1st meeting of MS access advisory group
fpennell at u.washington.edu
Thu Mar 18 10:03:21 PST 1999
This summary of the first meeting of Microsoft's access advisory group may
be of interest to some of you!
>From the web page
Diverse Disability Communities Advise Microsoft
"We're talking about a culture shift. We want accessibility to
be a part of design, specs, and testing."
-Jean Claude Provost, Canadian National Institute for the Blind
by Maureen O'Neill, staff writer for the Microsoft
Thirty-four people, representing diverse disability communities
in the United States, Canada, Australia, and Portugal traveled
to Microsoft headquarters in Redmond, Washington, recently for
the first meeting of the Microsoft Accessibility Advisory
Council. The council, brainchild of Accessibility Group vice
president Paul Maritz, was invited to provide high-level
strategic advice to guide Microsoft's accessibility efforts.
During the next two years, Microsoft will host two more meetings
and engage in ongoing conversation with the council via e-mail,
conference calls, and video conferencing.
Council asked to build consensus
In opening what became a frank and cordial dialogue, Greg
Lowney, director of the Microsoft Accessibility Group, explained
that he hoped the council could build consensus among its
members and help Microsoft prioritize accessibility needs.
Lowney stressed that in affecting accessibility policy and the
core product development process, the council has the
opportunity to "steer us over time" and conceivably influence
the direction of the computer industry itself. (For
feature-level input, Microsoft relies on accessibility review
boards already in existence.)
Following Lowney, Microsoft employees gave presentations
describing the structure of the company and the product
development cycle. Individual product groups gave candid
assessments of their own accessibility efforts, using an
Microsoft vice president of technology development Dick Brass
and group vice president of sales and marketing Jeff Raikes also
met with the council. Brass gave a well-received presentation on
electronic books (e-books), and Raikes held an action-oriented
briefing on Microsoft accessibility policy and philosophy.
The council had three full days of meetings; on the afternoon of
the third day, members met in a closed session to discuss their
concerns and create a structure for decision making and
communication. Jennifer Sheehy of the National Organization on
Disabilities (NOD) was elected chairperson.
Mainstreaming accessible design at Microsoft
Over the three days, several common concerns emerged, most of
which could be summed up in the overarching desire to integrate
accessibility into the very fabric of life at Microsoft.
The council reinforced the importance of having input early on
in the product development cycle; hiring people with
disabilities to work in the product groups and in upper
management; and "keeping Microsoft honest" vis-_-vis its
corporate policy on accessibility.
Underlying all the discussion was the hope that Microsoft will
take the lead in making accessibility a top priority. As
Jennifer Meecham, from the U.S. Department of Education put it,
Microsoft is the "the 800-pound gorilla in the software
industry. If [it] does the right thing, maybe everyone will
Council members raised the following key issues:
* Retrofitting versus universal design
* Microsoft's relationship with independent software vendors
* Representation by people with disabilities throughout
* Universal design as good design
* Lack of trainers
No more retrofitting! Universal frustration over the catch-up
necessary when new versions of software are released prompted
many council members to ask how they can make sure that
accessibility is built into the product from the very start.
Curtis Chong, of the National Federation of the Blind, explained
that when accessibility falls by the wayside in a new release,
people can be demoted or even lose their jobs because they can
no longer do the same work as before.
"In the past," says Chong, "technology did provide
opportunities. But as technology moves ahead, our opportunities
may be diminished if [the technology] is not designed
Raikes, one of the top leaders in the company, offered a
two-pronged solution: first, proactive productive design-that
is, incorporating accessibility issues at milestone zero, the
first step in the product development cycle; and, second,
establishing a good feedback loop.
"In addition to being the right thing to do," said
Raikes, "accessibility is the coalescence of a goal
that is good for society and good for business."
Who's responsible for accessibility solutions? Several council
members said they didn't know "where to push," to solve a
particular accessibility problem: Microsoft or the independent
software vendors. Although Microsoft maintains that
accessibility is best served by the combined efforts of many
small companies working in tandem with Microsoft, some council
members challenged this stance.
