Braille Monitor                                     November 2017

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The Future of Equal Access to Technology: A Commitment to the Journey at Microsoft

by Jenny Lay-Flurrie

Jenny Lay-FlurrieFrom the Editor: Here is the way President Riccobono introduced this address on Saturday morning, July 15, 2017:

"This next presentation is one that I've been looking forward to. It's ‘The Future of Equal Access to Technology: A Commitment to the Journey at Microsoft.’ You will remember that in January of 2015 I went to meet with Satya Nadella who is the chief executive of Microsoft. We had a very open and honest conversation about accessibility, what Microsoft needed to do, and how we could be involved. It was at that meeting that for the first time I met our speaker today. It was very clear at that time that she stood out as a passionate champion for accessibility and for making things happen at Microsoft. She's also a keen listener to the hopes and dreams and concerns that we have as an organization, and for that I'm grateful. You should also know that she's clearly someone who acts in the spirit of the National Federation of the Blind. Her biography includes a quotation from her—I can't say it in her accent, but she says, "My commitment is to face brick wall moments head on and climb the bloody wall rather than trying to resign." She faces the hard questions; she faces the hard situations in her own life, and she brings that to Microsoft, where she is pushing the company internally—in the style that we would want—to make sure that Microsoft maintains a high level of commitment.

Let me say this also: she has figured out a way to engineer resources to partner with the National Federation of the Blind, not just on technology, where we are having very honest conversations, but Microsoft, because of this lady’s efforts, has made a commitment to KNFB Reader for Windows, which is currently on sale thanks to Microsoft. Also Microsoft has put significant resources into our Youth Slam this summer, as well as other initiatives. So here for a presentation is Jenny Lay-Flurrie:”

Good morning, how are ya? I was terrified about which quote Mark was going to use. But I think he did it bloody well. What do you think? [Applause]

It is a huge pleasure to be here. I'm not from these parts; I'm not Australian either. I am from a small country across the pond where the temperature is significantly lower than it is here in Florida, but here I am, still with a leather jacket on, because it is so bloody cold in this room. [The ladies applaud and yell out, "I'm with you."]

It's seriously a pleasure to be here, and I've been really excited to come. To give you a bit of an introduction, I am British. I started working for Microsoft in 2005, but my background is actually as a music major. So I absolutely loved the talent show last night—my God there is some talent in this room. I came to information technology by mistake—I came to it because, while I realized I had a degree in music, I was a really bad musician, and I needed to earn money to pay my rent. So I started working at a company called The Daily Mirror; anyone heard of that? It's a really high-quality newspaper in the UK. It was edited at the time by Piers Morgan; I'm moving on. [The audience did not react, but Piers Morgan was the editor of a tabloid and was involved with a phone hacking scandal involving the use of ill-gotten voicemails.] So when I came to Microsoft, I found that I loved it. It's all about problem-solving and empowerment, and that is what grooves for me.

So when I came to Microsoft I was excited because of the opportunity ahead, and also as someone with profound deafness, I thought that Microsoft would be a company where I wouldn't have to speak to people every day—because email is such a good thing. I actually found that was not the case. People like to communicate, and it's such a tragedy for me, someone who is deaf, because I actually hit many of those brick walls. That got me into the deaf community, which, because I am nosy or curious depending on your lens, meant that I then joined every disability group at Microsoft. There were six of them at the time. In fact our VIP [visually impaired persons] community dates back over twenty years. There were six communities then; now there are fifteen. We joined them up, and I have had the sheer honor of being the chair of that community for the last ten years.

You know we talk about Satya Nadella; before he became CEO he was the executive sponsor of that community, and my first conversation with him involved me sitting down with technology on the table and him saying, "Okay, tell me how this works. Fill me in." We spent hours walking through what was great and what was not and looking at the opportunity that we had.

We have an annual conference every year called the Ability Summit which is for our employees, and we had about eight hundred to a thousand people in the last three years at that conference, and he spoke at five of the last seven ability summits. To say that we have a level of commitment is an understatement, and when he came in as CEO, he put a phrase in the mission statement of the company which is to empower every person in every organization, and I literally cheered and self-levitated because I think that is why you want to work in tech.

