Microsoft’s five-year accessibility pledge begins with AI improvements for Office and more

Saqib Shah
·Contributing Writer
·2-min read

Big Tech's efforts to improve accessibility are a work in progress. Microsoft, which has been around a lot longer than its counterparts, has been leveraging that experience in its bid to improve inclusivity across its products and workforce. In 2020, it offered insights into how it's managed accessibility in the past, along with its first-ever report on disability representation. Now, it's using some of that wisdom to plan for the next five years.

Today, Microsoft has announced a "technology-led" commitment to create more opportunities for disabled people. The strategy takes in its productivity software, AI datasets, retail presence and internal diversity statistics to build toward "a workplace that is more inclusive for people with disabilities."

In terms of consumer-facing changes, Microsoft is launching “accessible by design” features in Microsoft 365. The options include a new background checker that can help fix content accessibility issues across the core Office apps and Outlook. While AI in Microsoft Word will detect and convert to heading styles for blind and low-vision readers. By utilizing artificial intelligence Microsoft is hoping to automate accessibility, so that one day it's as straightforward as "spell check is today."

Excel is also getting a new navigation pane designed for screen readers that can help people discover objects in spreadsheets. In keeping with the focus on comprehension, Microsoft is expanding Immersive Reader (originally designed for people with dyslexia and dysgraphia) to PowerPoint slides and notes. 

Not forgetting LinkedIn, the social network is adding auto-captioning for live broadcasts and launching captions for enterprise content and dark mode later this year. Finally, high-contrast mode in Teams can be used to access shared content using PowerPoint Live. This, according to Microsoft, will help to reduce eye strain and accommodate light sensitivity with dark mode in Word.

Beyond consumers, Microsoft's new educational and workforce initiatives are targeted at students and its own personnel. The company is releasing Reflect in Microsoft Teams, which offers support for social learning to help students with their emotional vocabulary. A Microsoft Reading Progress app is also in the pipeline to help teachers digitally test for reading fluency over time.

Internally, Microsoft will expand its disability representation survey to 45 additional countries and 90 percent of its workforce. In October, the company revealed that 6.1 percent of its US employees self-identified as having a disability.

On the data side, Microsoft is promising more partnerships with the disability and accessibility community worldwide, with details to be announced in the coming year. The company previously joined forces with Team Gleason to create an open dataset of pictures of people with ALS, designed to help in the development of better tools for eye or facial control of devices. In retail, Microsoft Stores is announcing ASL video call capability to connect deaf customers with dedicated support staff that can help them to shop for products.