By John M. Williams Back in the early '90s, I met Microsoft's Bill Gates at the Federal Office Systems Exposition in Washington, D.C. We talked briefly about technology that helps the disabled. I was struck by his interest in this subject. He wanted to know whether there was a market for assistive technology. You can guess what my answer was: Tens of millions of Americans -- many with disabilities -- have proven that there is.
Today, Microsoft is the biggest provider of accessibility technology to the disabled community. The Colossus of Redmond includes easy-to-use features such as on-screen keyboards and text-to-speech software in all its consumer operating systems. And Microsoft spends more on research and development of software and hardware that improves accessibility than IBM, Apple, or any other corporation that works on this issue.
PERSONAL EXPERIENCE. Altruism? Perhaps. Gates and his family have long played active roles in philanthropy, and he used his stock to create the world's richest charitable foundation. But the software mogul's views on assistive technology also come from personal experience. According to Darren Kall, the program manager of the accessibility and disabilities group at Microsoft, Gates got frustrated trying to communicate with an early Microsoft employee who was deaf. "This was a motivating factor in Gates' commitment to accessibility issues for workers with disabilities," Kall says.
But Microsoft's dedication to assistive technology is also a clear instance of a business that hopes to do well by doing good. The company recognizes that computers are playing a more important role in our daily lives. It also understands that aging Americans who rely on computers now won't want to stop using them later in life even if they can't type, see the screen clearly, or hear an MP3 download at normal volume.
So, Gates has shrewdly positioned his company to be a primary provider of technology for people who have lived through the Information Age and can't imagine life without computers in their senior years. Being able to use computers also could help older Americans earn money in the New Economy. Explains Frank G. Bowe, a New York disabilities advocate and college teacher who is deaf: "Bill Gates, Steve Ballmer, and others at Microsoft saw business in the aging market and how adaptive technology can help workers with disabilities stay competitive."
OLDSTER AILMENTS. Fact is, as the baby boomers become geezers, disabilities related to age are the fastest-growing category in this country. The ailments span a wide range from arthritis, affecting mobility and dexterity, to macular degeneration, impairing vision.
Look at the statistics: Only 10% of people age 21 and younger have a disability. That compares to 36% of people age 55 to 64, and 72% of people older than 80. Today, about 25% more people in the U.S. have disabilities than a decade ago. That tally should grow significantly each year, adding to the 54 million Americans who have a disability right now, according to the Health & Human Services Dept.
Does that look like a booming market? Gates thinks so. That's why Microsoft has assigned 50 people to work on developing assistive technologies. The commitment costs the company millions of dollars in manpower alone each year. These job slots could just as easily be filled with programmers working on more immediately lucrative projects such as the next Windows operating system.
Microsoft claims it makes money on disability products, although it won't disclose how much. And it's unclear whether this profit comes from the sale of products specifically made for the disabled or from the sale of Windows operating systems, which include features that make them easier to use for the disabled.
LISTENING TO THE BLIND. Advocates for the disability community say one of Microsoft's strengths is that it works with disabled people as it develops products for them. "Microsoft has listened to blind people in developing software accessibility," says William Bryant, 44, a blind vocational-rehabilitation consultant in Lexington, Ky. The company doesn't have to go far to get feedback, either. Several members of its accessibility-technology team have disabilities. Some are visually impaired or deaf. Others have carpal tunnel syndrome or learning disabilities.
Microsoft also is adding value beyond the design of its own accessibility technology, creating an online hub (http://www.microsoft.com/enable/) for people seeking information about assistive technology and businesses trying to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act. The hub also provides an e-commerce platform where other accessibility products that work with Windows are on display. Microsoft collaborates with many of these companies to maximize their products' compatibility with Windows. Naturally, the hub was coded and especially designed to accommodate screen-reading-software programs and other tools that disabled individuals use to surf the Internet.
Yes, the Redmond giant's dominance in the accessibility market frightens some. "Microsoft's ubiquity in the accessibility field worries me. If it keeps moving into all the disability-technology fields, it can strangle all the manufacturers," say Bill Horton, 41, a blind consultant from Chicago. That's a valid concern. Whether in operating systems or Internet browsers, Microsoft has strived for a total dominance that may have stifled competition (certainly, Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson, who ruled against Microsoft in the landmark antitrust suit brought by the Justice Dept., would concur).
SCARED OFF? Still, so far, the company has been a model citizen in the assistive-technology field. But its actions in this area should be closely monitored. I doubt Gates wants to eliminate all the competition. However, just by its sheer size and reach into the various disability technologies, Microsoft could do just that by frightening smaller companies out of the market -- stifling innovation.
That would be a bad thing both for people with disabilities today and the tens of millions of aging Americans who will rely on these technologies to cruise the Internet, check e-mail, and use a word processor in coming years. But on balance, hats off to Microsoft. Williams writes Assistive Technology every week, only for BW Online.
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