So when I had the insane opportunity to become chief accessibility officer in January of last year, I jumped at the chance. [applause] I'll take that applause—it's early. I've now been in Seattle eleven years, so I have an IV of coffee next to me—cheers to Washington State.

Now in the twenty years from the time when Bill Gates announced our commitment to accessibility in 1997 (Curtis Chong told me that he was at Microsoft in 1993), I was not in diapers, but I was significantly younger then. Sorry, Curtis. We've had moments in accessibility in technology of sheer bloody brilliance in that time, and we've also had moments of ugliness; we are very, very aware of that. But our opportunity has been to change that and to really move it forward. So we've been focused on a few things. Because if we are going to make this long-term, durable, and sustainable in the fabric of the company, then this isn't a one-hit wonder. This is about embedding it into the culture, making people with disabilities who are the challenge, who are the strength that we need at Microsoft—if we're going to create great, accessible products, services, websites, and more, we've got to make that something where we are truly inclusive. So I've been hiring some great people into Microsoft. Anil Lewis tells me that Anne Taylor is on loan to me—she's not! She is mine! Yes, I have the microphone and Anil doesn't. What I will tell you is that Anne is doing amazing work. [Applause] I know she is listening on the radio. Anne and every other member of our blindness and low vision community are working with products like Office, like Windows, like our buildings—we now have Braille in all of our kitchens: on coffeemakers, on microwaves, on tea. We have tactile strips going into our new building. We're working on a new unparalleled level of accessibility, and the Seattle Lighthouse is helping us with our new hires. What Anne has been able to do to make us more accessible and more transparent and accountable is absolutely fantastic. We also want to be approachable, so we redid the website Microsoft.com/accessibility. If you know the old one, microsoft.com/enable, it's dead. I apologize, but it's gone. We found that we needed to put a lot more information out there, so there are thousands of hours of videos and how-to content across the spectrum of our products. We put out user forums; we want to hear what works and what doesn't because your feedback is the gold dust that will help us do better in the future. We are also out there on social media. Who's heard of Microsoft Enable? This is our Twitter handle. Oh, you need to add it. My Twitter name is Jennylayfluffy; they asked if I was going to change my Twitter handle when I came into this job. I said no. But we've also expanded other services like DAD—our disability answer desk. Has anyone used our support service? [Applause] We now take over 20,000 calls to this desk every month from customers with disabilities, and the major customer base that uses it is the blind community. [applause]

So let's just talk about the products quickly, and then let's talk about the fun stuff. I think that with our products we've been working incredibly hard in the last couple of years to build a brand-new bar of accessibility that is across the span. Let me talk about Office for a minute. Who's heard of Office 365? You know, we're moving faster now. Office 365 is updated every month. In fact Matt and a few others let me know of a few issues with Skype with VoiceOver in the last couple of weeks, and we were able to ship a fix that is now in production this weekend. We are able to respond quicker, and in January of last year we actually relaunched all of those products—sixty-five different permutations of products across the Windows, Android, and iOS platforms. At Microsoft there is a brand-new bar of compliance: we put the VPATS [voluntary product accessibility templates] up for those who want VPATS. We put them all up on the website, and we updated everything. It meant that we had to rearchitect several products. We rearchitected OneNote to be far more accessible by design. Across the span of our products we again really dug down deep to make sure that we have the right level of content, whether you're using Narrator, JAWS, NVDA, or any of the other accessible technologies that are out there today. [applause]

There is some fun stuff as well. Automatic alt text is something we've been working on for a while. It's now embedded into Office. You can pull your picture in using PowerPoint Designer, and with one click put your picture in, and it will create the slide for you and put alt text in it automatically. It will even tell you how good it is: high confidence, low confidence—and it will give you the ability to edit it if you don't like what it says.

