By Chris Barry, President of Microsoft Canada
December 3rd is International Day of Persons with Disabilitiesan annual moment to raise awareness of disability issues, promote inclusion and welcome people of all abilities. Statistics Canada reports that one in five Canadians aged 15 or older lives with one or more disabilities. Even if you are not living with a disability today, it may change with age or life stages. As Dave Dame, our Director of Accessibility says, “one day we will all grow old with a disability”.
The theme for this year’s International Day of Persons with Disabilities is “Transformative Solutions for Inclusive Development: The Role of Innovation in Powering an Accessible and Equitable World”. Today we live in an extraordinary time in history where the true potential of technology is revealed. From launching the world’s first malaria vaccine that will save hundreds of thousands of lives, to creating self-fertile crops that tackle climate change head-on, innovation advances our most pressing challenges.
At Microsoft, we understand the power of technology and its impact on creating a more accessible and equitable world where everyone thrives. Our technology is designed with accessibility in mind – it’s built with the disabled community for the disability community, and we prioritize technology that the disability community Choose utilize. In October, we launched our new Microsoft Adaptive Accessories designed in partnership with the disability community to help meet a variety of unique needs and wants. Recently we introduces sight in sign language, a new meeting experience in Microsoft Teams. This feature is specifically designed for the Deaf/Hard of Hearing community to keep interpreters and other signers in the call center.
But our commitment to expanding accessibility goes beyond our technology. We work with other organizations in the Microsoft ecosystem, including partners and customers, to share what we’ve learned about accessibility and inclusion to help create more opportunities and experiences. for people all over the world. This year we have joined forces with Haleon, a global leader in consumer health, to expand the functionality of the Seeing AI app to provide consumers who are blind, visually impaired or have low literacy with more accessible labeling information on 1,500 consumer health products in the states United States and United Kingdom. month, we launched the Microsoft Accessibility Nonprofit Tech Accelerator program to provide disability-focused nonprofit organizations with access to enterprise technology and grants to better serve the disability community.
Read below to learn about two impact-driven Canadian organizations within the Microsoft ecosystem that promote disability inclusion and cultivate accessible experiences through technology.
SenseTech Solutions Inc.
What started as a fourth-year engineering project for two university students to make it easier to access a classroom quickly grew into a solution that could support communities of people with disabilities across Canada.
In 2018, Robert Ingio and Ali Raza founded SenseTech solutions, a Toronto-based software company specializing in the development of virtual reality simulations for people with disabilities. Their initial project was to create a virtual reality simulation for the Canadian National Institute for the Blind that could capture the challenges a young person with sight loss might encounter when entering a classroom for the first time, like finding his office. With the addition of a virtual reality headset, a parent could “dive into” the same simulation and meet these new challenges through the same perspective as their child.
This deeper understanding and connection between parent and child is what sparked a conversation between Robert and Ali about the opportunities of virtual reality in accessibility. Now, their virtual reality solutions help make online learning accessible and interactive, facilitate job training for people with and without sight loss, and help the blind community train and develop skills in simulated high-risk environments like the railroad crossing.
“Microsoft has been a great partner in helping us deliver impactful and accessible software tools to our customers. By integrating Microsoft technologies such as Microsoft Azure and Office into our products, we have enabled our customers to engage with digital content in an environment that is inherently accessible and user-friendly format,” said Ingio. “We look forward to continuing our work with Microsoft as we pioneer new methods of accessing digital content and further explore how technology can empower users with disabilities around the world.”
Celestial is a Vancouver-based wearable technology company co-founded in 2021 by University of British Columbia graduates Shubh Mittal and Smit Patel. Shubh’s background in computing and his fascination with smart glass technology led him into the world of clothing. After looking in more detail at the research and technology behind smart glasses, he noticed that current products on the market were limited in their capabilities and usefulness for people with disabilities.
This prompted him to closely consult a friend named Victor who is blind (and is now Seleste’s Chief Technology Officer) to better understand the challenges of living with vision loss or low vision and find out what features the community could benefit from smart glasses. Victor’s feedback inspired Shubh’s mission to make access to assistive technology for the visually impaired more affordable, through their own smart glasses.
Leveraging Microsoft’s Seeing AI technology, Seleste smart glasses have a small camera to provide advanced features such as call-a-friend, voice assistance and scene description to better meet the needs visually impaired people today. The Seleste team plans to add more features to their eyewear over the next few years to further their positive impact within the community.
“We often ask our visually impaired clients about their lives and so many people have told me that they use SeeingAI and how it has helped them regain independence in their lives,” says Mittal. “However, they also tell me that having to hold and point a phone has always been a challenge and limits what they can do. We knew our glasses solved that problem and so we always aimed to deliver the amazing technology from Microsoft through our glasses. I believe this partnership will give people with visual impairments the confidence to take back control of their lives and be able to tackle tasks entirely on their own.”
Finally, raising awareness of the problems of people with disabilities means hearing the community directly. We recently spoke with Juan Olarte, founder of Accessible digitally, about how Microsoft’s assistive technologies have helped him achieve new levels of productivity at home and in the workplace. Watch Juan’s story here.
More innovation like SenseTech’s virtual reality simulations or Seleste’s smart glasses and listening to stories like Juan’s are needed for an accessible and equitable world. We all need to join the call for accessibility and inclusion and work together on innovative solutions that can uplift all communities and make our society a better place.
To learn more about Microsoft’s assistive tools and technology, visit microsoft.com/accessibility.
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