Jul. 19 /CSRwire/ - When Bill Graham interviewed for a position at Microsoft in November 1995, two things impressed him: he felt his deafness was treated as irrelevant to the selection process, while his special needs were fully accommodated.
Greg Smith also found the Microsoft hiring process to be a good experience. "I felt like my disability really didn’t make a difference, which was nice," said Smith, a software design engineer who cannot move from the neck down, due to a flag football accident.. "Some of the logistical details that I needed to get up here and go through the interview process obviously were a little different, but there was never any doubt that those were really just details. The important part was whether I showed the right job skills and mental abilities to perform the work they were looking for."
This attitude has created a supportive work environment for employees with disabilities, according to Graham. "I think Microsoft is a great place to work if you are disabled," he said. "People here focus on ideas and the work. You could be a Martian or a jackalope, and it would probably be overlooked if you contribute to the project."
Proactive Policies and Staff in Place
It’s not by accident that employees with disabilities have positive feeling about Microsoft from the very beginning. Like any company, Microsoft walks a delicate line in terms of accommodating the special needs of employees with disabilities, while not letting the disability dictate decisions. It does so successfully because extensive policies are in place, as are staff members dedicated to assuring compliance with policy and legal requirements. Proactively recruiting employees with disabilities is also part of the strategy.
"Basically, we make sure we’re doing all we can in terms of recruitment, and as we bring employees on board we provide them with the accommodations they need to perform the essential functions of their jobs," said Mylene Padolina, a diversity consultant for Microsoft’s Human Resources Department. "Microsoft is committed to providing equal opportunity for all people. We recognize the capabilities and potential contributions of individuals with disabilities, and we wholeheartedly support the spirit of the Americans with Disabilities Act."
Numbers are Not Easy to Come By
Determining the number of Microsoft employees with disabilities and the kinds of disabilities they have is not a simple process for the Human Resources Department. "We have a voluntary self-identification process," Padolina said. "At the time of hire, employees are invited to identify themselves as disabled and request accommodations, but we don’t have any record as to what type of disability they have."
Just under 100 employees have identified themselves as disabled. In a company with over 20,000 employees in the United States alone, 100 may seem a low number, but it doesn’t represent anywhere near the total. "It’s very hard to determine the actual number of employees with disabilities, because it is a voluntary process. Some people do not want to provide that information," Padolina said. "When you understand disability issues, and the stigma that sometimes comes with others’ perception of people with disabilities, you realize that some people who could identify themselves as having a disability may choose not to. Some individuals don’t want to reveal they have a disability for fear it would affect their job, or as a matter of personal privacy -- because they just don’t want anyone else to know."
People who identify themselves as having a disability tend to be those who need accommodations, or feel comfortable with identifying themselves because the disability is something that can be seen, she said.
Another way Microsoft’s Human Resources Department estimates the number of employees with disabilities is through requests for accommodations, including assistive technology and facilities requests. For example, approximately 60 employees companywide -- including those who are paraplegic, quadriplegic, blind or who experience repetitive strain injuries such as carpal tunnel syndrome -- use voice recognition software.
In addition, about 40 employees are regular users of sign language interpreters. Not all of these employees are necessarily deaf or hard of hearing themselves; some may be requesting the presence of interpreters at meetings that may include people with hearing impairments. The Human Resources Department also processes about 200 requests monthly for ergonomic evaluations, leaves of absence, worker compensation claims, assistive technology and other accommodations, Padolina said. That number includes requests for employees who may be only temporarily disabled, with a broken leg, for instance.
Large Number of Assistive Technology Options
A variety of assistive technology devices and software is now on the market -- everything from Braille printers to touch-sensitive whiteboards that can transmit notes to a computer. Microsoft provides assistive technology to employees on a case-by-case basis. For example, many visually impaired employees use screen readers.
It used to be that icon-based displays such as the Windows operating system would trip up standard speech output software, but recently released products don’t have that problem. "There is a lot of visual eye candy that people just don’t need to see," said Brett Humphrey, a software design engineer in the Direct X multimedia product group who is blind. "So if there are icons, my speech output software will simply read the highlighted icon names and tell me which window pane I am in. With a list box such as Microsoft Outlook, I just use the arrow keys, and the software will read me one e-mail at a time. With Web pages, I can turn off the pictures and background images so that they don’t clutter the reading." New specialized reading software for Web browsers is also available.
Another popular tool for visually impaired employees is speech-recognition software, like the product developed by Dragon Systems called Dragon NaturallySpeaking Professional, which converts speech into text. "You can talk to the computer. You can also program a bunch of macros so that you can tell the computer what you want," Humphrey said.
Smith uses his computer with the help of a headset mouse. "Since I can’t use my arms very well and I can’t use my hands at all, using a regular mouse just wouldn’t work," he said. "Essentially, there is a little box on top of the monitor that watches the headset I’m wearing. Wherever I look or point my head, the mouse pointer will follow on the screen. There’s a puff switch coming down from the headset to my mouth, and when I puff into that it operates the click." The mouse plugs into the same port on the computer as a standard mouse and is treated the same way by the computer.
Employees with hearing impairments use a range of solutions based on the extent of their deafness. Accommodations can range from technical devices to personal interpreters.
For smaller meetings, Graham typically uses the FM system, where the microphone is passed from speaker to speaker. But not all solutions are high-tech. "I also use a koosh ball at meetings to try and restrain cross-talk, which I can’t follow," Graham said. "A person has to have the koosh ball in his or her hand before speaking. We’ve found that just the act of throwing the koosh ball around to one another can loosen up a meeting."
In addition, for some meetings Graham has been using MSN Instant Messenger effectively, as well as private chat rooms on the MSN Communities Web site. For larger meetings, he uses an infrared conference system that includes four microphone hookups.