Mitch Travers, representing the National Association of the
Deaf, reminded Microsoft that the market has failed to respond
to the needs of people with disabilities, resulting in
legislation such as the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
Travers argued that the good Microsoft could do by making all
computers TTY capable, for example, far outweighs the
disadvantages of having a single development source.
Several times throughout the three-day conference, Microsoft
representatives were asked to explain how Microsoft worked with
ISVs. While applauding initiatives such as beta test site
programs and the international grant program to fund innovative
accessibility technology, several council members suggested that
vendors be given direct access to product teams.
Diversity hiring. Jennifer Sheehy of NOD asked Jeff Raikes about
Microsoft's policy on hiring people with disabilities, voicing
the widely held feeling that one of the most powerful
commitments the company could make-given its global
visibility-would be to "hire qualified people with disabilities
at the highest levels of management.
Many members also felt that there is no substitute for hiring
people with disabilities to work on product teams, and
throughout the company. Through day-to-day interaction, asserted
Russ Holland of the Alliance of Technical Access, such
individuals can provide understanding of accessibility issues at
an experiential, rather than an intellectual, level. The very
presence of employees with disabilities in the workplace will
foreground accessibility issues in a way that is impossible for
activists working outside of Microsoft, regardless of what
guidelines, policies, philosophies, or checklists are in place.
"Ten years from now, we'd like to have every developer
at Microsoft to have at least heard the words:
-Jean Claude Provost
Universal design. David Clarke of the Center for Applied Special
Technology (CAST) made the point that selling accessible or
universal design as good design may be the best way to integrate
accessibility. When asked (postconference) for clarification,
Clarke gave this example: "Ask 100 random people what the cuts
in the corners of sidewalks are for, and the most common answers
you will get are baby strollers, bicycles, etc.-not wheelchairs.
So, curb cuts are mandatory for accessibility, but in "selling"
the need to devote resources to build curb cuts, it may be more
effective to talk about strollers and bicycles rather than
focusing on disability."
Training. The dearth of trainers in adaptive technology was
mentioned as a significant and often overlooked roadblock to
using accessible software already in existence. Microsoft was
asked to help provide qualified trainers.
Rating Microsoft's efforts
Council members who had attended Accessibility Day at Microsoft
last year, frequently commented on the noticeable progress that
had been made. For Randy Knapp, of the National Industries for
the Blind, this progress gave him "encouragement to continue to
Overall, members seemed satisfied with the commitment from
Microsoft product groups. Clarke of CAST said he was "impressed
with the presenters' grasp of issues," adding that the
presentations weren't just a "whitewash or a sales pitch."
Heather Swayne, accessibility program manager for
Office, comments on the conference.
Rob Copeland, program manager for Microsoft Visual
Basic(R) development system, comments on the
"Microsoft is something of a paradox for people with visual
disabilities," said Jamal Mazrui of the National Council on
Disability. "On the one hand, Microsoft is doing more than any
other company," he said, mentioning his awareness of the
considerable resources devoted to accessibility at Microsoft,
including the rapid expansion of the Accessibility Group and the
formation of the council itself.
But on the other hand, Mazrui explained, "because Microsoft has
such a dominant position in the industry, accessibility problems
in Microsoft software have a major impact." When all is said and
done, many people with disabilities cannot perform even the
simplest tasks using existing software: for example, blind users
cannot verify formatting in a Word document.
So how does a group of 34 members representing diverse
constituencies of disabled people come together and speak with
one voice to Microsoft? Certainly, this task is no less of a
challenge than understanding exactly how to influence the
sprawling, decentralized, heterogeneous organization of the
largest software company in the world-even with Microsoft's
But at the end of this seminal meeting, all parties seemed
satisfied that they'd put most of the relevant issues on the
table. More important, the council and Microsoft left with the
confidence that over time, they could accomplish the important
work before them.
(c) 1997-1999 Microsoft Corporation. All rights reserved.
Last updated on March 16, 1999.
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