Microsoft helps construct knowledge hub to trace disabilities as a part of effort to shut ‘incapacity divide’

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Jenny Lay-Flurrie, chief accessibility officer for Microsoft. (Microsoft Photo)

There are lots of sources for global data on economic indicators, population sizes, infectious diseases, sustainability — the list goes on. But missing in the lineup has been a comprehensive, publicly available, worldwide clearinghouse of information on disabilities.

Microsoft is teaming up with the World Bank and Fordham University to fix that. The partners are creating a disability data hub to pull together information from sources including national surveys and census data. The publicly accessible resource will feature country profiles, analysis and visualization tools.

“It’s really time to help us all to understand the sheer size of this community in a standardized, methodical, reliable, credible way,” said Microsoft Chief Accessibility Officer Jenny Lay-Flurrie.

Last year Microsoft announced a five-year initiative to help close the “disability divide” — or the gap between the resources and opportunities available to those with disabilities and those without. This new partnership is part of that effort.

The World Bank reports that roughly 1 billion people experience some form of disability, which includes physical and mental disabilities. But that number, representing about 15% of the population, dates from 2010, Lay-Flurrie said. Since then, the COVID-19 pandemic alone triggered a significant rise in mental health challenges.

The World Bank will the lead project and Microsoft will provide technical support, including engineering for the database’s architecture. The effort has not publicly shared a budget or timelines for the effort.

The initiative was announced today at the Conference of States Parties to the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities taking place in New York City.

We spoke to Lay-Flurrie about the new hub and tech efforts to better serve disabled people. The conversation was edited for clarity and length.

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GeekWire: What sort of programs and public policy could be improved or impacted by having this sort of data available?

Lay-Flurrie: From a nerdy technology company side, I’m looking at the density of people with disabilities out there. I’m looking at how that is a global community and a very diverse community and a better understanding of the full spread and spectrum of disability will help us to innovate and build in a much more empowered way.

I think mental health is underrepresented and globally neurodiversity is also underrepresented, and I think it will give us a much more informed way of how we design and build.

And I do think that there are many policies that are there to add and empower people with disabilities that rely on numbers like these across the spectrum, whether it’s health, physical access, right through to employment and education.

GW: Microsoft announced a five-year initiative that we talked about last year, and closing the disability divide. Can you point to anything in particular that’s been accomplished in that past year?

Lay-Flurrie: We are really proud to up the ambition last year. It was starting to really tackle societal-level inclusion of people with disabilities, and I think this is a really big step forward.

I’m really proud of what we were able to announce at the [Microsoft] Ability Summit, which was the new adaptive mouse and buttons. These are innovative. I honestly think we’ve just built a brand new mouse environment.

That’s kind of a great example of what can be done when you up your bar… This was built with the insights of people with disabilities and a lot of our own employees to help build a brand new piece of nerdery that’s going to hopefully empower everyone, even people without disabilities. I can’t wait to get it to my mom in New Zealand who uses a power wheelchair, and just so many people are gonna benefit from it.

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GW: What are companies still getting wrong about serving people who are disabled?

Lay-Flurrie: Holistically, if you embrace the fact that the word “minority” is kind of bunk for disability, then you get on to the right playing field to start. Minority should never be used for a number like a billion and a billion [was] in 2010. So who knows where we are right now. We’re clearly above that. Long COVID is a disability. There’s so much that’s come into this world in the last few years alone.

On the plus side, we’ve got a lot of companies pushing forward and pushing forward on representation and hiring talent with disabilities and empowering that talent and using that talent to help create with their insights more accessible stuff. What I still see some of is that people are doing it just to service a need to get over, [it’s] a minor piece, or something they have to do to make that go away.

But that doesn’t realize the innovation potential of accessibility. It’s missing out on an incredible portion of the population…This community knows what they’re talking about. They’re powerful, they’re strong and they are the experts.

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