There are over one billion people in the world living with disabilities, and many face barriers to employment, education, and societal inclusion. In 2021, Microsoft launched a new five-year initiative to address these challenges by focusing on three priorities: developing more accessible technology, using this technology to create opportunities for people with disabilities to enter the workforce, and building a more inclusive workplace for people with disabilities. The goal is to bridge the disability divide and tap into the untapped talent pool of people with disabilities. Digital technology can play a crucial role in improving communication, interaction, and access to information for this community.
As technology continues to advance, it becomes increasingly important for companies to consider the accessibility of their products and services, to make sure people with disabilities aren’t left behind. Accessibility is also great for business. With at least one in five adults in the U.S. identifying as having a disability according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the cost of ignoring this growing market segment is huge. Designing inclusive products and services with people with disabilities in mind also improves the experience for all users. Features like video captioning and voice control are crucial accessibility tools for some individuals but make the experience better for everyone. During the COVID-19 pandemic, demand for Microsoft accessibility features such as Teams captioning increased by 30 times the previous use, and Immersive Reader usage increased by 560 percent. A 2018 study by Accenture in partnership with Disability: In and the American Association of People with Disabilities found that inclusive companies had, over a four-year period, 28 percent higher revenue, double the net income, and 30 percent higher economic profit margins than their peers.
Microsoft and Azure AI offer a range of accessibility solutions to help organizations create more inclusive experiences for their users. These solutions include speech transcription and captioning, content readers, translation services, voice assistants, facial recognition, and computer vision. These AI-powered tools can help individuals with disabilities better access and engage with digital content, whether it's through speech-to-text transcription, image captioning, or text-to-speech translation.
Six use cases
Azure AI powers many of the accessible experiences found within Microsoft today. Here are some of our favorites:
- Conversation, meetings, and live broadcasting: Microsoft Teams supports speech-to-text transcription and captioning for meetings and calls, powered by Azure Cognitive Services, making it easier for people who are Deaf or Hard of Hearing to participate in online communication. These features also benefit people with ADHD, people who are multi-tasking, or those in noisy or low-bandwidth environments.
- Content reading: Microsoft products such as Outlook, Edge, and PowerPoint include a read-aloud feature, powered by Azure Cognitive Services, that uses text-to-speech technology to read web pages, documents, and emails aloud. This makes it easier for people who are blind or have low vision, in addition to people with Dyslexia, ADHD, or Autism to access and consume digital content. It also enables all users to multi-task and listen to content on the go.
- Communication: Microsoft Translator is a translation service that supports speech-to-speech, text-to-speech, and optical character recognition (OCR) to enable communication across different languages and formats in Teams or Outlook.
- Device access: Windows Hello uses facial recognition technology, powered by Azure Face API, to allow users to log in to their devices with their face, making it easier for people with mobility disabilities to access their devices, and providing a hands-free, efficient login experience for everyone.
- Device control: Microsoft products such as Windows and Xbox include voice assistants powered by speech-to-text technology, which can be used by users of all abilities to control the device and access information and services through voice commands.
- Images and surroundings: Microsoft Edge, PowerPoint, and Seeing AI are products that include Azure Computer Vision capabilities such as image captioning, which can provide descriptive text for images to make them more accessible to people who are blind or who have low vision. Image descriptions also improve search engine optimization (SEO) and provide alternatives for people listening to content, or in low-bandwidth environments.
In addition to the six use cases above, we are excited to see how customers leverage the Azure OpenAI Service to improve accessible experiences. Natural language interactions can help people of all abilities engage with technology in easier ways. For example, GitHub CoPilot is a generative coding assistant powered by Azure OpenAI to help developers build faster and more efficiently.
Some top customers using Azure AI for accessibility include Swedish TV, which uses Azure AI to transcribe their video content and generate closed captioning; Peloton, which uses speech-to-text and translation technology for live subtitles in its live classes, improving accessibility for members who are Deaf or Hard of Hearing; and Gameloft, which uses Azure Translator to enable communication in different languages.
2023 Ability Summit
Microsoft is hosting its 13th annual Ability Summit on March 8, 2023, to showcase company and customer innovation in the world of accessibility and inclusive design. Leading up to the free event we are also broadcasting an AI Show on February 27, 2023, dedicated to accessible technology, and on March 6, 2023, to deep dive into a customer project to generate natural-sounding audiobooks at scale. We encourage you to register for these events, which will help you develop a plan to improve inclusion and accessibility within your organization.
Microsoft and Azure AI are committed to helping organizations create more inclusive experiences for their users through a range of accessibility use cases. By leveraging these solutions, companies can make a positive impact on the lives of people with disabilities and help create a more accessible world. We look forward to seeing what you build on behalf of your customers and end users with Azure AI.