After several years spent working in the field, Microsoft’s Chief Accessibility Officer, Jenny Lay-Flurrie, was appointed to a new role in 2014, opening up a new chapter in her career. As a Senior Director in the Company’s HR organization, Lay-Flurrie continued to influence Microsoft’s diversity and inclusion efforts, but she also had other responsibilities, such as leading the company’s philanthropic efforts. Soon, Lay-Flurrie returned to her roots in the “Innovation and Accessibility Team,” where she currently serves as the company’s Chief Accessibility Officer.
announced last week the steps it will take over the next five years to improve accessibility for people with disabilities, committing to accelerate the development of appropriate technologies, create more employment opportunities for people with disabilities and make its own workplaces more welcoming to them.
The company declined to disclose financial figures or goals related to the initiative, but said it was trying to improve on previous efforts, which separately focused on products and employee experiences, with a more systematic approach.
Microsoft is known as one of the most inclusive companies in the technology industry. Its products include a custom Xbox controller and initiatives such as hiring people with autism and funding startups that use artificial intelligence to help people with disabilities. The company is also one of the few with an accessibility manager, having been established in 2010.
took the job in 2016 when Microsoft restructured its accessibility division to make it more central to the company.
Leigh-Flurry, who is deaf and initially hid her disability by relying on lip reading, spoke to the Herald of Experience via video link about her role and the steps she and others must take as a result of her testimony. This interview has been edited for clarity.
WSJ: We see many companies appointing an accessibility manager, but perhaps placing them further away from key decision makers. What power does your position give you within the company?
Ma’am. It’s mush: It opens doors. So if I approach someone [at Microsoft] and say: So where are we now? I’m going through all these possible responses.
I’d like to see a lot more CEOs, and not just in technology. We miss that very much.
WSJ: Microsoft is a very diverse company. How is your team set up and structured to work?
Ma’am. It’s mush: We run this company as a business, so it’s my job to motivate, to inspire, to help people see the vision and the strategy, but also to hold them accountable for everything they do. I work in the Corporate, External and Legal teams, so I work right across the business, and I have people I communicate with who are assigned to each part of the business, whether it’s HR or Xbox.
In 2018, Microsoft released an adaptive Xbox controller designed for gamers with disabilities.
Stephanie Aaronson/The Wall Street Journal
WSJ: How has accessibility been integrated into Microsoft in the past?
Ma’am. It’s mush: CLA was on one of the product teams, and it’s very hard to tell all the other products what to do when you’re on one of them. And that didn’t include hiring staff or customer service, which is very important to me. You have to listen. I spend most of my time listening.
WSJ: Have you ever had to demonstrate a return on your work?
Ma’am. It’s mush: There’s always a conversation. But I’m also very, very mindful of the ROI trap, which is : Well, this product will only work well for 4% of customers. According to the science of accessibility and inclusive design, you simply get a better product when you incorporate these elements into the design and take into account the views of people with disabilities.
I don’t think anyone could appreciate the impact of audiobooks when they were made for the blind. From February to April last year, there was a significant increase in subtitles on Teams TV. It wasn’t just the deaf community.
WSJ: Microsoft plans to hire more people with disabilities over the next five years. How are you gonna do it?
Ma’am. It’s mush: This allows us to expand our special programs, such as the autism recruitment program, to different parts of the world. We are also expanding supported employment practices that create employment opportunities for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
And we’re not just working on the accessibility of our buildings to meet some local code.
They need to create a safe environment where people can identify themselves, have a conversation about their disability and ask what they need to succeed. Our global investments are centralized, so wherever you are, you can ask for what you need to succeed, and your costs will never be seen by your manager. For example, if you are deaf, you can ask for an interpreter, who will be provided at no cost to the insurance company.
WSJ: You are able to make this change in part because you work for a large organization that is willing to spend money to ensure accessibility. How can smaller companies with less liquidity achieve similar improvements?
Ma’am. It’s mush: We have published our guides on topics such as hiring people with disabilities and the accessibility training that every Microsoft employee takes, hoping to help others see that it’s not that hard.
For example, the simplest things you can do are to make sure your furniture is a different colour to the carpet or flooring for the blind or visually impaired – if the furniture is the same colour as the carpet, it is difficult to see and people trip over it easily. And make sure if you have glass doors, you seal them.
Accessibility in design means incorporating accessibility and the views of people with disabilities into the design process. You can’t put a ramp on a building a week before occupancy and remove the bureaucracy.
Email Kathy Dayton at [email protected]
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