4 Ways to Make Tech More Inclusive for People With Disabilities

Jenny Lay-Flurrie, Chief Accessibility Officer, Microsoft

Microsoft’s Chief Accessibility Officer, Jenny Lay-Flurrie, discusses bridging the disability divide in tech. The solution is far easier than you think.

Jenny Lay-Flurrie’s title is uncommon: Chief Accessibility Officer. But even if your company hasn’t appointed a dedicated CAO (yet), there are important ways for every business to bridge the “disability divide.”

Lay-Flurrie recently joined Round to share her insights on creating tech that is accessible and how to create change and impact within your own organization. Here are four takeaways from our conversation:

1. Remember that inclusive product design is better for everyone

Instead of thinking of the small (by comparison) percentage of people who are disabled and will directly benefit from your more inclusive product, keep in mind something that might not be immediately obvious: “Designing for disability actually makes better products for everyone. That’s why we’re super invested in it,” says Lay-Flurrie. Take captioning, for example, which is starting to become more and more prevalent in technologies across the board. “It’s become a mainstay in the way people consume content. Whether they really need it or not, it makes content easier to consume for every single person.”

2. Be intentional about hiring more people with disabilities

To be truly inclusive you need to embed accessibility, and the insights of people with disabilities, into the design process. In other words, you need people on your team who are the real experts (and end users) for what you’re building. But here’s the thing: Building the pipeline of talent requires adapting your hiring practices. It’s probably not going to be effective, says Lay-Flurrie, to put a person with autism through the standard job interview process and ask them what their strengths and weaknesses are. Microsoft launched a dedicated autism hiring program to ensure they weren’t missing out on talent

3. Do your research

Lay-Flurrie calls it “building an ecosystem of listening.” In 2023, it’s simply not enough to throw your hands up and say, for example, “I don’t know how to say hi to someone who is deaf.” At Microsoft, there’s a support team that’s taking 13,000 calls a month from customers with disabilities. Listening to their needs and frustrations is a key part of product research. “As you empower those communities and build connections into them, they become a great source of expertise,” says Lay-Flurrie.

But that’s not the only route. Nonprofits and advocacy groups are also an untapped resource. “Ultimately, I think anyone can get curious, reach out to local organizations that are experts in an area that you’re looking to design around. For instance, there are some brilliant blind organizations, whether that’s the American Council of the Blind, or the National Federation of the Blind. They can connect you with experts,” she adds.

4. Realize that the disability community is no small “minority”

One billion people, or 15% of the world’s population, experience some form of disability. So when you think of it, “even using the word ‘minority’ is totally ridiculous,” says Lay-Flurrie, who is a part of the deaf community herself. Simply put: disabilities are part of the human experience and therefore we need to continue to design products, companies, and experiences that are accessible.