How the DfE used Microsoft’s accessibility tools to enable inclusion

The Department for Education (DfE) is responsible for children’s learning and education across England. With a mission to be accessible by principle, Management Today explores how the DfE embraced the built in features of Microsoft Office 365 and Windows 10 to enable their workforce to bring their whole selves to work. Here, we uncover their key learnings...

by John Stern
Last Updated: 15 Apr 2020

“Leaders are going to be critical to this transformation,” says Hector Minto, Microsoft’s Accessibility Evangelist. “That’s how you get systemic change, rather than organic change.”

There is no better example of this than the partnership between Microsoft and the Department for Education (DfE) that has helped the DfE become a genuinely inclusive workplace. 

“One of our key aims has been creating a more inclusive workplace,” explains Helen Walker, Chief Technology Officer at DfE. “That culture of inclusion – not just diversity – and bringing your whole self to work has been driven by the top.”

DfE is responsible for children’s services and education, further education policy and apprenticeships in England. With a mission to be accessible by principle, DfE wholeheartedly embraced the built-in features of Microsoft Office 365 and Windows 10. 

“It takes away the barrier from some of our users who don’t want to cause fuss or asking for special things,” adds Walker. “But they have an absolute entitlement to access all of the same tools by default. All of those features and functionalities that come as standard make a real difference to the day to day experience of users with all sorts of needs.” 

As well as Microsoft’s digital products, they also offer a range of tips and tricks to help employers. Their YouTube channel, MSFT Enable, offers webinars, video links, short animations on a variety of topics including, for example, how to interview a blind colleague or a blind candidate for a job. 

Accessible by default

The relationship between Microsoft and DfE developed over time at a range of accessibility events. “They could see how much we were doing in this space and really came after us to learn how we were doing it,” says Minto. “Then as they started to refresh their technology, they put accessibility at the forefront of that conversation.” 

Walker is not the only accessibility champion at DfE. Andy Black is their Business Change Manager and Accessibility Lead, and is particularly invested in the reality of a fully inclusive workplace.  

“There’s some fantastic functionality within Office 365 and in Windows 10 to allow people to work the way they want to,” he explains, “I’m dyslexic/dyspraxic so I’m excited about the Dark theme that’s in Windows 10 and Narrator, Magnifier and the live captioning in Teams. For some of our users that’s all they need to work, to be the best they can.” 

The extent of Black’s passionate advocacy has been vital in moving the conversation from words to deeds. “Andy has for a long time been banging the drum for ‘accessible by default’,” says Minto. “What he’s striving for is all these tools to be routinely accessible so that people with any form of disability shouldn’t have to ask for anything. He sees it as his job to make sure people know they’re there. He’s really driving education through the DfE that you do have all of this at your fingertips.”

Accessibility by default can also be seen in action elsewhere in government. Jo-Ann Moran is Diversity and Inclusion Advisor at the Home Office. “I’m registered deaf/blind,” she says. “When I open the laptop I use the settings that work for me. I can still keep up with written communication and as my eyesight has continued to deteriorate I’ve not lost a day’s productivity. Technology is my best friend – there’s no shying away from it and I’m forever in the debt of technology. The built-in accessibility features will help change the workplace.”

“Not a burden, just a different experience” 

The purpose of accessibility in the workplace isn’t just because, in a modern, progressive society, it is the right thing to do. There are benefits on a human, cultural, strategic and business level too. There are a billion people on the planet with a disability. Even those without a disability may acquire one over the course of their lives. “Disability is not a burden, it's just a different experience,” says Minto.

“It enables a wide variety of talents from across society to be part of DfE,” says Heather McNaughton, Director of Teaching Workforce at DfE. “People are generally more empowered and motivated to bring their best which makes an organisation much more innovative and that’s just fundamental.”

Walker adds: “By giving people tools to do their job effectively Microsoft is changing people’s lives. That has driven this culture of inclusion and makes it such a great place to work.”

The wider impact

Minto believes that businesses and organisations should “never shy away from talking about its business value.” He continues: “When you design products that work for more people, you will sell more products. Or you will sell to that customer because they've actually got that buying requirement of you. There are procurement standards in place across Europe and the world, especially for the public sector, that say money must be spent on accessible technology. So there are three parts in play here: diversity and inclusion; the desire to design usable products; but also the need to sell compliant products.”

DfE might not be a commercial organisation but they still have a product, according to Minto. “Theirs is England’s education system and I believe that as more people with disabilities are represented within DfE, the better schools and educational institutions we will have. 

“I attend parliamentary meetings about disability issues and I’m always struck by the lack of disabled people in attendance. If you don't have that voice, then you're not going to solve the problem. In education, we will begin to tackle disability inclusion when we have a larger representation ofdisabled parents and disabled teachers in the fabric of the organisation I think we will see that now.”

“Business is talking about it too with organisations like the Valuable 500, and CEOs acknowledging that inclusion and accessibility has to be on their agenda. My hope for DfE is that they’ll end up with a product that’s much more representative of a  wider group of society because they run this great work internally. But the bigger point is that if DfE is a confident employer of people with disabilities, empowering people to use the products they need, you’ll start to see more influence on the schools. 

“Confident organisations talking about disability start thinking about the impact that they’re going to have. We still live in a world where a student with a disability has to go through all sorts of specific assessments for the tools they need. If ‘accessible by default’ really continues to resonate within DfE, then you would hope that schools can be accessible by default as well. 

“One of the commitments that our UK  education team made at the tail end of last year was to train 20,000 teachers in assistive technology so that they're starting to learn the range and availability of tools. We have online training courses for teachers to be able to build their skills and their confidence.”

Inclusion – in the most complete, holistic sense – is no longer a tick-box exercise, nor even simply just the right thing, it is the only thing to do. The wider impact and benefits to an organisation and those who rely on its services or products are exceptional. 

One size doesn’t fit all

Fully understanding or connecting with the need for a culture of inclusion can take many forms. Nyla Ahmad is Senior Vice president of Enterprise Marketing and chair of the Inclusion & Diversity Council at Rogers Communications, the Canadian media and telecoms giant which employs more than 20,000 people. “As a woman with a culturally diverse background,” she explains, “I’ve experienced what it feels like when you don’t completely belong in a social environment, or you encounter barriers at work that make you hesitant in a meeting, uncertain about speaking up.”

Rogers’ ongoing efforts to develop a culture of inclusion, reached an “inflection point” in 2019, as they started to see the benefits of a three-year partnership with Microsoft. 

Members of Rogers’ Disabilities Diversity Group learned how “Microsoft embeds accessibility and inclusion into its culture, products, and services, so we can apply similar strategies to our workplace to help our employees work more productively. 

“As we continue to educate ourselves about everyday challenges our employees may face, we’ll increase our overall awareness and understanding that one size doesn’t necessarily fit all.” 

The focus on inclusion and accessibility internally at Rogers extended “to how we connect with our customers and our communities, where we strive to accommodate Canadians of all abilities and backgrounds”. For example, Sportsnet, Rogers’ sports media brand, broadcast the first-ever National Hockey League (NHL) game in the Plains Cree language.

Want to find out how your organisation can become digitally inclusive? Read our interview with Microsoft Accessibility Evangelist, Hector Minto here.

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