The Business Case For Accessibility: How Microsoft Is Empowering Everyone, Everywhere

It’s hard not to think of Microsoft when talking about brands that have authentically embraced accessibility.

The Business Case For Accessibility: How Microsoft Is Empowering Everyone, Everywhere

It’s hard not to think of Microsoft when talking about brands that have authentically embraced accessibility.

From the Xbox Adaptive Controller and its accessibility-minded packaging to various capabilities built into the Microsoft Office suite, it’s clear that Microsoft has made accessibility and inclusiveness an organizationwide imperative. The company’s 2019 Super Bowl ad is also testament:

Indeed, accessibility is essential for the tech giant to deliver on its mission to empower every person and organization on the planet to achieve more. And, according to Steve Petitpas, Microsoft general manager for website management and marketing division accessibility, accessibility isn’t just the right thing to do.

“We have a responsibility and an opportunity to build accessibility into everything we do. It helps us empower all people to achieve more, including people with disabilities. And we absolutely believe there’s a business case for accessibility,” he said. “It starts with the billion people in the world that have some sort of a disability, and wanting to be able to tap into the power of that part of the workforce. And then the business case extends to just about everyone because, time after time, it’s been shown that something that gets done for accessibility winds up creating a more usable experience for far more people.”

Accessibility Challenges

A whopping 1 billion people worldwide have disabilities. The physical ones are typically obvious, but 70% are “invisible,” or not readily apparent. Many people with disabilities can’t fully participate in their economies and societies without the use of accessible technology. In fact, by 2030 more than 2 billion people will need assistive technology, according to WHO.

Despite the need for accessibility tech, it can be difficult within a large organization to get everyone to look at user experiences from a range of different perspectives.

“There are so many different types of disabilities, both physical and cognitive,” Petitpas explained. “We’re constantly striving to deliver products and experiences that are as usable to as many people as possible, and we appreciate it every time someone points out the gaps that happen between that aspiration and reality.”

Landing on what accessibility means in the context of how an organization defines it is another challenge. Microsoft, for example, uses WHO‘s definition of a disability to guide its accessibility strategy. WHO states that disabilities are context-dependent: “Disability is not just a health problem. It is a complex phenomenon, reflecting the interaction between features of a person’s body and features of the society in which he or she lives.”

That definition has guided Microsoft to think about accessibility as not solving for people with specific (dis)abilities, but for making situations usable for everyone.

We try to take into account the variety of ways a person might interact, including, for example, situational disabilities such as when someone only has one free hand because the other one is occupied by a mobile device.

Making Teams More Accessibility Focused

A big part of Microsoft’s success with making its products and marketing usable to everyone has been user feedback. Microsoft’s customer support includes a dedicated Disability Answer Desk (DAD), which is at the front line of users’ accessibility-related feedback. DAD has been paramount in shaping Microsoft’s accessibility strategy for products and marketing experiences.

“DAD regularly shares feedback from our customers, and that’s been hugely important for helping us know what’s working and where we can do better,” Petitpas said.

The key to building more accessible products and experiences, he said, is fostering more inclusive thinking across the organization. Beyond providing a universal definition, Petitpas’ team has created workshops to help Microsoft employees embrace accessibility and inclusive design. The program includes deep-dives into different user experiences and specific accessibility techniques, such as proper use of “alternative text” to teach skills, while also educating participants on the workings of assistive technologies such as screen readers.

Accessibility in Action

Microsoft is committed to continuously making its websites more accessible, and it’s helping others do the same with its Accessibility Insights tool. Microsoft is also helping others design inclusively with its Accessibility Insights tool. This started as an internal tool, which Microsoft then released as open source. The tool is now available as an extension in Microsoft Edge and Chrome, letting users perform a “fast pass scan” that finds many accessibility issues in seconds to help developers quickly determine what to fix.

Additionally, the Accessibility Checker functionality that’s built into Microsoft’s Office products helps users ensure they are accessibility-minded in their work. For example, in the context of Microsoft Outlook, the Accessibility Checker can assess whether an email about to be sent contains accessible content. Accessibility Checker looks at elements such as color contrast, text and image balance, and font sizes. The same type of “check” can be done for a Word document or PowerPoint file.

“And there are related tools so that if you’re doing a presentation, closed captioning can be delivered as you speak using Microsoft’s AI to convert your speech into text,” Petitpas said. “There’s an enormous amount of work that’s been done to make Microsoft Office part of more accessible workplaces.”

In the gaming side of the business, last year Microsoft made a big splash with the Xbox Adaptive Controller. With larger buttons and additional ports where users can plug in their own specialized controllers, the device supported game play by users with limited mobility. As Fast Company journalist Mark Wilson put it, “Most products are built to work the same for everyone. The Adaptive Controller is meant to work differently for everyone.”

The Inclusion Advantage

The importance of accessibility has grown in parallel with the shift to a more visual Web and more visual technology. At the same time, demand that all people can contribute to the workforce also has increased.

Research from Accenture, titled “The Disability Inclusion Advantage,” found that the 45 companies it identified as leaders in areas specific to disability employment and inclusion had, on average, 28% higher revenue, double the net income, and 30% higher economic profit margins than their peers. The analysis also revealed that U.S. GDP could get a boost of up to $25 billion if more persons with disabilities joined the labor force.

“There are huge opportunities for making workforces more inclusive through accessibility , and technology plays an important role,” Petitpas said. “Companies that embrace best practices for employees, supporting people with disabilities, outperform their peers.”