Posted by Rob Sinclair
Chief Accessibility Officer, Microsoft

In January 2002, Bill Gates sent a memo launching Trustworthy Computing (TwC) and calling upon Microsoft and the industry to prioritize security and privacy as part of software design. As a program manager on the Accessibility team at the time, I observed that a similar approach for accessibility, when taken during the design phase, had a dramatic effect on the quality of the user experience for people with disabilities. The TwC memo inspired the Accessibility team to explore how to better integrate into Microsoft’s software development lifecycle. In 2008, the accessibility team was moved into TwC to join their peers in security and privacy, and began developing a centralized engagement model for accessibility.

Reflecting back, I am struck by the impact of our efforts. In 1998, it could take up to 36 months for a screen-reader to be available for a new operating system. Imagine being a person who is blind. You work with sighted colleagues who have adopted new products and features while you wait for as many as three years for the assistive technology needed to use the same products as your peers. By the release of Windows XP in 2001, we had collaborated with assistive technology companies to reduce their time to market to six months. With the launch of Windows Vista in 2007, many of these assistive technologies (AT) were available simultaneously. Microsoft’s collaboration with the accessibility industry has empowered people who are blind to use innovative software products in their homes, classrooms and at work along with their sighted peers.

Since joining TwC, the Accessibility team has made a number of related investments that extend the impact of our work:

· The Microsoft Accessibility Developer Center was launched to provide information, tools and a worldwide community forum for developers who create products, services and websites that are accessible to people with disabilities.

· In 2011 we released the Microsoft Accessibility Tools & Training, a package of free online development and management training courses, tools, and guidance to enable organizations to build and deploy more accessible solutions.

· Also in 2011, the international standards community approved Microsoft’s technical report for Windows UI Automation. The report supplements the ISO 13066 standard and outlines platform and developer requirements for interoperability between Information Technology and AT products.

Today, TwC’s centralized accessibility model is exemplified by the Microsoft Accessibility Standard (MAS). MAS provides a consolidated set of design and engineering requirements, and is based on a broad range of standards, legislation and procurement preferences from around the world. Engineering teams across the company use MAS to build features to help people with disabilities realize their full potential. This more centralized governance model serves to improve the overall accessibility for people of all ages and abilities.

Looking ahead, TwC will continue working across the company to address the needs of people with disabilities. Innovations such as gesture control, speech recognition and touch are transforming the way we interact with technology. As these innovations continue to mature, they have the potential to make the experience for people with disabilities richer than ever.

Beyond investments in technology, we are collaborating with industry to identify solutions to a global accessibility challenge. The digital divide for people with disabilities is widening due to a scarcity of engineers, business leaders and other professionals that understand and value the principles of making technology accessible.

David Dikter, CEO of the Assistive Technology Industry Association (ATIA), recently said:

“Developers need a community to cultivate and quantify their expertise in accessibility, and organizations need a way to recruit and hire skilled developers with accessibility related knowledge. A lack of both things has contributed to a deficiency of accessibility professionals in corporate environments.”

In an effort to facilitate discussion related to this challenge, Microsoft will join a group of experts from around the world at an event hosted by the ATIA entitled “Taking Accessibility Mainstream,” on Feb. 28 at the annual International Technology and Persons with Disabilities Conference (CSUN). This event will be the first in a series of industry-wide dialogues about how best to transform accessibility expertise into a more widely recognized profession.

Despite our progress, there is still work to be done. Fortunately, there is a tremendous amount of commitment and momentum moving the industry forward. Together, we can help transform how we all use technology – regardless of our age or abilities.