Taking accessibility to the next level at Microsoft

Post date: 
Friday, 12 October 2018
Jenny Lay-Flurrie, Chief Accessibility Officer at Microsoft

In an exclusive interview, Jenny Lay-Flurrie, the Chief Accessibility Officer at Microsoft discusses talking software and accessible apps.

When Jenny Lay-Flurrie joined IT giant Microsoft 13 years ago, she worked on Hotmail. More than a decade later, she become their Chief Accessibility Officer and was charged with taking accessibility to a whole new level.

Her passion for accessibility came after she got into the disability employee group at Microsoft through her deafness. Her role is to help to push innovations and get them through all the obstacles that any little start-up has, even when it’s in a big company, and get them out into the market.

Q: How has Microsoft and accessibility changed over the decades?

A: Microsoft has had a long history in accessibility. The first feature was sticky keys, in 1994 we think. Over the course of 20 years, we’ve had times when we’ve got it very right and very wrong, but over the last three years we’ve very much taken an effort to deliver, empower and to be far more people, human-focused.

Q: Can you tell us about the process to make software accessible? Say for example, with something like Office 365?

A: It’s very methodical. We look at every single component, and we make sure that we are not only reaching the minimum bar, we’re going above that. We’re beginning to see the power of artificial intelligence (AI) to help us with accessibility. For example, if you build a PowerPoint slide and you pull in an image, that image will have some text already attached to describe it. You can edit the text to make sure it’s completely appropriate for the picture. The accessibility checker in Office is another feature that is very powerful. You can check your email or Word document to make sure that it is fully accessible before you send it.

Q: Microsoft has come up with some incredible apps such as Seeing AI and Soundscape. Can you tell us more?

A: Seeing AI came in two years ago. We had people walking around the Microsoft campus with phones taped to their heads – we thought they were bonkers! They were working on how you could read the menu in a cafe using a combination of phone camera technology and AI. A year later, we launched Seeing AI and now there have been five million pictures taken with the app.

Soundscape began as a research project in the UK, with Amos Miller, a product strategist at Microsoft who is blind. He wanted to be able to take his daughter to the Natural History Museum in London, to just get up on the morning and go. So he figured how to build a 3D audio soundscape to enable you to go from A to B.

Q: Microsoft won the Helen Keller Award for inclusion efforts from the American Foundation of the Blind. What were your thoughts on this?

A: It’s an incredible honour. It’s very humbling to stand on stage next to colleagues from across the community, to be recognised, because we really do feel that in some ways we’re just getting going, even 20 years in. There’s so much ahead of us. This is the coolest space to be in and I think I have the coolest job.

Q: Tell me about the relationship that you and Microsoft have with RNIB.

A: I may live in Seattle, but I’m British and I grew up with RNIB. I’ve always looked up to how RNIB brings folks together and empowers people through technology. When I was a student years ago, I had great conversations with RNIB as I was looking to do a degree in music and disability.

Microsoft has also had a very deep partnership with RNIB over the years. We get invaluable feedback and a lot is being done through partnership. And I want to wish, and thank RNIB for an incredible 150 years. Have a wonderful anniversary.

More about Seeing AI and Microsoft soundscape

  • Seeing AI uses artificial intelligence to recognise objects, people and text via a phone or tablet’s camera and describes them to the user.
  • Microsoft Soundscape uses 3D audio technology to enhance your awareness of what is around you, and thereby help you get around and explore your surroundings. 
  • Both the apps are free to download.

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This article originally appeared in the Autumn 2018 edition of Connect Magazine.