The Now and Next of Accessible Tech: A Conversation with IBM and Microsoft

Drew LaHart, IBM

Picture of Drew LaHartDrew LaHart manages the IBM Accessibility team that is responsible for product and service compliance, standards, tooling, testing, and consulting to all IBM Business Units. He also serves on the Board of Directors of the International Association of Accessibility Professionals.

Jenny Lay-Flurrie, Microsoft

Jenny Lay Flurrie headshotJenny Lay-Flurrie is Chief Accessibility Officer at Microsoft. She leads many initiatives to empower people with disabilities, including the disAbility@Microsoft employee working group, Microsoft's annual Ability Summit, the Disability Answer Desk, the Cities Unlocked project, and the ALS Hackathon. She was recognized as a White House Champion of Change in 2014. 

With the world of accessible workplace technology in a state of constant innovation, industry leaders are continuously reacting, adapting, and looking toward the future. And just what does that future hold? PEAT reached out to two partners in the PEAT Network—IBM and Microsoft—to find out. We talked with Drew LaHart, Program Director for Accessibility Competency and Enablement of IBM Accessibility Research, and Jenny Lay-Flurrie, Chief Accessibility Officer of Microsoft, to learn how their companies are approaching accessibility today and what they predict for the future. 

Here are the highlights from our conversation.

PEAT: What do you foresee on the horizon with regard to accessible technology? What can consumers expect to see trending in the next few years?

LaHart, IBM: We’re focused on improving the accessibility implementation process and incorporating new technologies that leverage the natural interaction of humans.

First, IBM wants to ensure that accessible technology is not only easier to use, but is more available to designers and developers. In taking steps to do so, IBM has released open source accessibility tools and created solutions that help automate the testing process. This allows us to avoid roadblocks during the agile development process, especially with designers and developers less familiar with accessibility. This will not only strengthen the accessibility of new solutions, but also help reduce costs by ensuring it is done right from the beginning. To give you an example, the IBM AbilityLab Mobile Accessibility Checker is a tool that helps developers and designers automate, document, and report on accessibility standards directly within mobile, hybrid, and native iOS and Android application development environments.

Second, we want to enable easier daily routines by understanding the data being collected from billions of connected devices (Internet of Things) and then delivering these insights in the most consumable way to each individual, such as via text-to-speech, voice recognition, or haptic feedback. This will give people with disabilities and the growing aging population more control over everyday activities and help them stay connected with friends and family.

Lay-Flurrie, Microsoft: It’s an exciting time for accessible technology, and the momentum is tangible. At Microsoft, across teams and the entire company, people are focused on our mission to create technologies that empower every person and every organization on the planet to achieve more. We like to say that there is no better place to make that mission a reality than in accessibility.

Our 2017 focus is to continue making Windows 10 and Office 365—some of the world’s most-used technologies for work (and for fun!)—more accessible in 2017. We also plan to focus on ground-breaking technologies that open doors to new possibilities. Examples of these are Sight Sign, which is an eye-gaze controlled app for writing a signature with a robot, and the recent release of our Visual Studio.

The forecast includes a lot more exciting and innovative ideas that can really empower people at home, in life, and in the workplace.

PEAT: How is your development process organized, and what principles factor into that process to help you develop the most innovative technology products that are accessible?

LaHart, IBM: IBM has been committed to workforce diversity and technology innovation for people with disabilities for more than 100 years. We have made accessibility an essential part of our overall culture. To ensure enterprise-wide accessibility, IBM instituted its own corporate-wide accessibility guidelines for all products, services, mobile applications, documentation, websites, and internal business applications. We're a global company, so we follow all accepted, worldwide accessibility standards, including Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) and U.S. standards in Section 508. We create checklists and proper testing tools to guide the product evaluation process, in addition to platform-specific guidance. We also provide formal training and create educational materials to ensure our designers and developers understand how people with different abilities might use a product.

Lay-Flurrie, Microsoft: The most important concept for accessibility is to ensure that it is thought of at the beginning of the development and design process. Accessibility is not a “bolt-on” or after-thought. When we partner with individuals with disabilities on how to design accessible products, the results end up benefitting people of all abilities! Some examples appear in our Inclusive Design Toolkit and video channel on YouTube. I really recommend checking it out.

Even after products are released, we won’t stop working to improve them. We LOVE getting feedback from our customers and partners because truly, it helps us understand how people with disabilities are using our products. So we developed the Disability Answer Desk (DAD), which provides our customers with technical assistance, general tips and tricks, and a place to share feedback with Microsoft. It’s been a great success, and on average the DAD will receive around 20,000 inquiries a month!  We’ve also added UserVoice Forum to collate ideas for the future—it’s just one of the ways we are doing what we can to enhance accessibility across all of our technology.

PEAT: What steps would you recommend other companies follow to move toward creating more accessible technology and a more innovative development environment?

LaHart, IBM: Accessibility no longer means compliance. It has become a mainstream requirement that can transform the business and lead to innovation. That said, accessibility initiatives need to be genuine and supported from the top, not marked as side projects. They need to involve every part of the organization so that accessibility can be a holistic endeavor serving all clients, citizens, or employees, including those with disabilities. It’s important for all organizations to create an enterprise-wide strategy for embedding accessibility—from processes to product development to the culture—in order to better manage compliance, improve the user experience on any device or application, and create an inclusive work environment.  

Lay-Flurrie, Microsoft: At Microsoft, we are totally focused on creating an inclusive company culture and hiring a diverse workforce, which I am so proud of. We have incredible people! And as part of that, it’s very important to us that we deliver products that live and breathe accessibility—just as it’s essential to hire great talent from people of all abilities.

If you are like me and looking to help create a more accessible world, here are a few places to start your journey:

1. Build an Inclusive Culture 

To develop more inclusive technology, you need a more inclusive workforce! People with disabilities are the subject matter experts and should be part of your company. This is talent that can help!

2. Invest in Research

From research and pilot projects to hackathons and design sprints, every organization can benefit from a focus on research to develop product iterations or the next breakthrough idea. Everyone wants to discover that “Wow!” idea!

3. Create a Feedback Channel

It is always so important to listen to your customers and respond to their needs no matter how fast things are moving. To me, it is so essential to long-term success.

4. Create a Resource to Learn More

At Microsoft, our Inclusive Hiring Website stands as a source for people with disabilities seeking a career at Microsoft. This gives people everything they need to know, as well as a glimpse at our culture and other employees’ experiences on our blog. It’s a great first step for a company to make when looking to hire people with disabilities!

To keep up with Microsoft’s accessibility pursuits, check out the company’s blog or follow them on Twitter @MSFTaccess‏. To learn more about IBM’s efforts, visit IBM Accessibility or follow them on Twitter @IBMAccess.

We’d also love to hear what you think of the approaches these companies are taking to accessible tech, and details about the approach your business is taking. Tell us below.