Copilot as a principal. This isn’t doing it for you, this is working with you to make it quicker and easier to write a document, give you an outline that then you can edit, you can personalize, you can make your own. That’s got profound implications. I also have an autistic kiddo, and we’ve been just playing with it to see how it could help with some of her studies. And I mean, one, she’s had wild fun with it, creating poems in the style of Dr. Seuss, but it’s also helped her to structure her thoughts. But I think the other profound one we’re learning from is Be My Eyes, which is a partnership with OpenAI and a small, amazing company that provides a free app to blind-low vision, where you call a sighted volunteer to help you find things, or with a task. So, hey, can you help me find my keys? And that volunteer then can help you visually. Well, they added GPT-4 in there, and instead of calling, take a picture, and it’s quickly identifying where those keys are, without the need to make a call. I think at the core of it, this AI, if done right and if we are responsible, it can help save time, it can empower tasks, it can empower independence, and do so in a quick, affordable way. But again, we’re learning, we’re learning hot and we’re learning fast.
MARY MELTON: How do you see it increasing productivity?
JENNY LAY-FLURRIE: Well I’m seeing it already. To be blunt, I’ve always used Bing. I was part of the original Bing team many, many years ago before I flipped into accessibility. And I’m often researching what’s happening in the world on different things. Bing has become my sidekick in figuring out some of that. It’s saving me hours of time. And normally, if you think about that process, I would be opening up different tabs, I would be searching, I would be clicking through to those URLs. I’d be looking for the relevant bits on the pages. I’d be copying and pasting those into a Word document or Notepad or something so I could put them into a PowerPoint or I could put them into some talking or an email that I could send to my team. Think about the number of clicks that is. Now think about that scenario from a couple members of my team who have muscular dystrophy, where those clicks take additional time using assistive technology that empowers them every day. Suddenly you have an equalizer, where we’re both going to one page, putting in the same search gig. It becomes a game changer, and you have this compounding effect of it saving time all over. So we need to keep exploring that scenario. We need to keep pushing that forward.
MARY MELTON: Well, thank you so much, Jenny Lay-Flurrie, Chief Accessibility Officer at Microsoft. This was a wonderful conversation—you gave us a lot to think about and a lot to be hopeful for.
JENNY LAY-FLURRIE: Thank you for the time.
MARY MELTON: Thank you again to Jenny Lay-Flurrie, Chief Accessibility Officer at Microsoft. And that’s it for this episode of WorkLab , the podcast from Microsoft. Please subscribe and check back for the next episode, where we will be talking with Jared Spataro, who heads up modern work and business applications at Microsoft. If you’ve got a question you’d like to pose to leaders, drop us an email at email@example.com, and check out the WorkLab digital publication, where you’ll find transcripts of all of our episodes, along with thoughtful stories that explore the way we work today. You can find all of it at Microsoft.com/WorkLab. As for this podcast, please rate us, review, and follow us wherever you listen. It helps us out a lot. The WorkLab podcast is a place for experts to share their insights and opinions. As students of the future of work, Microsoft values inputs from a diverse set of voices. That said, the opinions and findings of our guests are their own, and they may not necessarily reflect Microsoft’s own research or positions. WorkLab is produced by Microsoft with Godfrey Dadich Partners and Reasonable Volume. I’m your host, Mary Melton, and my co-host is Elise Hu. Sharon Kallander and Matthew Duncan produce this podcast. Jessica Voelker is the WorkLab editor. Thank you so much for listening.