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Storyboard18: How Microsoft is driving accessibility for persons with disabilities

The inequitable impact of the pandemic has made decreasing the gap in societal inclusion for people with disabilities more critical. Microsoft's chief marketing officer Hitu Chawla shares the global software major's efforts to reduce the 'disability divide'. A game-changing idea for 2022

Published: Dec 15, 2021 05:50:09 PM IST
Updated: Dec 15, 2021 05:58:11 PM IST

Storyboard18: How Microsoft is driving accessibility for persons with disabilitiesIncreasing voices on the inequitable impact of the pandemic should become a tipping point for change towards a more accessible post-Covid world and drive disability consciousness among brand marketers. Representational image: Shutterstock

In 2019, Microsoft swept up major awards at international advertising festivals for ‘Changing the Game’, a campaign for the Xbox Adaptive Controller, which was made for gamers with limited mobility.

The controller was designed to make gaming more accessible, and the experience easier and enjoyable for people with disabilities. Designers used the feedback they got from gamers and disability advocates to shape the product’s features, including the packaging.

Gamers they spoke with provided valuable insights, including stipulations like ‘no teeth’. They said they use their teeth to open everything from cereal boxes to beer bottles. The adaptive controller’s box shouldn't require any teeth and gnawing to open.

There are more than 400 million gamers with disabilities across the globe. It would have been a huge miss if the people who made the controller hadn’t taken into account how the end-user would get to it. People with disabilities are the largest minority group in the world, with a collective global buying power of $8 trillion.

In just the past five years, brands across various categories such as technology, fashion and sportswear, beauty, and FMCG have turned their attention to the needs of people with disabilities, accelerating innovation and releasing inclusively designed products, services and campaigns. The pandemic has only further fuelled disability consciousness among brand marketers.

Storyboard18 caught up with Microsoft India’s chief marketing officer Hitu Chawla to understand the marketer’s view and approach and how Microsoft is helping build a more inclusive world. Here’s what Chawla—raised by a fiercely independent and determined visually-impaired mother—has to say about creating a society where no one is left behind.


Q. Could you put in perspective the potential and the opportunities for Microsoft in India and globally in addressing and catering to the needs of people with disabilities?

There are more than one billion people with disabilities in the world and about 26.8 million people with disabilities in India. However, globally, only one in ten people with disabilities have access to the assistive technology they need, which means many cannot fully participate in our economies and societies.

The unemployment rate for people with disabilities is typically twice that of people without. The number, as well as the quantum of challenges faced by people with disabilities, is indicative of the huge potential this market has. This is not only from the standpoint of building and providing accessible and assistive technology but also enabling relevant skills. Overall, greater accessibility is a collective opportunity and has the potential to improve millions of lives.

We are committed to addressing the ‘disability divide’: The gap in societal inclusion for people with disabilities, be it in education, employment or access to technology. As we recover from the pandemic, it is all the more critical to decrease this divide.

Q. Is accessibility a responsibility or an opportunity? What's Microsoft's view and approach?

Accessibility is core to our mission to empower every person and every organisation on the planet to achieve more. This means everyone, including people with disabilities, so that no one is left behind. We bring our mission to life not just through our products that are accessible by design but also through a culture of inclusion.

Overall, we see accessibility as a responsibility and an opportunity that requires a conscious commitment and deliberate action. This has led us to shape our approach to accessibility in a well-defined and structured manner. We have built a company-wide accessibility program to measure progress and set targets. We have a Microsoft Accessibility Evolution Model that defines how behaviours, practises, and processes can reliably and sustainably produce desired outcomes. This accessibility maturity model has enabled us to understand year-on-year growth by division and function, and track progress.

Q. Could you share some key marketing initiatives which are benchmarks within Microsoft?

Accessibility is fundamental to the way we think about any marketing campaign or customer outreach. One of our key efforts in the past three years is making all our digital touchpoints accessible for every consumer. Feedback from the community of people with disabilities has helped a lot in this ever-evolving journey.

We hold a global yearly event called the Microsoft Ability Summit which brings together people with disabilities, experts in the disability domain, designers, engineers, marketers, HR professionals, and other stakeholders, to connect and learn how to empower people with disabilities. Also, Microsoft Hackathon has been a great platform for employees from around to collaborate on passion projects. This is where iconic products like Seeing AI, Learning Tools, Xbox Adaptive Controller, and Eye Control for Windows were born.

Microsoft conducts an Accessibility Fundamentals course for an external audience, presenting core ideas and definitions needed to understand accessibility concepts and promoting the use of technology to address the challenge of disabilities. Another example I’d like to call out is Project SAMEIP. It is a skilling initiative that we run in collaboration with the SBI Foundation. Our aim is to create meaningful job opportunities for persons with disabilities in the banking, financial services, and insurance (BFSI) sector in India.

Q. What are the most significant challenges to addressing this consumer group with appropriate products, solutions, services and communication?

First and foremost, I’d say the challenge is about recognition. Every customer mode of interaction is different. Even within a specific impairment—it’s a spectrum—where a person with low vision may use magnifiers, and a person with complete blindness would switch to a screen reader.

So, we ask our users, 'are our products and communication integrating with the assistive technology, and thereby the mode of interaction of the user?' Windows Insider program and the Enterprise Disability Answer Desk are great examples of how we get user feedback to improve our products. It helps us fill in the so-called ‘data desert’—the gap in datasets that include people with disabilities.

Secondly, it is about acceptance and action. Once the issues have been realised, we make them a core priority and act on them. It is important to get diverse opinions at the product development stage and ensure that accessibility is by design from the ground up, rather than an afterthought.

Essentially, the solutions to the challenges are interrelated. Creating next-generation accessible technologies requires more people with disabilities to play a bigger role in developing them. This, in turn, needs an inclusive workplace that attracts and nurtures this talent. A stronger foundation is critical to help us implement accessibility by design right from the start of the development cycle.

Q. In general, do you think brand marketers have been less responsive to the needs of people with disabilities?

While corporate leaders have been vocally embracing disability inclusion, brand marketing efforts have often left a lot to be desired when it comes to including people with disabilities.

While we have come a long way, I believe we haven’t even scratched the surface. It could be due to a lack of awareness and a general lack of sensitisation towards people with disabilities. In recent years, we may have walked a mile when it comes to the way we characterise persons with disabilities in commercials and mainstream films, but still have work to do to embed them seamlessly in our overall efforts.

My hope is that increasing voices on the inequitable impact of the pandemic should become a tipping point for change towards a more accessible post-Covid world and drive disability consciousness among brand marketers.

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