Microsoft launches initiative to bridge the “Disability Divide”

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Microsoft has launched a five-year investment and skilling initiative designed to help bridge the “Disability Divide” – the persistent gap in societal inclusion around the world that affects people with disabilities. The programme will focus on accessible technology and talent development, as well as furthering the company’s progress on building inclusive workplaces.

“We believe that accessible technology is a fundamental building block that can unlock opportunities in every part of society,” said Ihsan Anabtawi,Chief Operating and Marketing Officer, Microsoft UAE. “The inclusive nature of that ethos is something that continually inspires us and builds on over25 years of work to prioritize and integrate accessibility into our products, platforms, and services.Additionally, when we consider the impact of the pandemic across the region on people with disabilities, we know that it has been significant and disproportionate, and that we must now intensify our efforts. In this new five-year programme, we will focus on three key areas: talent development, workplace culture, and accessible technology.”

The company announced a variety of new “accessible by design” features and advances in Microsoft 365, enabling more than 200 million people to build, edit and share documents. Using artificial intelligence (AI) and other advanced technologies, it aims to make more content accessible and as simple and automatic as spell check is today.

Deliverables over the duration of the programme include the introduction of AI functionality in Microsoft Word for blind and low-vision readers, an Excel navigation pane that discovers and navigates objects in a spreadsheet, and an expansion to PowerPoint’s Immersive Reader tool. Microsoft Teams will be supplemented by a high-contrast mode.And new LinkedIn features will include auto-captioning for LinkedIn Live broadcasts, captions for enterprise content, and a dark mode. Meanwhile, a background accessibility checker will provide a prompt to fix accessibility issues in content across the core Office apps and Outlook. Microsoft is committed to ensuring that the programme will be companywide and include input and support from customers, partners, and the disability community.

“Perhaps more than ever before, the world needsideas and solutions that canimprove the lives of people with disabilities,”Anabtawi added. “We also have a unique opportunity toleverage the advancements in technology toreimagine and accelerate innovation in digital accessibility. Our goal with this new technology-led five-year commitment isto create and open doors to bigger opportunities for people with determination, who representone of the largest untapped talentpools in theworld andempower themto achieve more”.

According to the World Health Organisation, more than 1 billion people live with varying degrees of disability, and almost 200 million experience significant difficulties in functioning. In a 2018 report, the UN’s Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA) recommended the leverage of technology to deliver such aids as “stair-climbing wheelchairs, digital Braille readers, communication devices controlled by eye movement and robotic prosthetics”to shrink the Disability Divide across the Arab world. This recommendation reflects calls in the UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development of 2015 to empower people of disability.

Last year Microsoft published its Accessibility Evolution Model, an operational guide on “how to” to help its customers develop their own accessibility road maps and business plans. “We continually incorporate new learnings and are deepening our engagement with our top enterprise customers, non-profits and Microsoft partners, helping them to use digital technology to become more accessible.” Concluded Anabtawi.

The company also released a blog with further details and can be accessed here.

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