Impact Series

Microsoft’s accessibility chief on the advantages of closing the ‘incapacity divide’

Jenny Lay-Flurrie, chief accessibility officer for Microsoft. (Microsoft Photo)

Microsoft Chief Accessibility Officer Jenny Lay-Flurrie is thinking about disabilities in ways that many others are not. Or at least, aren’t yet.

The Redmond-based software and cloud company on Wednesday is launching a five-year initiative to help close the “disability divide” — or the gap between the resources and opportunities available to those with disabilities and those without.

That includes creating technology software and hardware that is accessible to people with wide-ranging physical and neurological abilities, increasing the percentage of the Microsoft workforce that has disabilities, and helping people with disabilities gain education and job skills and connecting them with employers.

“Disability is just a part of being human,” said Lay-Flurrie. “It’s a frankly a bit nutty to me that we don’t talk about it in general society anywhere near as much as we should, and it’s the biggest untapped talent pool out there.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that 1-in-4 Americans have a disability, but most people hide their physical and/or neurological disabilities.

The Microsoft initiative includes multiple efforts to support people with disabilities, and Lay-Flurrie called out two that most excite her. First is the creation of the Low-Cost Assistive Technology Fund to improve access to technology solutions that help with disabilities, but are so expensive that they’re out of reach. Lay-Flurrie, who is deaf due to childhood measles and multiple ear infections, noted that her own hearing aids run $6,000 a piece.

Second is a collection of partnerships with six North American universities to better support students with disabilities who are pursuing STEM education. The company did not share the costs for these programs.

Microsoft has been tackling disability issues for decades. It appears to be the first tech company to create the CAO role in 2010; five years ago, Lay-Flurrie became the second person in the job. In 2018, the company pledged $25 million over five years for its AI for Accessibility program. In October Microsoft shared for the first time data on its employment of people with disabilities, who make up 6.1% of its workforce.

Charlotte Dales is founder and CEO of Inclusively, a startup with a professional networking platform that matches employees with disabilities with employers. Microsoft was the first company to partner with Inclusively, and Dales applauds its transparency in this space and for setting an example for other corporations.

Ability Summit
Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, right, speaks with Lay-Flurrie at the company’s annual Ability Summit in 2018.

“They are building everything with accessibility in mind,” she said, “and the only way you can truly do that is having that community represented in your workforce.”

But Lay-Flurrie herself acknowledges that there’s tremendous work still to be done to empower people with disabilities. Only 33% of working-age Americans with disabilities were employed, according to 2020 data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. That number is 76% for those without disabilities.

We recently talked with Lay-Flurrie about her thoughts on disabilities and their intersection with technology, Microsoft and the workforce. Here are some of her thoughts:

Embrace the language

“I don’t want to hear ‘special abilities’ or ‘diverse abilities’ or ‘different abilities,’ it’s disability. We are proud of our identity. People with disabilities come to that once they see that they’re going to be supported and their disability is not going to be seen as [a negative] — it’s going to be seen as a strength that it is and, for me, the expertise that it is.”

Accessibility at the outset

“We’ve got to ‘shift left.’ What I mean by that is it’s got to be earlier in the development cycle — you’ve got to bring in lived experience of people with disabilities right from the get-go. And if you capture it there, then accessibility doesn’t become something you’re fixing as you’re trying to launch your website or a product. You shouldn’t ever be in a remediation mode; it should be part of your design.”

Encouraging the use of available tools

“In Office, we’re touching literally billions of emails and documents every day. And we have this capability, it’s right next to spell check, called accessibility check. And it’s underutilized — anyone has the potential to send a document that everyone can read, but you’ve got to hit the button. And we know that nowhere near enough people are hitting the buttons…

We set a goal, let’s get that to 25% of our user base. We set a goal of getting to 50 million users of that within the next year.”

Disability numbers are growing and include neurodiversity

“You’ve got the impact of long COVID and of mental health, which has gone up almost a 1,000% year-over-year in terms of screenings of anxiety and depression alone, you look at the intersectionality [with race, gender, sexual identity, etc.]… When you look at our customers now and where is it going to be in five years, we really do think it’s going to be a growth segment and it’s going to have a lot more needs…

“Disability is something that you can get on a temporary basis. It can be a situational gig. You can be stuck in a pandemic and not have everything you need and need to turn to magnification, to make things bigger on your screen or captions because the audio quality is a bit [poor] — that’s situational or it can be permanent.”

Bottom-line benefits

“As we’ve started to share and talk about accessibility with our customers, it’s opened the doors to deeper relationships. We’ve seen customers that have acquired our products on the back of accessibility, so yes, there is an absolute hit on the bottom line.”

Lay-Flurrie also cited a 2018 study that identified 45 out 140 large U.S. companies as leaders in disability employment and inclusion. That subset had substantially higher revenue, net income and profit margins.

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