Diversity, Equity & Inclusion

Top Takeaways from Microsoft’s Ability Summit

By Kristy Fair

Posted @ May 23, 2021

I attended two of the keynotes and several of the breakout sessions at Microsoft’s virtual Ability Summit recently. May hosts Global Accessibility Awareness Day at the end of the month, which serves as a good reminder of the importance of disability inclusion. The need for disability inclusion has been exacerbated over the past year with the global pandemic disproportionately impacting this community. The World Bank calls this the disability divide, and unfortunately this gap hasn’t shifted much in the past 30 years. However, there’s a tremendous opportunity for society to narrow this gap as we enter a 4th industrial revolution driven by technology. 

As a marketer, I couldn’t help taking note of how Microsoft ran the virtual event, perhaps so I could borrow some of the tactics for future events in which I’m involved for my job. I won’t spend time in this post on the ease of use of the platform and the digestible two-day format, which didn’t leave me exhausted and overwhelmed with too many breakout sessions unlike other virtual conferences I’ve attended. 

Rather, here I’d like to share my top takeaways on disability inclusion. Some are themes that are being and need to be repeated so that the majority of society hears them and embraces them. Others are ah-hah moments that made me hit stop, rewind, and play again. 

  • When you design an event, design it with accessibility in mind from the start – don’t bolt accessibility on as an afterthought. The Ability Summit had captioning and a live sign language interpreter during each speaking session. When introduced, each speaker gave an audio description and stated the preferred personal pronouns. 
  • In a conversation with the producers of Oscar-nominated Crip Camp, they pointed out that disability rights history isn’t taught in school. Crip Camp challenged the status quo making the uncomfortable comfortable and unfamiliar familiar. One in five individuals around the world has a disability, whether it’s seen or unseen. Despite this, many people don’t know or aren’t familiar with disability. The documentary reframed disability by humanizing it – and the producer pointed out that it’s easier to make change when you know someone with a disability or are familiar with it. Consider that the first ever wheelchair ramp at the Oscars happened with Crip Camp’s nomination. The documentary, led by a team of individuals with disabilities, also demonstrated the “nothing about us, without us” theme that resounded across the sessions. You can’t design for individuals with disabilities without individuals with disabilities. 
  • In the session featuring Tommy Hilfiger and its adaptive clothing, I was surprised by what their research revealed. The Tommy Hilfiger team found that in marketing, showing a figure that belongs to a niche audience appeals beyond the niche audience to a broader one because the broader audience values being inclusive of all. 
  • Innovation. Having disabled people in the design process makes solutions better for everyone. The typewriter, text messages, audio books – these are examples of the “curb cut” effect. Originally these were designed for people with disabilities, but they benefit a wider audience.  “Curb cut” means originally the cut in curbs were for wheelchairs, but now they are used by non-disabled people for moving from a street to the sidewalk – pushing a stroller, grocery cart, rollerblading, etc. Originally technology designed with accessibility in mind is called assistive, but after it becomes used by non-disabled people, it becomes just good technology.
  • Three things we can do right now to be more accessible. 
    • Use descriptive text for images
    • Caption videos
    • Co-create with customers, including those who are disabled

The more you practice, the better you get.

  • And the closing thought, disability is a difference and a strength. 

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