You could say Microsoft Chief Executive Officer Steve Ballmer knows a good business opportunity when he sees one. Under founder Bill Gates and now under Ballmer, the Colossus of Redmond has long built accessibility features for the disabled into all of its products.
Now Microsoft is one of the leaders in developing hardware and software to help the federal government implement Section 508 of the 1998 Rehabilitation Act, which will require all Web sites for federal agencies be accessible to the disabled. On June 21, contractors selling computer hardware and software and telecommunications to the federal government must ensure that their equipment can be used by federal employees with disabilities (see BW Online, 6/13/01, "Making Uncle Sam Accessible -- and Accountable").
In an exclusive interview with BusinessWeek Online Assistive Technology columnist John M. Williams, Ballmer recently laid out the reasons for Microsoft's unwavering focus on accessibility, and what he sees as the benefits to the company and to people with disabilities. Here are edited excerpts from their conversation:
Q: What are some of the business reasons for Microsoft's involvement?
A: Accessibility and Section 508 are important to Microsoft for a number of reasons. First, Section 508 affects our largest customer -- the federal government. Providing products that our government customers need and want, and helping them meet their new purchasing requirements, makes good business sense.
Second, the regulations will raise awareness of the need for developing accessible technologies so that more people with disabilities who work both for government agencies and the private sector have access to the widest variety of technology available. Also, as the Baby Boom generation ages, more and more people will face the challenges of reduced dexterity, vision, and hearing. So enabling accessible technology is a growth opportunity, it meets customer needs, and it's the right thing to do.
In the last decade -- and especially in the last few years -- we've seen huge advances in accessibility features and assistive technologies that enable people with disabilities to enjoy many of the benefits of technology. Over the next 10 to 15 years, technology has the capacity to virtually eliminate barriers in the workplace.
Q: When did you figure this out?
A: Since we began making software products 25 years ago, one of our top priorities has been making computers easier for people to use. In the late 1980s, we recognized that, with the shift from a text-based to a graphical user interface, those who rely on a keyboard instead of a mouse were at risk of being left behind. In 1988, working with the Trace Research and Development Center at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, we focused on making one of the earliest versions of Windows -- Windows 2.0 -- more accessible for people who are blind, deaf, or have limited dexterity.
We subsequently began to consider accessibility more broadly in our own product design and became active in encouraging and supporting vendors to create aids for the graphical user interface. We realized we were in a unique position, given the popularity of Windows, to enable mainstream software applications to be more compatible with assistive aids such as screen readers for people who are blind.
Working with the Trace Center and others, Microsoft codified specific guidelines that explain how to evaluate and improve accessibility. We published the Windows Guidelines for Accessible Software Design and other technical assistance for consumers and developers, which can be found on our Accessibility Web site .
Q: Where's the payoff?
A: In the near term, Section 508 will directly benefit the more than 160,000 U.S. government employees with disabilities. It also will ensure that, over time, Web sites hosted by U.S. government agencies -- 27 million Web pages and growing -- are accessible to all people with disabilities. We also believe it will provide leadership for state and local governments to follow, and will stimulate competition and innovation on new accessibility features -- which in turn will lead to increased numbers of people with disabilities finding employment that suits their skills and talents.
Q: What is Microsoft doing now in the hardware and software areas to make its products accessible to disabled users?
A: Microsoft's enterprise software, such as Windows 2000 and Office XP, includes built-in accessibility features for users with a variety of disabilities. In Windows 2000, for example, an Accessibility Wizard helps configure important accessibility options quickly and easily. And basic speech support in the forthcoming Office XP productivity suite will allow many users to dictate text and navigate Office applications using voice commands via microphone.
We also work closely with assistive technology vendors who are working on technologies such as screen readers, Braille output displays, speech-recognition software, speech synthesizers, and text-telephone software. Microsoft's 40-member Accessible Technology Group also works internally to heighten awareness and to make sure that Microsoft products are easy to use by people with disabilities. We include people with disabilities in our beta test programs.
Microsoft actively participates in two of the top IT industry associations' accessibility working groups, and we also participate in advisory committees the government has established to enhance cooperation between government and industry regarding the implementation of Section 508.
Q: So how does Microsoft make its Web site accessible to people with disabilities?
A: Making microsoft.com accessible to all people is a priority. We continue our efforts to implement common Web accessibility techniques to ensure that all parts of Microsoft.com are accessible.
Q: Will Section 508 lead to more hiring of people with disabilities?
A: Absolutely. Accessible technology will open the doors for millions of people with disabilities who want to work. With respect to the IT industry, it creates an opportunity to address the shortage of qualified workers for hundreds of thousands of openings in the information technology field. In the U.S. alone, there are an estimated 8.5 million people with disabilities who want to work but remain unemployed.
Accessible technology is a way to break down the barriers that prevent people with disabilities from finding productive and fulfilling employment. Many businesses don't realize that often, the cost of reasonable accommodation for a person with a disability is less than $200.
Q: What advice would you give to hardware and software companies that can't stomach federal mandates such as those in Section 508?
A: Consider the advantages. We know that in the long run designing accessible products yields better products overall. Accessible design is good design -- it benefits people who don't have disabilities as well as people who do. Accessibility is all about removing barriers and providing the benefits of technology for everyone. Williams writes Assistive Technology every week, only for BW Online