European Commission’s thematic consultations on the post-2020 European Disability Strategy
8 December 2020
On the 11th and 12th of April, EUD attended the EU Accessibility Summit hosted by Microsoft which took place in Brussels. It represented an opportunity for Microsoft to present the state of play regarding the development of assistive technologies for persons with disabilities as well as increasing their accessibility.
The summit began with the welcoming remarks of John Frank, Vice-President of EU Government Affairs at Microsoft. Then, Jessica Rafuse, Senior Program Manager for Accessibility at Microsoft, took the floor to present Microsoft's philosophy in addressing disability and increasing accessibility. She indicated that disability is perceived as an environmental obstacle during human and environmental interactions and not a personal health condition. The unique situation of people with disabilities help the company to better solve accessibility problems. Therefore, Microsoft's recruitment policy focuses on abilities, not disabilities. Microsoft aims at making the work place fully accessible since better accessibility at the workspace will help to optimise the productivity of those workers with a disability.
Furthermore, Jeff Petty, Head of Windows Accessibility engineering at Microsoft, highlighted his work towards finding a solution regarding how to improve accessibility for his team. He discussed learning tools that few people are aware of, such as screen readers. This is because, paradoxically, accessibility options are not easy to find. Therefore, they got to work on this issue in order to make such tools easier to discover and use. Among the assistive tools, PowerPoint has a presentation translator as an option which allows the display of auto-generated subtitles during a presentation, or the subtitles automatically generated for videos (Microsoft Stream) via the use of automatic speech recognition technology.
Afterwards, Adina Braha-Honciuc, Government Affairs Manager at Microsoft, presented that the development of technologies that operate using Artificial Intelligence (AI) could be underpinned by an ethical framework. She emphasised that several principles such as reliability and security must be respected, while ensuring that AI takes care of repetitive tasks so that the decisions and accountability always belong to human beings. Inclusivity was also mentioned since the appearance of rise of new technologies must not lead to new forms of discrimination by excluding parts of the population. Reference was also made to the accessibility standard (EN301549) whose guidance is extremely helpful regarding how to include accessibility in the public procurement of ICT products and services. She emphasised that the principle of accessibility should be kept in mind when governments undertake public procurements. Increased accessibility has the potential to solve certain current problems such as the low levels of employment for people with disabilities and it could also help to create new business competition which could benefit everyone.
Finally, the summit continued on the second day during which Microsoft presented its current technologies and products such as assistive technologies. Some EUD members, national associations of the deaf, had the opportunity to attend the summit and exchange views with representatives at Microsoft regarding the role of AI and new technologies while increasing accessibility for the deaf.
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