May 2003 Issue  Volume 4  Number 3


The Object is Accessibility: An Interview With Madelyn Bryant McIntire

Photo of Madelyn Bryant McIntire, Director, Microsoft Accessible Technology Group

Caption: Madelyn Bryant McIntire, Director, Microsoft Accessible Technology Group

There was a time when brand names such as Microsoft and Windows were bitter medicine on the tongues of people who were blind or visually impaired whose employment involved technology. Touted as the "great equalizer" in the early 1980s, technology heralded a wave of enviable employment for many blind people who learned to harness its power. A decade later, however, the familiar technical terrain of text began yielding to the power of the graphical user interface. And blind people lost jobs.

While the release of earlier versions of Windows forced assistive technology vendors to scramble to extract the information that they needed from the operating system to allow their users to function, the approach today to accessibility by Microsoft Corp. has the potential for becoming an industry model.

Madelyn Bryant McIntire, the current director of Microsoft's Accessible Technology Group, supervises a team of some 40 people on the Redmond, Washington, campus, and espouses principles of accessibility and inclusion that would satisfy the most venerable advocate. For example, Are there keyboard alternatives to mouse actions performed in a new program? Are there options for altering color and font and size of characters? Are there audio and visual alerts built in to applications to signal individuals with dyslexia, attention deficit, or other cognitive impairments about shifts in on-screen activity? Can the actions of a program be performed with a head mouse or alternate keyboard? As Microsoft products are developed, McIntire's team evaluates them for these and other measures of accessibility, working to make them accessible to all users before they reach the marketplace.

Issues Close to Home

Although McIntire herself does not have a visible disability, the path of her experience with and comprehension of access issues began long ago and has led her through numerous twists and turns and layers of understanding over time. "My grandmother lost her sight when I was a very small child," she recalls, "so I used to practice walking around in the dark. My grandmother had diabetes and lived with horrible health for a number of years, so I became somewhat obsessed with knowing about blindness. I read about the lives of blind people and, with the arrogance of a child, believed that if I lost my sight, I'd be ready for it!"

Severe Type II diabetes runs in both sides of her family, affecting both of her brothers. One brother has serious vision problems, although he's not quite ready for the products McIntire's team works to make accessible. "He goes around without a cane," she says, "but he's an accident waiting to happen on a bicycle."

There are other close-to-home reminders of the significance of her work. Her husband has dyslexia resulting from brain trauma, and was, she says functionally illiterate when graduating from high school. "When I first showed him Narrator [a bare-bones screen reader in Windows 2000 and XP adequate only for emergency use by people who are blind] in Windows," she remembers, "he responded to it right away....He's a much better aural learner— when he hears a sentence he remembers it—so text-to-speech learning works well for him." Her father used a wheelchair for a few years and her 7-year-old nephew has severe disabilities.

Ironically, however, despite personal experience, McIntire didn't initially set out to work with assistive technology. An engineer working in computer science for over 20 years, McIntire muses that in the beginning of her career she'd never heard of accessibility. "I first heard the term accessibility [while employed] at Compaq," she recalls. "My team was working on a new infrastructure, and one of the requirements was that it be accessible....A certain spark was set in the engineers on my team, we all just really got into it. I believe all engineers actually want to change the world—in a good way—with technology, anyway, and we all got really excited."

When Microsoft first approached McIntire about a position there, she was reluctant. A long time San Francisco Bay Area resident, a hiker and outdoors person, she was hesitant to relocate. "But when they offered me the job in accessibility," she says, "it was something I couldn't turn down." In 1999, she became a member of the team on the Redmond campus and was serving as its director by the end of 2001.

Technical Trust Dance

The focus of the access technology group is to build accessibility features into products before they are released. That doesn't necessarily mean designing those features. In many instances, the challenge is simply to make a product's underlying code available to vendors who specialize in assistive technology (AT), enabling them to carry out the job. "We've flown vendors here at times," McIntire explains, "in order to work closely together and ensure that accessibility is there."

