Creating technology for a range of disabilities helps everyone, says Microsoft accessibility expert

Companies that create technology for a range of disabilities end up helping everyone in society, according to a Microsoft accessibility expert.

Hector Minto, a Senior Technology Evangelist, said the best way to ensure technology could be used by every person is to design it that way from the start.

“The next generation of assistive tech products are likely to be wrapped up in mainstream products or developed as constantly improving cloud-based solutions,” he told the AdWeek conference in London. “When we create just one tool for one disability, we leave people with other disabilities behind. We must create technology for all, because today there is a computer in every wheelchair and every pocket. We want everyone to benefit from tomorrow’s innovation with software as a service.

“At Microsoft, we are taking innovations that at first glance could help a small group in society and expanding them out. For example, the Read Aloud feature in our Edge internet browser, which will read out any website, is available for anyone to use, and 10 million people are now using it every month. They are using it for a number of reasons from vision impairment, to dyslexia, and some will be using it just to be more productive.”

Hector Minto, Emma Lawton and Haiyan Zhang

Hector Minto, Emma Lawton and Haiyan Zhang

He said companies had to “start looking at bringing people with disabilities along with them”.

Minto was speaking during an accessibility event at the Adweek conference, which is sponsored by the Bing search engine. He was joined on stage by host Haiyan Zhang, Innovation Director at Microsoft Research, and Emma Lawton, Digital Strategist at Parkinson’s UK.

Minto and Lawton agreed that the best technology fundamentally changes how people with disabilities live.

“Tech should enable people with disabilities to make changes for themselves,” said Lawton, who has Parkinson’s and uses a groundbreaking smartwatch created by Zhang to manage some of her symptoms. “I don’t wear the Emma Watch all the time because I like to push myself; also, my tremor is part of who I am.

“But the watch has changed my life and opened doors for me. I can choose my career, have an identity as a designer and write my name – everyone should have that right.”

Emma Lawton and Haiyan Zhang at AdWeek

Emma Lawton and Haiyan Zhang at AdWeek

The trio also offered examples of how tech is changing lives for people across the world:

  • Copilot – lets two people use two Xbox controllers to move the same character
  • Project Torino – a project that helps visually impaired children learn to code by letting them connect pods together to build programs
  • Project Fizzyo – Making physiotherapy for Cystic Fibrosis more fun by introducing gaming
  • Seeing AI – this app uses artificial intelligence to describe the world around you
  • Microsoft Translator – a free translation and transcription service

The importance of AI in society was also highlighted in a separate talk by Steve Clayton, Chief Storyteller at Microsoft. He said companies were using Microsoft’s powerful cognitive services in vision, speech, language, knowledge and search, as well as its Bot Framework, to improve their products and services.

“AI is in our hands and our everyday lives; it’s a set of technologies that can perceive, learn, reason and assist to help us solve problems,” he said.

“There have been massive advancements in AI over the past few years, fuelled by the rise of big data, created by the devices in our pockets and at home, and stored by the cloud. Microsoft is infusing AI into its products, but we also have AI platforms for customers, AI business solutions and AI research to advance this technology.