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This Global Accessibility Awareness Day, let's talk tech and employment for people with disabilities – Microsoft On the Issues – Microsoft

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May 19, 2022 | Jenny Lay-Flurrie – Microsoft Chief Accessibility Officer
Editor’s Note: This blog was updated after publication. 
Today we honor the 11th annual Global Accessibility Awareness Day (GAAD). GAAD is a day of awareness focused on digital access and inclusion for people with disabilities around the world. The pandemic has grown the disability demographic and widened the disability divide. Yet there are the seeds of positive change. As Caroline Casey, Founder & Creator of The Valuable 500 said at the Microsoft Ability Summit last week, “We’re seeing a move since the pandemic… recognition from businesses that accessibility is not a ‘niche’ issue for people with disabilities, it’s an issue that needs to be completely invested in for communication for consumers and employees.” We couldn’t agree more. We’re proud that accessibility is part of our culture here at Microsoft.
Here’s more on our journey to bridge the disability divide in partnership with disability community and accessibility experts around the world.
Technology has the power to empower. Our responsibility is to raise the bar for what is possible with technology for people with disabilities and deliver on the potential of inclusive design.
This month, Microsoft has introduced several new features and products that deliver on that potential, and many of those ideas came from you. Windows 11 is the most accessible Windows ever. You asked us to make accessibility features easy to find and use, so we flipped the name from ‘Ease of Use’ to ‘Accessibility’ and added a new accessibility pane and human icon to make it easier to use and find accessibility features. Those new features include Live Captions (available online and offline); new Natural voices for screen reader users; Voice Access; and (my new favorite) focus mode, which allows you to turn off notifications.
Accessibility can make content more inclusive, whether or not you know if someone has a disability. The great news is that you’re using those accessibility features more and more. Thanks to better placement and prompts, use of Office Accessibility Checker — our accessibility ‘spellcheck’ — has grown 14-fold in the last year, meaning more content is being checked for accessibility than ever before. And 163,000 people have joined the Xbox Accessibility Insider League (XAIL), an opportunity for anyone who self-identifies as a person with a disability or ally, to provide accessibility feedback directly to Xbox engineering or game development teams. This is powering a new wave of insight to support the more than 400 million players with disabilities across the globe, creating features for deaf gamers such as the inclusion of ASL and BSL on Forza, and a new ASL Twitch channel!
At the Microsoft Ability Summit last week, Microsoft Chief Product Officer Panos Panay revealed our new Adaptive Accessories line — a new mouse and keyboard experience on a PC or phone. Available later this year, the kit also includes a hub to connect these tools to other adaptive devices made by Microsoft or others.
There is far more ahead. Innovating for the future is top of our mind. It’s clearly top of yours. Our Microsoft partner ecosystem is working to build and deliver accessible technology at scale for customers, and partners are innovating solutions with accessibility at the forefront. For example, CityMaaS has developed the Mobility Map platform to provide localized accessibility information around the globe to enable disabled communities to visit businesses and places of interests. (You can find more #BuildFor2030 featured accessibility offerings by Microsoft partners.)
To power that next wave of innovation, we need to empower the talent pipeline and tackle challenges impacting disabled talent. According to the National Council on Disability (NCD), students with disabilities who could not receive necessary services and support during the pandemic have experienced disruption and regression in their behavioral and educational goals. People with disabilities have historically been underrepresented in the workforce; the pandemic exacerbated the long-standing problem.
Youth and adults with mental health disabilities that predate the pandemic have experienced measurable deterioration over its course.
A new study from Microsoft EDU found that 84% of teachers say it’s impossible to achieve equity in education without accessible learning tools. And 87% agree that accessible technology can help not only level the playing field for students with disabilities but also generate insights that help teachers better understand and support all their students. Four in ten (41%) teachers have seen an increase in mental and/or emotional issues among their students.
Helping to empower students with disabilities is a top priority for us at Microsoft. We are working to support teachers with tools, from training through the new Microsoft Learn Educator Center for Resources and Professional Development to technology, including Immersive Reader and Microsoft Reflect, which helps teachers monitor student well-being and encourage feeling identification, and the new Minecraft: Education Edition.
GAAD is a time to double down to open doors to disabled talent into employment. We support the Transformation to Competitive Integrated Employment Act, legislation that addresses subminimum wage, an important step for wage equity for people with disabilities. This includes U.S. Department of Labor grants to states and eligible entities to help transform their business and program models to support people with disabilities.
Employment for people with disabilities takes partnership. With an unemployment/underemployment rate for neurodiverse talent estimated at 80% or higher, it’s crucial that we work together, not compete. Recently, we worked with 30 partners from Neurodiversity @ Work Roundtable, to launch the Neurodiversity Career Connector. This jobs marketplace supports large to small employers to “screen in” neurodivergent job candidates. This is the next chapter in our journey at Microsoft, which started in 2015 with a pilot program to hire autistic talent. We are proud to expand these efforts and partner with 30 companies to open doors to this talent pool and make a dent on those metrics.
Microsoft is also excited to announce the expansion of our relationship with The Valuable 500, an organization working with 500 major companies committed to making workplaces more accessible and inclusive of people with disabilities. This will expand on our partnership with impactful organizations such as Disability:IN and many others.
Microsoft continues to be powered by the insights from the disability community, and is proud to work with some of the best in the industry. This includes our accessibility team, who came together at the new Inclusive Tech Lab at Microsoft HQ this week. It is a journey and I encourage all to explore our Disability Answer Desk and https://blogs.microsoft.com/accessibility/ wherever you are in navigating your work towards a more accessible future for all.
I’m so very proud of Microsoft’s work in this field, working in partnership with so many focused on accelerating accessibility and disability inclusion around the world. Join me in celebrating their work today. And tomorrow, let’s get going on the next chapter. Onwards!
 
Tags: Accessibility, disability, equity, neurodiversity, partnerships
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A casual guy with no definite plans for the day, he enjoys life to the fullest. He has a big passion for Linux, open source, gaming and blogging. He believes that the world is an awesome place and we’re here to enjoy it! He hails from New Delhi and has studied Journalism from Delhi University. You can reach him at sameep@thehoopsnews.com.