Phone calls pose a difficult challenge for hearing-impaired employees. "At first I used a telecommunications device for the deaf called a TTY/TDD, which consists of a keyboard and display that enables people to type to one another over the phone lines," Graham said. "But if the person I was talking to didn’t have a TTY, I had to go through a relay person to communicate with them. The relay person would speak to the person using the regular phone and type to the person with the TTY."
The advent of the Internet has made a great difference in the lives of deaf employees. "Most people who used to communicate with me via TTYs now communicate with me via e-mail," Graham said. "This is a change that has swept through the deaf world -- the Internet has dramatically improved communication access for deaf people."
Working Together to Develop Solutions
Microsoft’s Human Resources Department also works with other groups, including the Facilities Department, to create solutions to logistical challenges such as making sure doorways open easily, providing alternative lighting options, conducting air-quality reviews, widening some parking stalls and ensuring wheelchair-equipped vans are available. "For one employee, we made sure some of the building doors were laser sensitive, so that when his wheelchair came in close contact with the doors, they would be triggered open by lasers mounted on his wheelchair," Padolina said.
With reorganizations forcing him to frequently switch buildings, Smith needed to work closely with the Human Resources and Facilities departments to ensure he could easily get in and out of each new building to which he was assigned. "I talked with them about that at the beginning," Smith said. "One problem that everyone has here is that you change buildings about every year or two. I recognized that it wasn’t practical for them to spend money outfitting a building with automatic door openers just to have me move six months later. Plus, there is the issue of security; all the doors here are opened by card readers, and it’s not a good idea to have automatic door openers. Keeping me in the same building was not the answer either -- the reorganizations are happening at a high enough level that they don’t have a lot of room for input in each decision about various individuals. They are trying to keep related groups together."
Smith was pleased with the way Microsoft handled the issue. "The solution they proposed was really human-centric," he said. "They provided me with a cell phone mounted on my wheelchair with a hands-free set up that was plugged into a speakerphone with a microphone. If I need to get in or out of a building, I call the receptionist or security, and someone comes out and lets me in. Frankly, that has turned out to be a non-issue, because any time I leave the building, I usually have my co-workers with me to handle the doors, so it hasn’t really come up at all."
Logistical Issues Solved by Team Environment
Smith has found that many logistical issues are moot because of Microsoft’s team environment. "When I have to go to a meeting with people from an outside group that I am just starting to work with, I let them know it would be easier if possible to do meetings in my building rather than one of the other buildings," he said. "This campus is pretty large. It’s a hassle for anyone to run around, but especially for me. So whenever possible, we schedule meetings in my building so I don’t have to go very far."
The logistics of eating lunch in the cafeteria have become a non-issue as well. "I’m in a group of about 100 people, and I have six direct reports that are all near me," Smith said. "That’s just enough that there is never any shortage of people to go to lunch with. They open the door and set up my tray. It’s not something that had to be solved by an HR specialist. It was just easy to solve by making friends here at Microsoft."
Improve Developers’ Sensitivity to Accessibility
Graham faced a difficult challenge with his first assignment at Microsoft working with Encarta. The multimedia encyclopedia had a large number of audio clips, but he couldn’t hear well enough to understand them. "During my first year on the staff, I hooked up with the Microsoft Accessibility and Disabilities Group, and we began working to bring closed captioning to Encarta," he said. "With the help of Encarta Program Manager Lisa Everett Woods -- a real hero in this effort -- we were able to provide Encarta with closed captioning that very product cycle. It was a pioneering breakthrough in accessibility. With this type of leadership, Microsoft can ensure accessibility features become standard in future products and technology industrywide."
Graham’s experience with Encarta led him to understand firsthand how difficult it can be to keep in mind accessibility features when developing products. "I’d like to see accessibility become a more prominent feature in all Microsoft products and efforts," he said. "I’ve been working on a new initiative myself for the last few months, and it wasn’t until a few days ago that I began thinking, ‘Is this feature going to be accessible? Are we forgetting users with certain disabilities?’ These are questions every program manager and developer needs to think about."
Proactive Recruitment is a Strategic Component
Providing assistance to current employees is only one part of Microsoft’s strategy regarding employees with disabilities. Microsoft puts a lot of emphasis on recruitment to encourage individuals with disabilities to consider Microsoft when choosing a place to work. Microsoft reaches out in a number of ways, including job fairs and advertising via Web sites geared toward individuals with disabilities.
Microsoft underscored its leadership in this arena when it founded the Able to Work Consortium in October 1999 together with the National Business and Disability Council. Able to Work is an independent business consortium of more than 20 companies dedicated to increasing employment opportunities for people with disabilities by providing information and generating awareness.
"Basically, the companies that were coming together were looking to raise awareness about the value of recruiting this untapped labor force," Padolina said. "In the current business environment, there is low unemployment for the general public. But when you look at people with disabilities, the unemployment rate is much higher. As many as 70-73 percent of people with disabilities are not currently employed. At a time when business demands that we have talented people to contribute to the company’s success, it’s really incumbent upon us to look everywhere for potential employees."
Microsoft is also trying to feed the recruitment pipeline both at the high school and college levels by implementing scholarships for students with disabilities. The first scholarships for people with disabilities will be offered this fiscal year.
All in all, Smith is satisfied with Microsoft as an employer for disabled individuals. "It really hasn’t been an issue of trying to satisfy legal requirements," he said. "I think Microsoft has taken a very individualistic approach to solving employee challenges, whether they are disabilities or anything else that should be addressed for people to be the most productive they can be. It’s a company that recognizes its greatest asset is its employees’ minds. That is an attitude that really helps keep me happy, productive and satisfied."
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