Microsoft’s Ability Summit conference has a rather humble origin story to tell.
The Redmond-based tech titan is holding the thirteenth-annual affair this week, which is a big milestone. The event began in 2010 as an internal initiative spearheaded by chief accessibility officer Jenny Lay-Flurrie. It was originally conceived as a means of bringing members of the disability community together to discuss best practices for properly supporting disabled employees.
“[Ability Summit] started off with when I was chair of the disability group, and I wanted to bring people with disabilities together to start sharing best practice in the company,” Flurrie said to me about how the event got off the ground in an interview conducted last week via videoconference. “It was an internal thing. We had 20 people in the room. You know, way back when, I thought that was magical because the level of conversations that people having were just beautiful.”
Ability Summit has grown exponentially since those early days. What once saw less than two dozen attendees has ballooned to become orders of magnitude larger, fetching what is expected to be some 18,000 to 20,000 attendees in 2023. The one-day virtual event, scheduled for Wednesday, is headlined by a who’s who list of guest speakers, including Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, National Association of the Deaf chief executive Howard Rosenblum, and American Association of People with Disabilities president and CEO Maria Town. The event coincides with International Women’s Day, with Flurrie sitting down with T-Mobile’s Claudia Gordon and KR Liu, who leads brand accessibility at Google, to discuss what Microsoft is calling “gender equality for an accessible tomorrow.”
When asked what Ability Summit represents for Microsoft in terms of disability inclusion, Flurrie responded with semi-sarcasm: “I mean, I’m probably not gonna say anything surprising.” Like their Big Tech brethren in Amazon, Apple, Google, and Meta, Microsoft views accessibility as an inalienable human right. At a meta level, the Ability Summit is a microcosm of that philosophy. Flurrie explained the event itself includes assistive features such as audio descriptions, alt-text for images, closed captioning, and much more. “We see it [accessibility] as something we have both a responsibility and opportunity in,” she said. “And I think it is significant that 13 years on this thing [Ability Summit] has grown internally and externally. I mean, we’ve got participation from over 110 countries so far.”
As to exactly what people will hear at this year’s Ability Summit, Flurrie explained the overarching goal is provide updates on what Microsoft is doing on its journey to “tackle the disability divide.” According to Flurrie, there are four pillars to this: technology, policy, artificial intelligence, and products. The main attraction—or at least the most buzzworthy—is AI, which follows Microsoft’s much-ballyhooed $10 billion investment in OpenAI’s ChatGPT that was announced in late January.
To be sure, AI been a focus of Flurrie’s for some time now.
“I’ve been spending a lot of my time making sure that, as we charter this new, incredible chapter of AI, that we are thinking responsibly [and] building accessibly,” she said. “[We are] embedding data from people with disabilities, and then harnessing it where we can and [continuing] to chart new futures.”
Flurrie is optimistic about AI’s potential to be yet another assistive technology in a disabled person’s arsenal. She shared an anecdote of her 15-year-old daughter, who is autistic and has ADHD. She recently had to write an essay on why her school should start teaching sign language, and Flurrie suggested she turn to the new ChatGPT-enhanced Bing to assist in doing research. Flurrie said her daughter had a “hoot” having a conversation with Bing about ASL. Where the accessibility gains come, however, is in the implementation details. Flurrie noted using AI chatbots like that in the new Bing can alleviate considerable amounts of cognitive load, amongst other points of friction, particularly for a neurodivergent person.
“[AI chatbots] collate so much information for you very, very quickly. It can save a lot of time,” Flurrie said. “If you think about someone from a mobility perspective, you can get the right level of information at your fingertips with a couple of clicks as opposed to having to conduct 10 to 20 different searches and go to multiple websites; it can be right there for you. It’s going to be very impactful for particularly neurodiversity… I think about dyslexia [and] dyspraxia. There’s a learning process to it. We’re definitely learning as we go [and learning] how to get the best out of the tools. I think there are some pretty profound implications.”
In a broad scope, Flurrie emphasized finding use cases vis-à-vis accessibility in new technologies like AI chatbots is a reminder of why she and her contemporaries in the industry do what they do in the first place. Friends like Apple’s Sarah Herrlinger and Google’s Eve Andersson may work at different companies, with wholly different mindsets in terms of product and the like, but the tie binding them is this fundamental human right. Flurrie and her peers want to make technology, regardless of who makes it, accessible to all. The ultimate goal is a more equitable and inclusive world in which disabled people can thrive.
“We all have different companies, different ethos, different cultures, different organizational structures, different goals, different makeup,” Flurrie said of the camaraderie inherent to working on accessibility. ”But we help one another, and I think that’s something that is very unique to accessibility. We’re all in these jobs because we all work with one another, wherever we can, because it isn’t about which one of us succeeds or which one is better than the other one. It is about how we have an impact on society. The goals are bigger than any one company or any one person. I would never want it to be a competition between us. I think that’s counterproductive, unless it forces everyone to get going [and do better].”
Flurrie added: “I think this [accessibility in the tech industry] is just the coolest space to work in. I chat all the time with my peers in the industry—we have incredibly cool jobs and we feel very lucky and fortunate to have these roles.”
For Flurrie, Ability Summit is but one manifestation of said coolness.
“I don’t think I ever, in a million years, expected 13 years ago this thing would still be going,” she said of Ability Summit’s longevity. “I think that’s a testament to how powerful this topic is, and the amazing people that helped to build it—customers and employees and community and everyone who help make it happen.”