Accessibility doesn’t necessarily refer to just being able to physically access places. There are many subtopics that fall under the umbrella, and for this week’s blog post we are speaking to Ricardo Wagner who is the accessibility lead at Microsoft. He is talking to us about how technology can make a more inclusive society and why having employees with a disability working in an organisation is important.
Can you please tell us about yourself?
My name is Ricardo Wagner. I was born and raised in Sao Paulo, Brazil and in 2011 I moved to Toronto, Canada. I’m a proud citizen of both nations. I have been working for Microsoft since 2006, and I am currently the Microsoft Accessibility Lead, responsible for helping organizations to create modern, inclusive and accessible workplaces. I co-lead the Diversity and Inclusion committee for persons with disabilities at Microsoft Canada and I am also an Ambassador for Microsoft Myskills4Afrka program, with volunteering assignments in Rwanda, Kenya, Angola and South Africa. My personal philosophy is to live deeply and intensely, sharing compassion, inspiration and love along the way. I’m married and I have two wonderful boys.
Why did you decide to work in the field of accessibility?
Because accessibility is a solvable design challenge that drives innovation. Let me give an example: stairs make the building inaccessible, not the wheelchair. Environments, products and services are disabling, and not people. When you approach universal and inclusive design principals, you realize the immense opportunity to create products and solutions that works for everyone. It not only helps organizations to untap new market opportunities, but it also creates user case scenario that benefits everyone. More importantly, it drives social impact – it’s such an interesting opportunity to help businesses to achieve higher growth and profit, while working with meaning and purpose.
How do you feel accessibility has changed throughout the years of working in this field?
We have just transitioned from the industry to the digital revolution. The industry revolution mindset was to design and create solutions for the masses, for the “average user” or “normal”. In the past, you needed to adapt to the environment, to the product and solution. The scale and large productions helped society to access affordable products, but not everyone had the privilege to benefit from this era. For persons with disabilities, the option was to access offers provided by niche players, in many cases, more expensive and not fully functional, or to adapt to the available options, not designed or conceived for them. We lived in a society where people were either included or excluded. In the digital transformation era, it’s the opposite of industry revolution. When you design for an extreme, for example, a person with permanent disability, you end up designing for everyone. A good example is the live subtitles powered by artificial intelligence technology. It was designed to help people hard of hearing, but it can be used in noisy environments (airports, gyms, etc) or even empower foreign language speakers to follow a conversation. Technology is now helping organizations to create an environment for everyone, including persons with disabilities. Now the world adapts to you, and not the opposite. Unfortunately, not many organizations are considering persons with disabilities in hiring practices, and the pool of talents with disabilities is larger than we might think. Further, the impact that talents with disabilities can have on our society is greater than we imagine. Leaders are finally understanding that accessibility for few becomes usability for many, and this conversation is no longer treated in silos or niche.
What has been your biggest challenges you’ve had whilst working in the field of accessibility?
Dealing with unconscious bias. Exclusion happens when we design products and solutions based on our own perspectives and point of views. In many cases, if not all, our perspective is limited to a set of possibilities. That’s why diverse organizations that welcome and promote inclusion, especially for persons with disabilities, innovate. People from different perspectives collaborate and share their views, helping designers, engineers and architects to create solutions with inclusion in mind. To achieve this goal, organizations must understand the values and benefits of creating a diverse and inclusive workplace. Unfortunately, not many leaders transitioned their mindset from industry to digital revolution and are struggling to innovate in the new digital era. Even worst, they are still creating products and solutions that are excluding people.
What has been your greatest success whilst working in the field of accessibility?
Helping organizations to realize the value of hiring persons with disabilities. Making persons with disabilities as part of the fabric to help organizations to innovate. Existing technologies can empower leaders to create a workplace where everyone can achieve the sense of belonging, and this is rewarding. More importantly, if we do this well and at scale, we can reduce unemployment for persons with disabilities, which is two times higher compared to persons without disabilities. It’s a great business case that generates revenue and social impact.
Do you feel virtual experiences could improve the accessibility challenges that individuals face?
Absolutely. There are powerful tools empowering people to connect remotely. Microsoft has just released an augmented reality technology that allows you to be everywhere in the world, projected in holograms. You can also setup the system to speak in a different language. You don’t need to fly across the globe for a presentation, or even practice to speak in a different language. Technology and virtual experiences can provide what you need. This is a field that will only grow and help us all to connect and relate. As I live in Canada and my family in Brazil, I connect with them virtually often. It’s great to be far and close, and not the opposite. Technology is empowering us all to have a greater life. It’s a great time to be human.
Thank you Ricardo for answering our questions this week.
We are always looking for great accessibility stories to share with our readers, if you would like to share yours, please get in touch with me at email@example.com.