The Impact: Microsoft’s Commitment to Accessibility

By Joel Riciputi, posted on

Elise Livingston on Microsoft’s commitment to accessibility

When we kicked off our blog series, The Impact, we talked about spotlighting partners that are pioneering the software for social good ecosystem. So it’s time to do just that!

We recently had the opportunity to catch up with Elise Livingston, Program Manager, Office Graphics, at Microsoft about the amazing work the Office team is doing around accessibility. Benetech has had the opportunity to collaborate with Microsoft on a range of accessibility activities that includes work on image descriptions and automation for Microsoft Office products, exploring machine learning and computer vision for educational content, accessible math (MathML Cloud), user feedback on Benetech products and initiatives, and some fun code sprints.

So, what are Elise and the Office team doing around accessibility? Let’s dive in.

To kick things off, how did you get into accessibility work at Microsoft?

Accessibility is a company-wide priority for Microsoft, starting with the leadership level inspiring us to do the right thing with our products. It’s promoted through things like knowledge sharing workshops and accessibility conferences and events. Accessibility is a priority across our product areas.

About 2 years ago my manager said he needed someone to lead accessibility efforts on our team. The original intent was for it to be a component of my job. I’ve always enjoyed the concept of software for good and building things that are meaningful and helpful for people, so I was excited to get involved. That was the start my accessibility journey. Microsoft’s continued commitment to accessibility now means that it’s about 150% of my job! I’m able to bring a real focus on accessibility in how we design so everyone can benefit from our products. As a graduate student at the University of Washington, I’m also able to leverage my academic background in my work here and vice versa in broader areas related to accessibility. It’s important to remember that accessibility and inclusive design are not just good for accessibility, but also good for business.

What does accessibility mean to you and the work of the Microsoft Office Graphics team?

To us, accessibility means including everyone in our products. Our products are important tools people use to be productive in their personal and work lives, and we want to help them be as productive as possible. That means we need to design for everyone. It’s about more than being compliant – we are constantly looking for opportunities to go the extra mile and make Office a great experience; one that is as accessible as possible. It’s easy to get lost in the process of developing software and to lose sight of the importance of something like accessibility. On our team, everyone who is creating a product spec needs to run it through an accessibility expert.

How does the Microsoft Office team enable users to create accessible content?

We think about accessible authoring in three stages. First is the authoring stage where we address how people can create accessible content from the start. This includes features such as accessible default themes and styles, templates for PowerPoint and Word, and support for table headers and layout. A cool feature where I’ve been spending a lot of time is using intelligent services to make accessibility automatic using computer vision to generate alt-text for pictures.

Next is the reviewing stage, or how users can review documents for any accessibility problems. This includes things like Editor in Word, which helps users write in plain language to make it more understandable, having alt-text and table headers on every platform including mobile, and making our accessibility checker easier to find and use.  We’ve also done a lot of work to improve our documentation and help content.

The third is the sharing stage where the focus is ensuring that any accessible information is maintained when the document is shared. We make sure that content that is created accessible remains accessible when it’s shared. We have two main improvements we’ve made to sharing documents in Office. The first is improved PDF tagging in Word. When exporting a Word document to PDF it’s tagged more appropriately, making it more accessible for screen reader users. The second is a new feature in Outlook for Web that is a setting that allows you to indicate that they prefer accessible content. If someone is sending an email, they will get a notification that lets them know they should make sure that they are sending something that is accessible.

A great place to find lots of information including training videos for creating accessible content is our main Office accessibility website

How do you engage with your community to get their input on accessibility requirements?

Office has numerous ways of communicating with the community around accessibility such as usability studies, community and industry events, and online feedback through User Voice and our Send-A-Smile features. All of these things help inform what we are going to focus on next. Another important way to provide input is through our Accessibility feedback forum. Additionally, our Disability Answer Desk provides great customer insights about accessibility pain points and recurring questions.

Are there any exciting product highlights you can share?

Absolutely. We’ve done a range of work on Office365 across our platforms including some of those I mentioned earlier. These include accessible authoring features like the accessibility checker on all of our platforms, Editor in Word, and the automatic alt-text feature. Additionally, we have learning tools in OneNote and Word that help with reading disabilities like dyslexia by doing things like splitting words into syllables. For those with vision impairment, we recently shipped a feature allowing users to access advanced formatting on shapes and tables. For example, if someone using a screen reader wanted to know the color of a shape or a cell in a table, he or she would have that information available to them. For mobility disabilities, PowerPoint Designer helps minimize mouse usage by offering high-quality design suggestions for PowerPoint slides. Going beyond Office, in Skype we can provide automatic captions in real time as users speak. Those aren’t all the highlights, but it gives you a taste of our continued commitment to accessibility.

The Impact is Benetech’s blog series that spotlights thought leaders pioneering the software for social good ecosystem. At Benetech, we know that the social sector must embrace the power of software and data to realize positive, lasting impact at scale. The Impact shares insights from Benetech community members putting software and data to work for social change. Read the debut The Impact blog post on ecosystem engagement and systemic change.