Microsoft and Sustainable Accessibility

Michael Vermeersch

Why inclusive communication has everything to do with growing a business that will be successful post COVID-19

In May 2020, I had the opportunity to contribute and review the Business Disability Forum’s Inclusive Communication Toolkit.

When I was invited to this, we were in COVID-19 lock-down. By the time you read this blog, we may not be in full lock-down, but the impact of the global pandemic will most definitely still be with us.

With that in mind, and with many businesses not even sure if they will survive, you might be wondering why you should care about inclusive communication. Surely there are better things to be worrying about right now?

There are, indeed, plenty of things you will need to consider, but I would strongly argue that inclusive communication should be one of them, for the very reason that it can help bring positive change to your organization in the post-COVID-19 era. A change that could help you be successful.

Changing the future

I want to begin by telling you a story.

When I started my career at Microsoft, we were offered much training; we were also offered a couple of hundred books to read. As time was limited, I said to myself I’d better pick a good one. “The Heart of Success” by Rob Parsons sounded very appealing.

It was totally not what I expected, though it did teach me what true success meant and perhaps this is what can get us through Post-COVID-19, because as it says in one of the last pages:

“It is true that if we do not learn from history, we may have to relive it, but if we do not change the future, we may have to endure it – and that could be worse.”

I think we could write a story about Microsoft following on from that and get to a point where we could safely say that the future was changed.

This is not that story. This is a story that you might have missed. This story is how the future was changed for Microsoft and, more importantly, how it can change your future and – with that – how you can change your future post-COVID-19.

Microsoft’s story

When Satya Nadella came on board as CEO at Microsoft, he reviewed the company mission, in 2015, and changed it to: “to empower every person and every organization on the planet to achieve more”.

To me and many of us, the key part of that mission is “every person”. As SMART objectives go, that means everyone – and to do that, you need to represent and connect with everyone.

How do you do that? How do you make sure that you get representation and connect with everyone, every person?

Sustainable Accessibility - Embedding accessibility into the DNA of Microsoft - How culture, products and your future are interlinked.

‘Sustainable Accessibility’ was developed. This was a strategy for embedding accessibility into the DNA of Microsoft, across the areas of culture, products, and future.

Building an inclusive culture

Culture is about people. It starts with culture. Representation requires that you attract those people before you can – remember “Nothing About Us Without Us” – represent them.

As 70% of disabilities are invisible, chances are that you already have representation, except that they are possibly covering and in that, not really being represented.

“Embracing disability to build a culture of inclusion and promote accessibility”

When we embarked on changing our culture, valuing diversity for what it would bring to our company, people felt that they could be themselves and that they were included for who they really were. Our growing focus on accessibility grew that culture. When you embrace this inclusive communication toolkit, you signpost that you value that everyone is included, can contribute and be heard.

Building products for everyone

As people felt more valued, as people felt that covering was not required and that they could be their true best selves, they felt that their identity had even more value and they were a true asset to their employer and their mission. They would feel united with that mission and bring in what they felt was important to how the products and services would serve better people like them and not a “corporate” average.

“Building inclusive and innovative products designed for humanity, inclusive of disability”

As they got heard and their ideas implemented, they felt even more encouraged. One example is Immersive Reader. The Microsoft Immersive Reader is an Azure Cognitive Service that allows you to embed text reading and comprehension capabilities into applications. This helps users of any age and reading ability with features like reading aloud, translating languages, and focusing attention through highlighting and other design elements.

The Immersive Reader is already integrated into many Microsoft products (full list here) and its use in other third-party applications is growing. Immersive Reader came to life as a hack, where the goal was to find a solution for visual crowding, something dyslexic readers could experience. What the team saw was that, by solving a problem for one audience, they were actually making life easier for many more people.

Yearly, Microsoft does the //One week Hackathon where everyone in the company is encouraged to come up with fresh new ideas.

By letting everyone participate, including everyone’s best self and what they valued, great new products got created which not only served new audiences but also made our products and services help everyone.

Now before you make any rash decisions about your future, have you considered what the impact on being more inclusive could mean to your business? Harnessing more out of your talent, attracting diverse talent and with that representation and insight get to services and products that resonate more with your current market and also give access to new markets?

Innovating and changing our future

What we have seen is that by embarking on that journey where we value diversity and want to include the ideas of everyone, our products got better and reached wider markets.

“Disruptive innovations that will change what’s possible for people with disabilities”

In 2018, we released a book called the Ability Hacks; the number mentions 150 projects. That number keeps on growing. What this change has done is to create more participation, more engagement. At the same time, we attract more and more diverse talent to our company. In fact, millennials will represent 75% of the global workforce by 2025 and want to work at places that reflect their values. In addition, we are having more customers engaging with us on these topics and the outcomes that come with them. Customers are engaging with us on how to connect more with their workforce and how to grow their market by being more inclusive.

With this, suddenly our culture change has become self-sustaining and this is not at its end.

What does this mean for you?

By embracing inclusive communication, you can start your journey of cultural change where you value everyone to help change your future. This will get you better connected to your workforce and open up a new and better future than currently you can imagine.

The COVID-19 pandemic shows that digital inclusion is not as impractical as we have always been told. Nature, the scientific journal, recently ran an article stating: “Supermarkets, restaurants and pharmacies (even outside cities) can deliver; remote working, medicine, and education are possible for many; and social lives can be rewarding without requiring us to leave home”.

Perhaps now is the time to give ourselves a boost and access that Purple Pound, roughly £250 billion that our UK economy is being excluded from by not including people with disabilities. You can start this now by starting to include them in your communications.

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