Not every product is ultimately usable by all people with disabilities. Microsoft's priorities with regard to accessibility, McIntire says, are to place products that are used in employment first, education second, "and entertainment somewhere else down the list."

With the upcoming release of a new operating system and its anticipated emphasis on security (see "Programming the Future: A First Look at Microsoft's .NET Environment" in this issue), consumers who are blind understandably have concerns: Will tighter security measures mean the exclusion or, at best, awkward inclusion of screen readers?

"Some security efforts are reactive," says McIntire. "We don't have the opportunity to evaluate impact. We do have a plan to keep things protected. The partnership we have with AT vendors will be used to leverage [that protection]. We have pretty constant contact with AT vendors, but it's premature. [We've] not yet determined who needs to be involved."

When assistive technology developers are involved, McIntire details a kind of technical trust dance that ensues. "There's a technical process of establishing a 'tech trust': One program understands the existence of another; they share common knowledge through digital signing; one knows that the other is authorized to do certain things. That tech process of making that happen—[when it comes to] the matter of making a secure program that is authorized to run—has not involved AT companies, but now it has to."

An Integrated Team

When asked how many of the 40 employees on her team have disabilities, McIntire is slow to answer. Maybe a fourth, is her first halting guess. Then, she tries to tick them off—slowly trying to remember. Two are blind, one has a wheelchair, two or three have diabetes or multiple sclerosis, two or three have dyslexia, one is hearing impaired. She is quick to point out, however, that the members of her team who happen to have disabilities are not there to speak for people with disabilities as a group. "Coming from the perspective of being a woman who is an engineer," she says, "my view is that we should have formal processes that include people with disabilities in our design, but should not expect people with disabilities to speak for people with disabilities. I wouldn't want to be told that I had to work in a department where we only made software for women. To ask the people with disabilities on my team to speak for a group or a class is objectifying them in a way....I hope someday that we can't even tell, that we could work with someone for 20 years and not know if they have a disability." McIntire mentions a well-known Microsoft professional who is blind who was working with a group once and, she says, "I don't know how it happened—no one there knew he was blind until he picked up his cane to leave. That's the way it should be."

Certainly, people with specific disabilities on her team will comment on the pluses or minuses of certain features in a product, but the company also utilizes focus groups, people with disabilities from other departments within the company, and consumers outside. Her group is currently working on a plan to recruit people with disabilities who have extraordinary technical knowledge to serve as technical advisors. "Bill Gates reviewed our plan and was very excited, very engaged. He is a supreme technologist, so to have him like what you do gives a nice sense of assurance."

Looking Forward

"We never could have seen how difficult the transition from DOS to Windows would be on people with visual impairments," McIntire says, "but it was. What we've learned from that is to focus on how to predict what impact new products will have on people with disabilities." One current example is the recently launched Tablet, a device resembling a laptop without a back, on which the user handwrites with a stylus. It's more informal and portable for some employees to use to take notes but, McIntire points out, is not accessible to people who are blind. Consequently, an API (application program interface) was added to translate handwriting to text. Before sending her own notes originally made on her Tablet to her team, McIntire translates them to text. That, she concludes, is the only courteous way to proceed in any environment, since handwriting is often difficult to interpret. The current approach, she says, is to try to be proactive, to predict accessibility problems before a product is released, with a goal of having programs interact in a seamless way.

The major achievement McIntire celebrates to date is arriving at a point where accessibility is seen as good business practice. First, she says, there was a philanthropic phase—making products accessible because it was a nice thing to do. Next, there was the policeman phase. As demographics change and numbers of people with age-related and birth-related disabilities increase, she believes there will be a total shift to seeing accessible design as a fundamental of good business practice.

"The power of the job I do now is that I absolutely know what a difference we can make," McIntire says. "When you place technology in a position where a person is dependent upon it, you then have the responsibility to keep it available." If Microsoft's access technology group and its leader, Madelyn Bryant McIntire, keep that guiding principle in mind, people with disabilities won't have to be left behind or lose jobs again as we move into what Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates has dubbed the "digital decade."

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