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