Key insights from Microsoft Chief Accessibility Officer Jenny Lay-Flurrie
Midway through my conversation with Jenny Lay-Flurrie, the Microsoft Chief Accessibility Officer offered a few words of caution for managers overly hasty in assessing the needs (and needed accommodations) of their employees. “Presumption,” she says, “can be your worst enemy.”
I talked to Lay-Flurrie as co-host for this season of the WorkLab podcast from Microsoft, which explores the future of work. (Co-produced with my colleagues at Godfrey Dadich Partners and with Reasonable Volume.) The force of Lay-Flurrie’s admonition brought me back to 15 years ago, after my son’s autism diagnosis. At the playground, when my son would self-stimulate or echo other kids’ words, a well-meaning mom or dad would come back with the same unhelpful phrase: “Oh, my kid does that, it’s normal.”
Except that, what a neurodiverse kid like mine was doing wasn’t identical to what neurotypical kids were doing, nor was he doing it for the same reasons.
While our culture has gradually developed a more expansive and informed view of the disability spectrum, the goal of shaping and sustaining an accessible workplace remains difficult for many to reach. Presumption has played a part in this, but so, too, has the steep increase in the disabled population. Says Lay-Flurrie: “I don’t think we’re keeping up with the rates of disability at all.”
“I had someone say this to me this week: ‘Well, I don’t have any disabled people in my company.' You absolutely do. It’s whether or not they actually feel safe enough to identify to you as such.”—Jenny Lay-Flurrie
Lay-Flurrie lost her hearing as an adult, even as she was earning a music degree and launching a career in IT. Early on, she hid her disability, and wouldn’t ask for the tools and accommodations she needed to perform at her peak. “When I came to Microsoft,” she says, “I took the easier path, which was seeing my disability for what it is—a part of my being human—and asking for what I needed to be successful.”
At Microsoft, Lay-Flurrie and her team have rolled out accessible features for customers such as the adaptive Xbox controller for gamers with limited mobility and live captioning on Microsoft Teams. She has helped create a more inclusive environment for people with disabilities through products, services, and thought leadership. In our conversation, she shared excellent insights for leaders and co-workers about how to make workplaces more inclusive. Here are a few key points I took away from our chat.
Insight 1: Resist categorization. Lay-Flurrie stresses that one-size-fits-all accommodations for a given disability can hamper effective inclusion. “Accessibility is not one thing,” she says. “What we’re learning is that, as humans, we don’t come in singular, gorgeous packages. You look at what an individual may need in a workplace, and it varies. Accessibility is the means, whether it’s physical, digital, or a combination of, let alone best practice language, etiquette. All of it goes to create a work environment where any individual can be successful and unlock talent and capability that will help you as a company deliver more.”
Insight 2: Create a safe environment. Don’t assume that every employee with a disability is going to tell you they have one and how it affects them. Recognize that unless you begin to nurture an environment where all disabled workers can speak freely about their disability and ask for the tools and accommodations they need to get the job done, they will perform short of their peak, and company productivity and creativity will suffer accordingly. “I had someone say this to me this week: ‘Well, I don’t have any disabled people in my company,’ ” Lay-Flurrie recalls. “You absolutely do. It’s whether or not they actually feel safe enough to identify to you as such.”
Insight 3: Build strength through community. In our work lives, we have less leeway to find our tribes than in our personal lives. In a large organization, there will likely be fewer employees who share a similar disability, and those who do are often scattered across different departments and even campuses. Environments like these can deepen a sense of isolation and disconnectedness. Lay-Flurrie sees communities of support, both outside of work and within, as crucial. “There’s something very powerful about bringing together people to talk about their experience," Lay-Flurrie says, “to learn from others, to get best practices, to share when things aren’t going right.”
Insight 4: Investing in innovation? Think big. When it comes to inclusive innovations for disabled workers, some product managers may balk at the price. The most likely rationale they’ll give is that the innovation doesn’t provide an adequate return on investment, since it only serves a few people. So often this stubborn notion flies in the face of ample evidence that innovations for the disabled can have much wider and more profitable applicability. Lay-Flurrie draws our attention to a couple of textbook cases. Audiobooks, which are widely adopted now, were created for people with visual impairments. A more recent innovation is the blur background tool, which has become a mainstay of virtual meeting rooms. It’s perfect for vaporizing a messy office, or for focusing attention on whomever is speaking. But that’s not what the tool was developed for. It was created, Lay-Flurrie explains, “by a deaf engineer trying to figure out how to make it easier to follow lip reading. That was actually the original scenario, and in fact what they did was reduce the whole thing so you could only see the face....That was the original scenario. Then in test, you find out, oh my gosh, this is great for ADHD, this is great for autism, this is great for neurodiversity. It was a beautiful example of where the implications were that it helps everyone.”
Insight 5: Implement AI that expands and empowers. Lay-Flurrie believes that AI has enormous potential to create a more accessible world, but “we have to make sure that we’re doing it in a grounded way, and make sure that the data we lean on is disability representative.” AI has already joined that category of innovation whose products for the disabled can rapidly expand to a far greater audience. An AI-supported app developed for the visually impaired provides the ability to take a picture of a block of text and have your device read it aloud. This, says Lay-Flurrie, can be incredibly useful to neurodiverse people. "So instead of it being one percent, it suddenly becomes an additional percent. And then you find, oh my gosh, actually it’s nice to get things read out to me in audio in a darkened room or in a restaurant. Who wouldn’t want this? And suddenly it’s not 10 percent, it’s 50 percent. And that, bluntly, is the power of accessibility.”