Microsoft has 508 in mind

Software users with disabilities received further hope last week for a future in which technology will be equally accessible to everyone.

Microsoft Corp. announced that the upcoming releases of its 2003 products will include new accessibility improvements and will be compatible with a broad range of assistive technology tools.

Microsoft's announcement came just one day after the second anniversary of the passage of Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act, a law requiring government agencies to buy only electronic and information technology that is accessible to people with disabilities.

Microsoft maintains strong partnerships with government agencies and with industry to ensure that accessibility is considered throughout the development process of all its products.

"Microsoft has pursued the goal of delivering accessible products for 15 years, and that goal has become ingrained in our best practices," said Madelyn Bryant McIntire, director of the Accessible Technology Group at Microsoft. "Helping our government customers meet their 508 responsibilities has re-energized our longstanding commitment to building products that are accessible to all people. We are proud to play a role in helping the federal government reach people with diverse abilities."

The launch of Windows 2.0 in 1988 marked the beginning of Microsoft's commitment to making its products accessible to everyone. The company strengthened its commitment in July 1995 by issuing a policy requiring all Microsoft employees take responsibility for ensuring that all products and services are accessible to all users.

As a member of the Information Technology Industry Council, Microsoft was a leader in the creation of the model known as the Voluntary Product Accessibility Template, in which vendors can describe how their products meet or are unable to meet the standards of Section 508.

Microsoft has strong partnerships with more than 15 companies that are directly involved in the development of assistive technologies. These companies receive the first available test copies of software so that they can make suggestions to Microsoft on how to improve different aspects of the product. The process also enables company to have time to design its own products to be compatible with Microsoft products.

"Having a firsthand look is the most important thing," said Clarence Whaley, director of sales and marketing for GW Micro Inc. Microsoft is "open to our suggestions and input. . .making sure that everything is compatible with screen readers."

Blind people are often discriminated against in the workplace, according to Whaley. The National Federation of the Blind indicates that up to 80 percent of blind people are unemployed. This is primarily because employers believe that there is no way blind people will be able to do their job effectively.

"I'm blind myself," Whaley said, "so I know how important it is to have the latest and greatest. . .so employers can't say 'I can't hire you Mr. Blind. You can't do this.'"

Specific changes to the products include extensive changes to Microsoft Office System, including the addition of Microsoft Office FrontPage 2003 Accessibility Checker, a tool that will allow users to check the accessibility of Web content created in FrontPage. Also, form designers will be able to create accessible XML-based forms using controls capable of adding alternative text to images, assigning keyboard shortcuts for forms, and providing screen tips for users, using Microsoft Office InfoPath 2003.

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