As part of the the12th annual Microsoft Ability Summit, Microsoft opened a new and expanded Inclusive Tech Lab. It launched new software features and a series of Microsoft adaptive accessories designed to give people with disabilities greater access to technology.
Microsoft has been on a journey to improved accessibility since the launch of the Xbox Adaptive Controller back in 2018. Earlier in 2021, Microsoft launched the Surface Adaptive Kit, a series of labels, indicators, and openers that empower people who are blind, have low vision, or limited mobility to customize Surface devices for a better personal fit.
To mark Global Accessibility Awareness Day, I connected with Microsoft’s Director of Accessibility, Dave Dame for a LinkedIn/Twitter Live to discuss inclusive design and the disability divide.
We started the conversation with the Inclusive Tech Lab. The new Inclusive Tech Lab is the successor to the original lab opened by the Xbox team in 2017. Through the process of building the Xbox control, Microsoft learned how people with disabilities game. “But gaming is only a part of their life. There’s how do they live? How do they work? How do they learn? So, we created the lab to really focus on all those elements of their life. This is so we can really understand whether there are mismatches in their environment. We truly believe it’s not someone’s disability that holds them back, rather it is the mismatch with their environment that holds them back,” tells me, Dame
Thinking about accessibility as a critical component of the product you are designing allows for a more comprehensive experience that does not deliver something that is only functional. Too often, when we talk about accessible devices, we refer to devices that have been “hacked” to be functional but don’t consider aesthetic and how an awkwardly put-together device will draw more attention. Dame explains: “This is why the Surface Adaptive Kit matches the color palette of the devices, so it really blends in well with the device and makes it aesthetically pleasing. It’s like when you go to a physical building and you can tell when a wheelchair ramp was bolted, rather than having a beautifully elegant entrance that elevates as you roll to it.”
For many PC manufacturers, accessibility is still that “bolted on ramp,” mainly because they look at the addressable market as a niche opportunity and need to prioritize their investments. However, Dame points out that while manufacturers might be designing a product for people who have a disability today, the reality is that we should not assume that everybody’s ability is going to remain consistent. “We are all going to be disabled someday. It’s just that some of us beat you to it. So even though we’re designing for that group today, we’re designing for everyone else afterward,” says Dame, who has Cerebral Palsy. Instead, we should think of an ability lifecycle and build accessible products that meet people where they are on their ability journey.
To think about accessibility as a cornerstone of a product requires a philosophical shift away from developing and designing something that simply aspires to meet the compliance requirements. To do so, brands must embrace the “nothing about us, without us” mantra and start engaging people with disabilities in the innovation, design, production and even marketing process of a product. “Nobody will pick up your product and go this is beautifully compliant,” says Dame with a chuckle, adding, “Even though compliance is important, we also want to create these elegant experiences so that somebody with a disability can use a product. But more importantly, so that somebody with a disability would choose it.” Community involvement is critical in the process. Dame strongly believes that the best way to learn is to observe, ask questions, be curious and by doing so, bring the community along in the process so one can empathize and understand before putting all that learning into sound design and product making. “You know you can call it accessibility. You can call it design. I call it humanity. It’s really bringing humanity to the front and center,” says Dame.
Meeting people where they are can also apply to how we think about hybrid work. Dame believes that one interesting aspect of the pandemic has been that it forced everybody to experience what it’s like to live with a disability or a mismatch. We could not go to the doctor like we used to, we could not go shopping, go to work, go out like we used to. “So, everybody was like, wow, what is this mismatch? All this anxiety we feel and people with disabilities were like welcome to the club!” This mismatch pushed Microsoft to lean into empathy and build a digital platform so people can bank easier, see their doctor online, work, and learn. We lived a significant portion of our lives digitally and for some, it was great and for others, it was too much. We must understand that we are all different and require a flexible approach as we move forward.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, I have been arguing that the superpower of true leaders will be empathy. Dame agrees with me and argues that no matter what skills and talent one might have, the potential would be lost without the right leader. “It starts with four words that enable and bring inclusion to the table: how can I help?” And inclusion is the key for Dame, who argues that while we always talk about diversity and inclusion, he thinks we need to reverse it and start talking about inclusion and diversity: “Because until I feel safe, I am not going to come and be my unique, authentic self.”
Dame credits technology for helping him get into mainstream school and allowing him to build friendships with people who were different than him, people who didn’t have a physical disability. Yet, he felt like he couldn’t be his authentic self and masked his disability to fit in. Soon after starting his career in agility training, he realized that there is nothing more complex than navigating the world with a disability and the companies he was trying to get through the change needed to learn how to deal with their own disability. Their cerebral palsy was the status quo, and they could not overcome it. “Being able to see I’m different, that I can do things in different ways and still come out well, really helped organizations accept the change that I needed to drive, whether it was agile, leadership, or product thinking. So, I understood that I have my strengths because I have a disability. It’s not my weakness because of a disability. This is when I finally coined my phrase: I have cerebral palsy, but it does not have me,” concludes Dame.
Disclosure: The Heart of Tech is a research and consultancy firm that engages or has engaged in research, analysis, and advisory services with many technology companies, including those mentioned in this column. The author does not hold any equity positions with any company mentioned in this column.