The Covid-19 crisis has required entire workforces across the world to change their working practices at very short notice. This has brought our relationship and our reliance on technology into very clear focus.
To exist in today’s digital society, you will have to use technology. There are more than a billion people on the planet with a disability so our technology must work for everybody.
I’ve been working in assistive technology for 20 years, which, for most of that time, meant using specialist technology working with people with disabilities in the community or in the workplace to make systems work for them.
But we’re now moving into an era where through our reliance on technology and our connectivity there is an opportunity – and necessity – for us to build products that routinely include a more diverse set of users. We are proactively including people with disabilities in the design principles. We all benefit when we deploy the skills of people with disabilities to apply their often innate problem solving abilities.
Diversity and inclusion is important in business strategy, but disability is often overlooked. At Microsoft, accessibility is central to our products, making representation of disability mission critical. We have a deep passion for accessibility and we have an amazing voice of disability inside the organisation, Chief Accessibility Officer Jenny Lay-Flurrie. Leaders with disabilities reinforce this message and are going to be integral to the transformation that we all hope for.
According to Accenture’s 2018 study, The Disability Inclusion Advantage, companies that embrace best practices for employing and supporting people with disabilities outperform their peers with higher revenue (28%) and profit margin (30%).
Millennials will make up 75% of the global workforce by 2025, according to the EY study, Work-Life Challenges Across Generations, and they will want to work for a company that reflects their values with diversity, disability and inclusion being hugely important.
Accessibility in action
A large part of the challenge here is the knowledge that the tools exist and once people know about them, they’ll tell somebody else. There is an opportunity here for organisations to invest in great workplace culture while driving productivity up at the same time.
For example, somebody who has arthritis or RSI in the workplace will probably have spent a year or two just struggling with it before they get serious with HR. They won’t make a big deal of it but they’ll be tired by the end of the day and their hands will be hurting. If they knew that by pressing ‘Windows H’ on their keyboard, they would enable the dictation tool, or that they have keyboard word prediction built in, the period of lost productivity could have been avoided.
Most people are unaware how a blind person reads their email but Windows, iOS and Google all have built-in screen readers so content is read aloud to the user, information that is often absorbed eight times faster than sighted people read emails. We need to educate recruiters that assistive technology is making the digital workplace routinely accessible, and to avoid putting unnecessary barriers in place.
A more recent innovation is a free app called Seeing AI that narrates the world for blind and visually impaired people. It recognises faces to tell the user who is in the room with them; it reads documents and now handwriting; it identifies products using barcodes; and it recognises colours to help people do their laundry or get dressed in the morning. It’s a very cool, award-winning piece of tech, which the blind community has absolutely embraced.
Those of us who don’t have a disability may acquire one at some stage in our lives. Someone who starts losing their hearing in the workplace is unlikely to tell anyone. They will keep it secret for some time which means they become less productive, because they’re not feeling confident to ask for an accommodation, or know how it’s done. In the case of hearing assistance, we’re talking about closed captions, a mono audio channel or a setting giving them time to read on-screen notifications. When accessibility starts to become the default, people will hopefully maintain their productivity.
There are also degrees of disability. There is permanent disability, temporary disability and situational disability. If you’re learning to read – maybe a late learner or an adult learner – you can consider this to be a temporary disability. There is a huge variation in visual ability among people who are registered blind. Good design, in terms of, say, good colour contrast works better for everyone but will also support someone with a vision impairment. You only get this feedback when you’ve got that confident representation reporting back on your design process within your organisation.
Ask a colour-blind person if they have a disability and the vast majority will say no, they just see things differently. But it can certainly be disabling. If somebody sends you a red/green scorecard or Wales are playing Ireland at rugby, then suddenly you could feel disabled. Back to awareness, we need the one in 12 colour-blind males (and one in 200 colour-blind females) to know that Windows and iOS have filters on board to help with this.
Closed captions on videos might be a necessity for someone with hearing difficulties but they benefit everyone. In Office365 every single video you have on your internal network is automatically transcribed, meaning you can search through video by keywords spoken. This is a straightforward productivity win. Disability is driving these feature sets – we want everything to be auto captioned – but then you suddenly realise the business benefit. This is Inclusive Design.
There are so many different ways that people with disabilities are using technology. It is incumbent upon the rest of us as citizens, technologists, IT departments or employers to get closer to these groups. We need to understand how you bring that diversity into the workplace.
Worryingly, across the world, if you have a disability, you are twice as likely to be unemployed. If you lose your job because of disability, your likelihood of getting a new job is halved. These are terrifying statistics and we cannot continue like that. It’s a huge cost to society and a waste of talent.
We should challenge preconceptions about disability hiring. The average cost of an accommodation for an employee with a disability is only a few hundred dollars. Yet the data also shows that employees with disabilities have less time off work and stay with companies longer. When you look at this picture holistically, the message is clear.
At Microsoft, employees with disabilities are our ‘truth’ internally. We have a number of employee resource groups including LGBT, for women in the workplace, for different nationalities and for disabilities. These groups get together to talk about how they can support one another and their communities within Microsoft. Our disability groups are gold to our product teams, giving regular feedback on early release versions of our products and joining reference groups.
What has started to happen, of course, is that product teams are directly employing people with disabilities. We have developed what we hope is a virtuous circle of inclusive recruitment that in turn enables us to ensure our products are as accessible as possible. There is a human element here – that it is the right thing to do – but don’t shy away from the business value. When you design products that work for more people, you will sell more products.
Every year Microsoft has One Week, which is the biggest ‘hackathon’ in the world. A significant proportion of our workforce, working in teams across the world, work on passion projects for a week, while getting to know each other. Colleagues from all disciplines come together to work on a project. At the last count, over 300 were disability projects.
These hacks have led to some of the product developments that are now taken for granted in the mainstream. The fact that documents can be read by people with dyslexia across the globe came from a hackathon.
Importantly, this is also really helping with driving a culture of empowerment within Microsoft, where our employees feel like they get permission to go and work on cool stuff that delivers social value. And people want to work for a company that’s delivering social value, regardless of whether they have a disability or not.