One major effect the coronavirus pandemic has had on the federal government is illustrating the usefulness of widespread telework. But telework comes with its own challenges, many related to cybersecurity and at-home connectivity. One challenge highlighted recently is the need to make telework, and supporting collaboration platforms, accessible for every worker.
For example, federal employees in the deaf community usually have American Sign Language (ASL) interpreters available in person for meetings. That in-person human interaction is no longer available, as meetings are held on platforms like Microsoft Teams. So how can meetings be made accessible, so those workers can participate in the new work paradigm?
“In our government community cloud we already offer live captioning in Live Events. And now, live captioning is available for meetings held in Teams as well,” said Rima Reyes, principal program manager for Microsoft Teams Engineering. “When it’s turned on, live captions appear at the bottom of the screen.”
That is just one example of how Teams is working to make collaboration software more accessible to the entire federal community. While Microsoft acknowledges that no technology can truly replace ASL interpreters, these captioning features give people who are deaf or hard of hearing options and flexibility to participate in meetings at any time of day or night. The Teams engineering team works with Microsoft’s Disability Answer Desk, a dedicated help desk for customers with questions about accessibility or assistive technology related to Microsoft products, to develop new features based on user feedback. They also work with a group of about 20 agencies to prioritize the features users are asking for.
Based on feedback from these two sources, Microsoft has prioritized and accelerated the delivery of new features in Teams, such as the raise hand feature, which allows people to indicate with an icon that they have something to say. Another is the expansion of the gallery view to allow users to view the video feeds of up to nine meeting participants simultaneously, making it easier to see facial expressions and body language that can provide important context to a conversation, and potentially even allow the use of sign language. Later this year, a large gallery view (sometimes referred to as “7×7”) is slated to debut as well. Lastly, to make people feel more comfortable turning on their video, the background blur feature was released to the U.S. government clouds, letting you blur out what is behind you during meetings.
Teams also addresses cognitive disabilities, with features “do not disturb” mode to help users filter out distractions. And it supports assistive technologies, like screen readers, magnifiers and dictation software.
“What we’re trying to achieve is that productivity is really personal. And since it’s personal, there is no one-size-fits-all feature or capability that is going to satisfy every single scenario out there,” said Dean Halstead, director for Cloud, Collaboration and Accessibility at Microsoft Federal. “What we’re trying to do is focus on every scenario and see how they combine together to solve multiple needs.”
Sometimes the prompts even come from inside the organization. Reyes said, last year, Teams engineers were working on a feature that would make the mute/unmute button flash if you were talking while it was muted, to remind you to unmute yourself.
“We had a software developer with Tourette’s Syndrome who worked inside of Teams Engineering. She informed us that the flashing button on the screen made her extremely nervous as she was talking during meetings and that in fact, it actually exacerbated the tics with her speech. She suggested to leave the button and other meeting options as static on the screen instead. So we performed a study and found out that many different types of individuals with accessibility needs would benefit from this one small change across the board,” Reyes said.
But one of the biggest requests Teams has gotten is the need for more training to make people aware of these accessibility features and how they work. Some agencies were not as far along in their Office 365 deployments as others when the pandemic hit, so their employees were not as familiar with the software. Some needed additional help learning how to use the accessibility features, while others were not aware of the need for it, or for ensuring accessibility of documents and meetings. This was the genesis for creating the Teams Accessibility Recorded Training for Federal Agencies in June and dedicated Training for DoD customers earlier this month.
“These are some features that we want to make sure everyone is familiar with because collectively, we all have to work together to create and enable accessible documents and collaboration,” Halstead said. “At Microsoft, we are trying our best to make products as accessible as they can be. But if you turn off something like accessibility checker, we cannot force the document to be accessible. We can tell the organization there is a policy that you can set that actually requires the Accessibility Checker to run at all times. And so there is a little bit of education that the entire organization must go through.”
Microsoft acknowledges that accessibility is a journey and that by focusing on making productivity personal, partnering with government to identify continuous areas for improvement, leveraging the Disability Answer Desk, and stepping up its direct training, Microsoft will help support the government during this national emergency to achieve more on their missions. To learn more, visit www.microsoft.com/accessibility.