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Disability is a strength for any organisation: Jenny Lay-Flurrie of Microsoft

Jenny Lay-Flurrie: Accessibility has become an avenue for innovators, makers, developers to really channel energy and create something that can empower people in a very meaningful way.

Sonal Khetarpal        Last Updated: May 27, 2019  | 17:32 IST
Disability is a strength for any organisation: Jenny Lay-Flurrie of Microsoft
Jenny Lay-Flurrie, Chief Accessibility Officer at Microsoft

Jenny Lay-Flurrie, Chief Accessibility Officer at Microsoft talks to Business Today about how she is driving the culture of accessibility to help the tech firm in its mission to empower the one billion plus people with disability around the world and help them achieve more.

Business Today: You talk extensively about accessibility as a big opportunity, please elaborate on what that entails.

Jenny Lay-Flurrie: If you look at the demographics of disabled, which is what has kept me grounded, is that there has been a significant increase in the disabled over the last several years and it is correlated with age and employment rate. I think it hasn't materially shifted in 30 years.  Even in the states where we have the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) in place it still doubled out at people without disabilities. And then I look at things like mental health, which is going to impact 82 per cent of us at some point in our lives at times.

So, one, you've got this really big need for technology to be able to help as a partner and it's an area where there has been a lot of investment across space but there is clearly a lot more that can be and should be done.

The opportunity really is to design through the lens of disability, using inclusive design principles to make sure that it benefits those with disabilities and to create solutions for not just helping people with disabilities but also end up helping everyone. That's the big thing about accessibility that isn't really well understood that it isn't designing for the few, but this is designing for the many.  Take the example of captioning - my family here in Seattle loves captioning and they are not deaf. They love it because they pick up words and accents. That sort of paints the picture for the opportunity in this space.

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BT: What are your biggest concerns when we look at the landscape where we are talking around inclusion, accessibility?

Flurrie: I think it's great to see everyone talking about it and I encourage, and I love to see more and more of it.  I think every country is on that journey and each country is advancing pretty fast at this point which is pretty exciting.

One fundamental thing that I do advice is to make sure that the lens on disability is right. Disability is a strength for Microsoft and it is a strength for any organisation. My disability, my friend's disability, actually gives us expertise and wisdom to ensure that whatever we do works for just everyone. Often, I am sitting there reviewing products or reviewing collateral that people want to produce. My first question to them is -- who are the experts that you have spoken to?  Who are the experts in the community that you have connected with and got their advice and expertise from, because that gives me a sense of how far along the path they are and how good that product is going to work for the individuals they are designing it for. People have to embed people with disabilities into the design development and manufacturing process.

Another thing is to really make sure that you are managing accessibility like a business so that you know where you are good and where you are not, and you have action plans to address that and you are transparent about it. So, whether it is knowing that there is no elevator in your building or knowing that it's going to cause a problem if somebody comes with a cane or a wheelchair.  You make sure that every person in your company is using an accessibility check, like a spell check that is embedded into MS Office, so all of your documents are accessible. There are so many levels to this but where you are putting the right policies in place to drive it is really important.

BT: A lot of times accessibility gets limited to getting the infrastructure right. But, there are so many softer aspects one needs to looks at which are important too. What are some of the best practices to overcome biases and have an inclusive work culture?

Flurrie: The first thing to do is to think of disability as a strength and see it as a talent pool. We (at Microsoft) are actively and vehemently going after finding talent with disabilities. We have a disability talent program and the first stage is always to make sure that you are a great place to work for a person with a disability.  You have good knowledge of your own processes and systems and accessibility of your buildings.

But then it's all about being open to the feedback. We had learned this when we started the hiring program for autism and found that we were excluding talented people with autism from the process.  Basically, it was just simple as the interview wasn't where a person with autism could show that strength and so we ditched that process and changed into a week-long academy, got feedback and now we are running it for a few years. Now, that we have been running it for a few years, so we know how to work this thing.  But one should be open to the feedback from individuals, and also to the feedback from managers because ultimately, we are all fighting for talent.  And this is a massive talent pool so it's one of those ways to search people by going with an open mind, with a learning mindset and to really figure out how you can best bring in talent with disabilities into your organisation because the benefits from that are immeasurable.  And in the whole process, I don't care if they go into the job in accessibility or a job somewhere else in the company, there would still be immeasurable benefits.  It does take culture thought and it does take an upper mindset.

BT: Microsoft has been using technology for years to make products accessible and now AI is playing an integral role there. What is the way forward from here?

Flurrie: Accessibility has become an avenue for innovators, makers, developers to really channel energy and create something that can empower people in a very meaningful way.

From our strategy we are trying to embed accessibility into products in a meaningful way, so whether it is a Windows, Office, XBOX, those cool features, which are freely available, will help you whether you are blind, low vision, have a hearing disability. So whatever Microsoft product you are running, accessibility is embedded into that. Then on top of that, we are working on key areas that we feel can have an impact. One of those has been working on gaming for people with mobility disability with the Xbox adapted controller. We are also looking at dyslexia, quite a lot with learning tools for kids. But we found out that a lot of adults like it too. So I think it's a mix to have a low cost, easy to use offering.

AI is becoming a part of how we build and launch products. If you look at all our features we just put into Office, things like captioning, all those are AI provided features. In captioning, the accuracy that it provides to somebody with deafness blows my mind.  It is in these areas of innovation, the AI for accessibility is something that we are working on and we have a $25 million-dollar, five-year grant program that's part of the AI initiatives.

We have over 100 grants and we would want to see a lot more. Whether you are new to this disability, or an expert, I think it's an opportunity for you to go and get your feet in an area that has deep meaningful impact and opportunity.

BT: If you could share, what to expect from the future of accessibility in the next five years?

Flurrie: A person with a disability just wants to walk in the room, pick up their device, whatever their device is, and it just works for them.  And if you think about accessibility as the avenue to focus on it should be more personalised, intuitive. It will have smart computing, where it understands who you are, and it understands what you need, and it actively and quickly delivers on that. That has to be the goal that we are all going for.

So, the future is where I can walk into a room as someone is presenting and instantly captions start showing. I can walk in the room with a colleague who has autism and it will dim the lights and turn the volume down and turn down the sensory overload a little bit. If you have a world where we are much smarter and technology works for making humans more inclusive of the humans who have a disability. That's the opportunity space that we are all going after.

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