ECONOMY

How Microsoft’s Chief Accessibility Officer Does Her Job

Microsoft Corp.

last week announced steps it plans to take in the next five years to improve accessibility to people with disabilities, promising to ramp up its development of related technology, create opportunities for more of them to enter the workforce and make its own workplace more inclusive for them.

The company declined to disclose financial figures or targets related to the initiative, but said it aims to improve on previous efforts that focused separately on products and the employee experience with a more systematic approach.

Microsoft is known as one of the more inclusive companies in the technology industry, with products including an adaptive Xbox controller and initiatives such as hiring people with autism and funding startups that use artificial intelligence to help people with disabilities. The company is also one of the few that has a chief accessibility officer, having created the role in 2010.

Jenny Lay-Flurrie

assumed the post in 2016 as Microsoft restructured the accessibility division to make it more central to the company.

Ms. Lay-Flurrie, who is deaf and who initially hid her disability by relying on lip reading, spoke to the Experience Report by video call about her role and the moves she and others with her remit should be making. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

WSJ: We see a lot of companies appointing an accessibility leader but installing them perhaps further away from the big decision makers. What kind of power does your job title give you internally?

Ms. Lay-Flurrie: It does open doors. So when I reach out to somebody [at Microsoft] and say, “So, where are we at?” I blow through all those potential reactions of “Who is this?”

I would love to see a lot more CAOs, and not just in tech. It’s woefully lacking.

WSJ: Microsoft is a sprawling company. How is your team positioned and structured to work within it?

Ms. Lay-Flurrie: We manage this thing like a business, so my role is to motivate, to inspire, to help people see the vision and the strategy, but also to hold them accountable for everything that they do. I sit in the corporate, external and legal affairs team, which gives me the opportunity to work all across the company, and I have people I speak to assigned to every part of the company, whether it’s HR or it’s Xbox.

Microsoft released an adaptive controller for the Xbox, designed for gamers with disabilities, in 2018.



Photo:

Stephanie Aaronson/The Wall Street Journal

WSJ: So how was accessibility built into Microsoft before?

Ms. Lay-Flurrie: The CAO was based in one of the product teams, and it’s very hard to tell every other product what to do when you’re sitting in one of them. And it didn’t include either hiring or customer-facing work, which I think is so important. You’ve got to listen. I spend most of my time listening.

WSJ: Are you ever pushed to validate the return on investment for the work you’re doing?

Ms. Lay-Flurrie: There’s always a conversation. But I’m also very, very mindful of the ROI trap, which is, “Well, this product will work great for only 4% of the customer base.” The science of accessibility and inclusive design is if you build it in by design, and infuse the insights of people with disabilities, you’re quite simply going to get better stuff.

I don’t think anyone could have quantified the impact of talking books when they were created for the blind. And closed captioning [automatic subtitles] went up for us on Teams significantly between February and April last year. That wasn’t just the deaf community.

WSJ: Microsoft plans to hire more people with disabilities over the next five years. How are you going about that?

Ms. Lay-Flurrie: It’s making sure that we expand our dedicated programs like our autism hiring program to different parts of the globe. We’re also expanding our supported employment practice, which creates job opportunities for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

And we’re working on the accessibility of our buildings in a way that’s not just about meeting the letter of some local code.

You have to have a safe environment where people feel that they can self identify, have a conversation about disability and ask for what they need to be successful. Our global accommodations are centralized, so no matter where you are in the world you can ask for what you need to be successful and the cost is never seen by your manager. So, for example, if you’re deaf, you ask for an interpreter and it’ll be provided without a cap on price for coverage.

WSJ: You’re able to push through these kinds of changes in part because you work for a large organization that is willing to spend money on accessibility. How can smaller companies with less cash in hand make similar improvements?

Ms. Lay-Flurrie: We’ve published our playbooks on things like disability hiring, and the accessibility training every Microsoft employee goes through, in the hope that they really help others appreciate that this stuff is not hard.

Some of the simplest things you can do are things like making sure you have different-colored furniture to your carpet or flooring for people who are blind or low vision—when the furniture is the same color as the carpet, it’s hard to differentiate between them and you can easily trip. And making sure that if you have glass doors, you put frosting on them.

Accessible by design means embedding accessibility, and the insights of people with disabilities, into the design process. You cannot just put a ramp on a building a week before you launch it and cut the red ribbon.

Write to Katie Deighton at [email protected]

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