July 2000 Issue  Volume 1  Number 4

On-the-Job Profile

Inside Microsoft: An Accommodating Workplace for People Who Are Blind?

Whether or not you like Microsoft and its products, there is no denying the fact that the company's interest level in making its products accessible to people who are blind or visually impaired has a direct impact on countless jobs. Many of those jobs are the jobs held by you and me and thousands of others who find the use of computers to be essential elements of our work. The Redmond, Washington, Microsoft campus has 19,418 employees (36,000 around the world) and includes more than 40 buildings over an area of more than 4 million square feet on the main campus and an additional 680,000 square feet across the highway. Exact counts are not available, but a large number of people with disabilities are on the payroll.

Four Microsoft employees who are blind or visually impaired spoke with me to provide an inside view of what it's like to work for the industry giant. Two work on making products more accessible, and two work in departments entirely unrelated to disability.

Doing Something About Accessibility

When Peter Wong first came to the United States from his native Hong Kong 20 years ago, it was with the plan of becoming a sociologist. Later, as he became increasingly interested in technology, he traveled to England to do graduate work at Cambridge in computer science. His first Silicon Valley employer hired him, he said, because "anyone who would change jobs midstream has to have guts. To do it and be blind as well showed real courage." When that job posed increasingly insurmountable barriers as a result of its graphical environment, Wong decided that he had a choice: He could either give up and go back to sociology or look for a way to help solve the graphical environment problem for himself and all blind people. Thus, in 1993, he joined Microsoft.

Initially, his role was to develop fax printer drivers—a task with no connection to adaptive technology. Wong believes, however, that a blind person working side by side with sighted engineers makes its own contribution to building accessibility, that merely by contributing in the workplace some progress is made. When an accessibility department was finally established in 1995, Greg Lowney (who had previously been the only employee addressing access issues) invited Wong to join the new team.

As a software test engineer for the accessibility group (which has grown from four to forty employees in just five years), Wong says his job is constantly changing. Currently, his focus is compatibility—that is, monitoring the compatibility between Microsoft products and assistive technology. That job requires the examination of three elements. The operating system, the third-party access technology, and the Microsoft application. All must be thoroughly reviewed separately and then made to work tightly together.

Encarta Online, for example, would be a typical starting point for his attention. To be accessible, it needs to work with screen readers such as JAWS for Windows and Window-Eyes, and then both elements need to work with Internet Explorer. Wong's job begins by explaining accessibility to the representative of Encarta, exploring features such as keyboard commands. He then works in the same way with the screen reader vendors and Microsoft developers to put the pieces together.

To do his work, Wong uses a variety of tools, rotating screen readers on a regular basis. JAWS, Windowbridge, and Window-Eyes get equal time and attention throughout his work week; although he is a braille user, he has not added a refreshable braille display to his workstation.

Not Just Playing Games

Brett Humphrey's only relationship to accessibility is as a user of assistive technology. His job at Microsoft—offered to him in 1998 following two successful summer internships—is to develop tools that are used by game developers. As a software design engineer for the product called DirectX, Humphrey is one of the first people to create the building blocks that allow game developers to write programs that work correctly.

As a computer science major at the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology near his birth place, Humphrey is grateful for the funding and accommodations he received from his state's Department for the Visually Handicapped. The accommodation assistance he received was extraordinary, he says, just as it has been at Microsoft.

Although he uses JAWS for Windows and DECtalk speech to help him read lengthy documents, Humphrey generally does his work visually. Two side-by-side 20-inch LCD panels make it possible for him to see more printed characters at a time. In addition to a closed-circuit television for enlarging hard copy print, Humphrey says that one of the most important accommodations made for him is the cabling of his laptop to others during team meetings. Since he is unable to see the large video monitor in a group presentation, cabling his laptop to the presenter's enables him to pull up the same information his team is viewing.

Behind that Windows Seal

Perhaps no one was as surprised as Loren Mikola to come to Redmond, Washington, as a Microsoft employee. Dropping off resumes at a job fair at Arizona State University, Mikola remembers a friend encouraging him to leave one with Microsoft. The next day he was called for an interview, and before long he was offered a job.

Mikola was particularly impressed with the level of accommodation provided by the company. All employees, he says, are assisted in finding housing and making the move. The company paid for his parents to stay one week to help him get settled and for an orientation and mobility specialist to familiarize him with his new location.

Mikola initially worked in designing databases and is now a software test engineer in the Windows Hardware Quality Labs. Mikola's team provides vendors with the Hardware Compatibility Test Kit showing the steps needed to obtain a Microsoft "seal of approval," ensuring that outside products are Windows compatible.

"Down the road there might be something I could contribute in the area of accessibility," Mikola said, "but for now, it's a great feeling to be working in the mainstream area of the company."

In terms of accommodation on the job, Mikola echoes his colleagues with praise for the company's flexibility in providing necessary tools. "I basically just asked for what I needed and it was here," he said. In his case, those accommodations include JAWS for Windows 3.5, DECtalk Express, and an RBT40 braille display. Although he prefers speech for rapid reading, the braille display is a must for Mikola when he is writing programming code. In a work environment in which all focus is on technology, he says reading conventional print is a minimal requirement. "I've probably had five to ten pieces of paper to handle in the time I've been here," he says.

Fixing Internet Explorer

Mia Lipner, the most recent hire among those interviewed for this article (and with arguably the most fun job), came to Microsoft via perhaps the most circuitous route. An English major from Princeton University, this former New York City public school teacher and Seattle, Washington, adaptive technology trainer just "happened to be in the right place at the right time" when Microsoft was searching for someone to test the accessibility features of Internet Explorer.

"There's a new version of Internet Explorer every day," she explains, "and my job is to do whatever research necessary to see that it's accessible with popular screen readers."

Her advice to others identifying problems with Internet Explorer or other Microsoft products is to be specific in identifying the problem. "If your screen reader won't read the control button after you've tried the Tab and arrow keys, tell us that," she says. "You need to have patience with yourself, the technology, and the people you're talking with to get it fixed."

On the issue of blindness itself, all four of these Microsoft employees believed that it is not an issue. "It doesn't come up much if you do your job well," comments Brett Humphrey. "If it did, I'd have an answer to the question!"

As for the future of blind accessibility in a Windows environment, Peter Wong sums it up this way. "Given the right tools, every human being has abilities that will blossom like flowers. In the computer world, that means that proper tools can enable us to cross many boundaries. When the Windows CE platform is applied to devices at home, for example, many household items will become usable… . On the other hand, after seven years I've learned that the world is built for sighted people. It is a fact in life. From a design point of view, we can create standards, but there are still many loopholes. The industry is market driven, and there will always be some gaps."

With the kind of talent represented by these four individuals who are blind, those of us waiting for the next Microsoft products can at least feel confident that there are dedicated insiders guiding the rest of Microsoft to better understand accessibility through direct effort and through example.

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