Microsoft Teams Is Changing The Way Persons With Disabilities Communicate

With the world in lockdown courtesy COVID–19, we are finding new and innovative ways to communicate. Physical distancing and isolation are increasing the pace at which we embrace digital technologies – for both work and leisure. At the forefront of this change is online video calling.

For us, the disabled, the battle for accessibility has moved from the physical environment to our computer screens.

Having tried at least half a dozen such video communication technologies, I find it safe to say that Microsoft Teams is miles ahead when it comes to accessibility and persons with disabilities.

I was born with a locomotor disability called arthrogryposis, leading to restricted muscle growth in my arms and legs. What this basically means is that my hand movement is very limited. I tried Teams earlier this year and have been hooked on since. With everything in one central location, the application is much easier to use for me compared to others. What I also love about Teams is it’s unique keyboard shortcuts and reduced input sequences through which complex navigations are further simplified for me.

Teams is not only helping persons with restricted movement like myself. Take my friend Vineet Saraiwala, for example. Vineet was diagnosed with Retinitis Pigmentosa (RP), a rare genetic disorder leading to loss of vision at the age of 16. That didn’t stop him from running marathons, studying at IIM Bangalore and later making shopping accessible at Big Bazaar.

At such a time, Microsoft Teams has been a saviour for Vineet to interact with his friends, colleagues and acquaintances. “The interface of Teams is extremely screen reader-friendly with neat labelling of menus and all the access buttons,” Vineet told me. He further added, “I love the toggle buttons on the main screen  which are easy to access during conversations where you need to constantly mute/unmute or turn on/off the camera.”

What most of my blind and low vision friends love about Teams is the fact that app navigation is seamless through the screen reader and magnifier. With Ease of Access efficiently synchronised with Teams, users can choose from different backgrounds, colour filters and contrasts, remove colour altogether, add sound alerts and even increase the size of the mouse and font. These features have enabled people with light sensitivity, low vision, colour-blindness and the Blind to access and use the application with as much ease as the non-disabled.

Tina Saighal is the founder of Sanket Foundation, a school for the deaf and hard of hearing in Gurgaon. A Columbia MBA, Tina happens to be a hard of hearing person herself. If it wasn’t for Teams, working from home would have been a challenge for Tina through the lockdown. In Tina’s own words, “The meeting app enables subtitles which is particularly helpful for a hard of hearing person like me understand and participate in all meetings.”

With multi-lingual live captioning, Teams has the potential to change the way the deaf and hard of hearing like Tina communicate. With real-time captioning, deaf individuals now have the option to read and participate in conversations. Users can also enable the inbuilt Text Telephone feature which converts audio to text and vice versa to make communication easy for the deaf and those with speech disabilities.

This is not all that Teams offers the deaf. It’s just the start. One of the most interesting accessibility features I discovered in Teams is the option to blur the background in a video call. On further research, I learnt that it was developed by a deaf employee at Microsoft who would lip read during video calls. By blurring the background she can focus better on people’s lips while blocking all background interferences. Now users can enable this feature any time by a simple click of a button.

Teams has also incorporated Microsoft’s very successful immersive reader, that has become the go-to tool to simplify learning for those with learning disabilities.

Accessibility features have made Teams an extremely popular application amongst organisations working with Persons with Disability too. EnAble India, a leading skilling organisation based out of Bangalore is using Microsoft Teams to conduct online computer trainings on topics ranging from PowerPoint to learning Kannada.

As per Shanti Raghavan, Founder EnAble India, “In terms of inclusive features for the deaf and blind, Teams is ahead of other applications and we recommend it highly. In Microsoft products, accessibility for all kinds of disabilities can be enabled by the click of a button even for novice users.”

Accessible technologies can ensure that persons with disabilities be part of society during these challenging times. A conscious effort to move towards accessible technologies leads to innovations that empower everyone.

Teams has been a game-changer in the way conversations are taking place. However, it’s time that technology companies, governments and the public at large recognise and accept the importance of digital accessibility. Such a change can go a long way in mainstreaming 15% of the world’s population and make the world a more equal place.

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