Windows 10 XP is dead. Can we move on? With Windows 10 we have this opportunity—and we were painfully aware of it—to really make sure that not only our first party screen reading and magnification came up to a brand-new bar, but also our partnership with third party providers. We can empower both, and that is our strategy. We've really been working on the usability of Narrator. Does anyone use Narrator? I see some waving. Waving really does help a deaf girl by the way. You can yell all you like—not hearing it. But Narrator will now read controls more accurately; it has scan mode turned on by default; there's a lot of stuff in here, and I'm probably going to blow up. But we added Braille, and Braille is something I know folks have been asking for a long time, and we put that in in the spring. You've also got twenty-seven languages now and six levels of verbosity. Coming up we've got a real big focus on magnification, on color filters, and the color filters are really cool by the way. The color filters came from a hack—who's heard of a hack? Anyone hacking? No. Hackathon! So I know that we're acronym rich at Microsoft. Hackathons are where you put a bunch of really smart people in a room with no light and a lot of pizza for two days, and you lock them in, and you go and tackle a crazy challenge that's going to empower. That's what a hack is, and some of this came from hack. Our vision and commitment to Narrator is clear and continues going forward, as does our relationship with third parties. We were also really honored to work with the NFB and KNFB to bring that to Windows 10, which launched earlier this year. [Applause]

Before I close or get kicked off the stage, let me talk about a couple of the ways in which we want to invest in the future. We've got this research division at Microsoft, and we have this hacking culture—in fact, I'm going back tomorrow to get ready for our company hackathon which kicks off internally at Microsoft in just over a week. Some of the projects really ground me back to that mission. One of them is a project called Project Torino. We like to give things funky names. Project Torino came from a mom in the UK who is one of our amazing researchers at Microsoft. She is the mom of a kid who is blind, and she saw education as key and particularly in empowering kids to learn how to code. So Torinos are really these tactile pods. Imagine holding your hand out and in it you have a cylindrical pod that has tactile waves and triangles and different things on them. Think about putting those into the hands of seven- to eleven-year-olds. If you attach different wires to each of the pods, you create music. By creating music you are learning how to code. So we put an app alongside it, and this is a project that is going into a school as a pilot this fall. [applause] Across the span of Office, Windows, and innovation, we want to empower people to be independent, to collaborate, to just create content. We want to empower kids, and when we put this out, the folks that signed up—a lot of them were teenagers who hadn't had the opportunity to learn to code in between the ages of seven and eleven. We need to work to build the pipeline of talent coming into tech, and this is one small but very significant step. And let me tell you: I'm hiring. Microsoft is hiring. We see disability as a strength. We want people with disabilities in the fabric of our company, and I can't get enough talent. I need your help to build that talent. [applause]

I'll share the last project, which some of you may have heard of. In fact on Wednesday there was a crew over in London, and they launched twelve projects in the area of artificial intelligence, which doesn't mean robots or scary movies. It means the ability to bring things like computer vision into the hands of people. Three out of those twelve projects were accessibility related; three of them—huge. One of those was about colorblindness, an app called Binoculars. Download it. It's in the iOS store now. The other was something that is very personal for me which is the ability to real-time caption. This is now embedded into PowerPoint. The third was a project called Seeing Ai. Who has heard of Seeing Ai? Give me a hand. That is awesome. For those who haven't, this is a brand-new research app. It's an example of how Ai can really be used to help people to achieve more. It features all the ways to bring in the cognitive services into one toolkit. What it means to you is that it is an app you can download. You can then point it at a barcode, and it will tell you what that barcode is. You can point it at a person, and it will tell you a couple of things about that person: it will tell you the color of their hair, whether they're smiling or not, and it will also tell you their age. [Amazed skepticism] It's not always accurate. I pointed it at me last night, and it said I was sixty-seven—I am not sixty-seven! We know we have work to do; that's why it's a research project. It's available in several markets, and I'd really love for folks to check it out. You can read documents with it, and it's right there on the iOS platform. Please check it out, because these technologies really help us to lead the future.

We have an unemployment rate that is criminal, in my point of view, for people with disabilities. [Applause] I'm one of them. There was a time when someone told me that I would never achieve much. Boy were they wrong. I'm proud; I'm so proud of who I am. I wasn't always honest about my disability, but I firmly believe that it is because of it that I am able to do what I do within the company and in a supportive company like Microsoft. So please, help us to do more, help us to get better. We want to get the word out; we want to get these products into companies, into governments, and we want your feedback. So, whether it's by Twitter, user voice, or calling our support line and telling us what is working and what is not, we desperately want your feedback. I believe that together we have the power to change that unemployment rate, and I think we should go after that goal. Thank you.

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