From the Editor: From November 17 to 19, 2015, representatives from the National Federation of the Blind participated in an accessibility Summit sponsored by Microsoft. Present were representatives from the World Blind Union, the American Council of the Blind, and the Canadian National Institute for the Blind. The keynote address was delivered by the president of Microsoft, Brad Smith. The remarks he made were moving, especially coming from someone of his rank in one of the major technology companies in the world. Not all that he said can be related here because the technical groups in which we participate often require the signing of nondisclosure agreements, but what we can print does represent a significant commitment by Microsoft.
Here is a brief introduction written by Microsoft’s public relations department, followed by a reconstruction of President Smith’s remarks:
On November 17, Microsoft President and Chief Legal Officer Brad Smith kicked off the 2015 Accessibility Summit. In his remarks he provided an overview of the company’s approach to accessibility, outlined steps Microsoft is taking to improve the accessibility of products and services, and closed with an assurance that this is and will continue to be a top priority for Microsoft. In December, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella followed up on these remarks, citing accessibility as a “top of mind” issue in his year-end memo distributed to all Microsoft employees.
Below are key excerpts from Brad’s remarks at the Accessibility Summit:
I want to provide an overview of how Microsoft is thinking about accessibility to you today. We are at an interesting moment in time in our company, where the height of our ambition to make our products accessible is exceeded only by our humility about the work yet to be done to accomplish this. We have high ambition because the world demands that of us, and we are listening to what you and other organizations have told us about where we need to improve. But this ambition is also rooted in our mission as a company. In his twenty months as CEO, Satya Nadella has developed our new mission statement, which is “To empower every person and organization on the planet to achieve more.” This mission statement speaks to who works at Microsoft and why they work here. That mission statement speaks to what we are about as a company—enabling people, through technology, to lead richer lives. We are there to reach every person in every country, which helps us think beyond the US. It also speaks to what technology can do for people of all abilities.
We know that there are many people with many kinds of disabilities. Nearly every one of us deals with disability in our daily lives, whether it is our own or a friend, family member, colleague, or a neighbor with a disability. This helps us appreciate the importance of accessibility in a concrete way. We also understand that people are defined by what they can do, and people with disabilities are capable of doing all kinds of things. Technology can empower people, which is why it is imperative that Microsoft does a great job of creating technology that empowers all people with disabilities. That is our ambition. But it must be coupled with humility. We did a great job at accessibility in the early stages of Microsoft, and we want to be great again—but we are not there yet. We need to stay humble to understand the opportunity and seize it.
There are a few core areas that we are focused on to address accessibility. The first is engineering capability. We are moving quickly to enhance our engineering capabilities as a company and in the accessibility space, and our senior leadership team has ensured that our teams have the appropriate resources to meet our ambitions. It’s important that our words are backed up by this investment—words are cheap, but technology is expensive and difficult to produce, but we are. Part of this shift is helped by having an engineer as CEO; leadership really flows from that office across the company. Second, we are working to provide greater clarity around our goals through product roadmaps. These roadmaps articulate our goals, which allow our engineers to go forth and build them into products. Third, we are also focused on accountability. Even with engineering capability and goals, if we lack discipline, then we are likely to miss meeting these goals. That requires us to find a way to measure success and progress, one that is robust but also not too complicated. The cross-company accessibility team has created a good measurement system so we can better monitor and grade ourselves on our progress. We will be taking stock of our products throughout the development process, including a review prior to release with accessibility in mind. Fourth, we are taking steps to evolve our culture, both in our engineering approach through inclusive design and also in our hiring practices. This “one Microsoft” approach is breaking down silos and embedding accessibility in every department of the company.
Finally, we need partners who will keep us honest and humble and also help us learn. We hope along the way to earn your trust and respect, and we will do this by backing up our good intentions with actions. Right now we are trying to catch up to meet the basic needs of people with disabilities in the marketplace. But we have the opportunity to dream bigger dreams. We are thinking broadly and creatively about how technology can create new opportunities to empower people and enrich their lives. The very best ideas have probably not yet been found—but, working together, I believe we can move this innovation agenda forward.
From the Editor: The commitments made in the foregoing remarks are significant, and they expand on remarks made by Microsoft’s chief executive officer Satya Nadella in December of 2015:
As I think about living our mission, top of mind for me heading into 2016 is how we must make Microsoft products accessible to the more than 1 billion people globally of all abilities. This is a shared goal. Universal design is central to how we realize our mission and will make all our products better. Along with our Senior Leadership Team, I will continue to devote my time and passion to this priority.
Specifically, we will do three things: First, be transparent in sharing our goals and plans to ensure our products are accessible. Second, be accountable, which means engineering leads will prioritize universal design in the development of all products and services going forward. Third, continue to make this part of our work on building a more inclusive culture, including efforts to expand our existing accessibility hiring and awareness training initiatives and programs.
From the Editor: As a result of our meeting in January of last year with Satya Nadella, our work with Microsoft has taken place on several levels. One of the benefits of contact at the highest levels of Microsoft is that we can go beyond specific technical problems with their products and join with them in bringing about systemic change in our nation. Microsoft’s intention to partner with the National Federation of the Blind in going outside its company to press for significant technological change is evidenced in the following letter which is signed by Mark Riccobono, president of the National Federation of the Blind, and Brad Smith, president and chief legal officer of Microsoft:
SENT VIA EMAIL
January 14, 2016
President Barack Obama
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW
Washington, DC 20500
Dear President Obama:
Over five years ago, an Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (ANPRM) for Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) regarding website accessibility was issued by the United States Department of Justice. The ANPRM reflected your administration’s recognition that the internet is an essential part of American life; among other things, a quality education and a desirable employment outcome are virtually impossible to achieve without accessing it.
The issue of equal access to websites is therefore of critical importance to blind individuals as represented by the National Federation of the Blind, to technology companies like Microsoft, and other online businesses. Yet the release date of the NPRM for revising the Title III regulations of the ADA, originally scheduled for January of 2012, has been extended no less than five times. Most recently, it was postponed until 2018, eight years after this regulation process started.
The need for a regulation providing accessibility guidance for public accommodations doing business on the internet is even more urgent today than it was five years ago. In 2014, Cisco Systems released the results of a study of white collar workers from around the world, which found that 57 percent of the Americans surveyed between the ages of eighteen and fifty look at their smartphone before anything else every morning, and 39 percent had never made it through a full day of using their smartphone without accessing a website. Regulations from the Department of Justice (DOJ) are needed to provide companies with clear and meaningful guidelines so they can serve their clients and customers with disabilities. Thus, as you said on July 26, 2010, these rules are “the most important updates to the ADA since its original enactment.” We agree, and urge you to release the NPRM for Title III of the ADA without further delay.
Mark A. Riccobono, President
National Federation of the Blind
Brad Smith, President