We spoke to Microsoft’s Partner Success Manager Helen Smith about the importance and power of digital inclusion and why Microsoft is taking accessibility to the heart of its strategy. As well as sharing her personal drivers and vision, Helen also reveals some top tips within common Microsoft products like PPT that can help users of all abilities to achieve more.

We’d like to thank Helen for this insightful, personal and inspirational interview.

What is Microsoft’s focus with regards to accessibility and digital inclusion?

We are taking accessibility right to the heart of everything we do and are on a journey ourselves. We are looking at key components including;

  • Our culture – making sure we are actively recruiting people with disabilities into Microsoft for better innovation
  • We’re also looking at our systems and making sure innovation runs through from the start to the finish.
  • The third piece is our products – we’re trying to make accessibility is built into our products and not needed as a bolt-on

Why is accessibility a key priority and what is the size of the opportunity?

There is over one billion people on the planet today with some sort of disability – and 70 % of those disabilities are invisible. They have no visible indicators. When we think about how we transform how we communicate – whether that’s business to business or business to customer, using technology such as audio and conferencing calls – we need to get to the point where we don’t assume that the person on the other end of that conversation has no form of disability. We need to think about how we go out and make that a better experience for everyone involved.

We also need to think about how accessibility is a business imperative, as well as a human imperative.

We also need to think about how accessibility is a business imperative, as well as a human imperative. We have recently had Purple Tuesdays where we’ve focused on the retail experience for people with disabilities. The market out there for disabilities is huge. Only 10% of businesses, from what we understand, are actually addressing the disability market. However, the purple pound is currently worth £2 trillion worldwide. Just from the UK perspective, we are looking at £249 billion and that’s growing every year, 14% year-on-year.

Helen Smith speaking

Where are we seeing innovation in digital inclusion?

If we look at Windows 10 and Office 365, those are the real areas where I can see active improvement in people’s lives even within our own business. If you think about things like learning tools that are now available that enable our users to change the colour of the background they are using to suit their own ability and to make it a really individual experience. We can break down words into syllables to make things easier whether that is for a child or an adult.

Everyone should be using PowerPoint Design. If you’re anything like me and actually pend 15 minutes trying to get a slide together, you can now do that in two clicks and have a beautiful presentation.

We’ve got solutions such as PowerPoint Design, which is great. Everyone should be using PowerPoint Design. If you’re anything like me and actually pend 15 minutes trying to get a slide together, you can now do that in two clicks and have a beautiful presentation. And again, that has actually been designed by people within the business with a muscular disease who actually needed less clicks to a perfect presentation, but it is there for everyone, to be more accessible.

There’s so much going across the stack – I could talk about it for hours.

As Partner Success Manager, why did you decide to somewhat branch out into the topic of accessibility?

My son Leo who is seven (and an all important three quarters) has really struggled with his reading and writing. He has not been officially diagnosed as Dyslexic but it’s not about the label, it’s about the fact that I need to know that when he goes into his future career and the businesses that he works for – that we are doing all we can as Microsoft to ensure that those businesses are ready to support him through technology and that he has an easy ride and feels included along his journey and his career.

Technology may be an enabler for digital inclusion but what more needs to be done from a cultural or operational perspective?

Technology has a really important part to play in how we change our business and start becoming more inclusive. But we also can start making really simple cultural changes as well.

One of the things we have seen in Microsoft that’s made a huge impact is having things like an employee resource group where people can actually go, put ideas together and really start to have that conversation and opening up the doors. If we don’t start being a little bit braver and talking about it and helping people to understand that it’s normal then we are not going to make a change.

We all have something that we can do. We can start using certain technologies and just general awareness in making sure that we are making everything we do – whether that’s a document or a presentation – accessible to our audiences, whoever they are.

What is your vision for digital inclusion?

My passion is in making sure whether it’s my son or anyone else’s son or daughter growing up in this digital age, they can step into an environment that is ready for them. Where they are comfortable and can use the technology that everyone else uses to communicate and ultimately be productive.

We’ve got a long way to go. We have a lot of talking to do and we have a lot of companies that we need to ask some questions about how they are approaching that now, but ultimately my personal driver is all about making sure I can look after him now, the education system can look after him, but the world needs to be ready for all of these people.

The truth is we need to start looking at the real skills that come with people with certain disabilities. People with dyslexia are come of the most creative people you will ever meet. We have great people at Microsoft who are autistic but the most fantastic coders. We have people who are obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) who see gaps in things that no other eye can find – that’s what we need and where I’d like to get to in the future

About Helen Smith

Helen Smith has been at Microsoft for five years and is currently a Partner Success Manager for Teams. She is very proud to have also had the opportunity over the last 18 months to lead Accessibility with the Partner Community.
Helen’s mission comes from personal experience and a passion to empower the 1 Billion people on the planet with disabilities through digital inclusion. Helen is currently supporting the Disability Confident scheme in creating a movement of change; encouraging employers to think differently about disability and take action to improve how they recruit, retain and develop disabled people in the IT Industry.
Interview with Helen Smith, Microsoft

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By Katherine Murphy, content enthusiast