Four Accessibility Principles Every Startup Can Follow

One of the best things about a career in technology is the opportunity to meet people who are looking at ways to use technology to help change the world for the better. When I first joined Microsoft, a good friend recommended I connect with an ex-colleague of his who has been at Microsoft for some time. As it turns out, his friend is Jenny Lay-Flurrie - the Chief Accessibility Officer at Microsoft.

I started following her on Twitter and, at first, my favorite thing about her was that she was a British Marmite lover, like myself. However, as I started to read her posts and had the chance to speak to her over the phone and via email, I quickly became impressed by the way she is absolutely living her purpose and values.

On a recent trip to Redmond, I finally met Jenny in person, and it was during this meeting that it really landed just how extraordinary she is. It wasn’t just that she has a signed letter from former President Obama in her office, but also because meeting her in person was the first time I realized she is deaf. I sat listening, in awe, to this incredible woman, talking about how important it is that we put accessibility at the very top of our importance when we make decisions about our businesses.

I was reminded about the importance of accessibility, again, shortly after the Super Bowl in the U.S.. Like millions of others, I spent some time after the Super Bowl watching some of the commercials that have become such an important part of the event. And, like so many others, I was particularly struck by Microsoft’s ad for the Xbox Adaptive Controller for gamers with limited mobility.

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The adaptive controller is an incredible example of putting accessibility at the top of our priorities. The reaction to the ad shows how much desire there is in the industry for these efforts. These examples, and others, have inspired me to share some of the core principles I have learned with startup founders. Specifically, I want to encourage all founders to build inclusively so that their solutions work for everyone on the planet.

Now, before I dive in, let me just address the skepticism some founders may have about their ability to address accessibility in their cash strapped, pressed for time startup. I get it, it’s hard to prioritise.

But here’s a stat that I now share with founders to help them understand why they need to grasp the importance … did you know that there are over one billion people on the planet who have a disability?

Not a small number is it? Just think of how many wonderful humans are missing out by not including them in your design. Also, it’s much easier to start building inclusively from day one, rather than trying to backtrack or shoehorn it in later on down the line.

So, how or where do you start?

It All Starts with Process

When you’re building and testing your products, whether they are a physical thing like an Xbox controller, or software – your app your site, whatever else it might be – are you building and testing for everyone? Can a person who is blind or who has limited motor function, or has other differences that you don’t have yourself, access your product.

If you don’t know how, ASK!

There are so many websites including some great advice here, online talks, NGO’s who often give free workshops, so many sources of help. Another pro tip from Jenny, ask yourself, do you know if your website, app or product is accessible? If you don’t know the answer to that question, it’s (probably) not.

The other benefit of embedding this thinking as part of your team culture is it helps teams become more empathetic and understand the needs of all of their users.

Increase Accessibility Through Hiring

Another top tip is it’s easier to understand the needs of your audience, if you are your audience. Hiring people who have a disability will give you a huge advantage in ensuring you always have inclusive design in your solutions.

At Microsoft, I’m really proud of the inclusive hiring programs we have. One of my favourite stories is of Philip Jarvis who joined Microsoft in our HoloLens team a few years ago. He’s an incredible engineer and he also has Asperger’s syndrome, and whilst he has found great fulfillment in this team he remains a champion for making sure HoloLens works for everyone. “I don’t want to forget how it feels to be a customer,” is how he put it.

Business Value

I talked earlier about the number of people globally who have a disability being over one billion people. If we look at the value of this market, it’s worth well over $8 TRILLION worldwide.

If you’re not building for everyone, then you are leaving money on the table – it’s that simple.

Representation Through Accessibility

There has been extraordinary wealth created by technology, and the businesses in the tech space. However, the upsides of those businesses is overwhelming limited to a small audience. We need to think more proactively about how we can reset that balance, so every person on the planet can get the benefit of the technology that we build.

I am truly passionate about the idea of the application of technology to do good, it’s an area ripe for disruption. If you are building a business around improving accessibility for people with disability – I want to hear from you, you might qualify for our Microsoft for Startups program – or for our AI for Accessibility program.

One last point about making your company or product more accessible. It’s the right thing to do, so just do it.