Microsoft Is 'Doubling Down' on Accessibility to Help Close Disability Divide

May 6, 2021

Microsoft announced last week a five-year commitment to "create and open doors and bigger opportunities for people with disabilities." Led by innovation in accessible technology, initiatives to welcome more people with disabilities into the workforce, and development of a more inclusive workplace, this plan is part of the company's public effort to do it's part in closing the "disability divide," as it's called by the World Bank. One of Microsoft's technology priorities is incorporating accessibility by design, a principle that reinforces the importance of developing the accessibility mindset.

The new "accessible by design" features rely on artificial intelligence (AI) and other tech advancements to make accessibility easier to apply. In their announcement, Microsoft specifically called out:

  • An accessibility checker in Office apps and Outlook that "will nudge users to correct accessibility issues."
  • Automatic heading styles applied by AI.
  • New navigation options in Excel optimized for screen reader users.
  • The expansion of Immersive Reader (video), a tool built into certain Microsoft programs to help improve reading and writing.
  • The ability to access shared content in Microsoft Teams in high-contrast mode.
  • Enhancements to LinkedIn, like auto-captioning for LinkedIn Live and an eventual dark mode later this year.

They are also embedding automated accessibility tools into software, which can be helpful for catching certain kinds of accessibility issues.

Over the past couple years, we've followed and often written about ways Microsoft is leading the charge toward a more accessible future. Last October, for example, Microsoft announced that most roles will be able to work remotely permanently, at least some of the time. We noted that the external world could potentially benefit from their internal needs for the own workforce.

Especially considering how so much of the working world uses Microsoft products and platforms every day already, from Word to Outlook to Windows itself, the company is a fixture in corporate technology. Therefore, even accessibility improvements to existing products like Outlook, which are mostly used in the business world, would have potential implications for employees with disabilities everywhere.

Are the recent accessibility announcements related to their own accessibility journey? We don't know, but their focus on workforce solutions promise to have broad impact.

Here are a few other advancements we've followed and shared:

Microsoft is a company to watch in accessibility and they are investing heavily in accessible technology and solutions. In their announcement last week, they also pledged to focus on:

  • Technology research and data
  • Increasing access to and affordability of technology
  • Increasing skills and education for the workforce
  • Connecting skills workers with jobs
  • Broadening inclusive hiring programs
  • Creating accessible and inclusive tools and spaces in the workplace
  • A new Employee Experience Accessibility team
  • Empowering customers and partners on their accessibility journey

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