19 July 2021
The pace at which an industry becomes ‘digitised’ can vary, with key dependencies being the feasibility to automate constituent businesses and/or human functions, the availability of capital to do so and general consumer appetite for meaningful change.
One area that has been slow to embark on a digital transformation is that developing the apparatus and services to support those living with a disability. Though physical products supporting people with unique needs have innovated and evolved, assistive technology has traditionally lacked the capability and functionality needed to have a significant impact on their lives and the lives of those around them.
Fortunately, the industry is undergoing a revolution as technology startups and larger, already-established companies place inclusive technology at the forefront of their business plans and product pipelines, a development discussed at the 2021 Macquarie Technology Summit.
Jenny Lay-Flurrie, Chief Accessibility Officer at Microsoft, shared the company’s philosophy that ‘designing products and services for the uniqueness of people with disabilities actually results in designs that benefit everyone.’ This sentiment is prevailing more broadly amongst other large tech corporations, with the likes of Zoom, Apple, Facebook, and Google all pioneering new ways to create and foster all-ability technology. These range from simple functionalities like blurred backgrounds and live captioning to more sophisticated enhancements like customised iPads for for people who have visual impairment and Google Home’s AI enabling people to make audio commands and actions.
Currently, there are more than a billion people in the world living with a disability, and over 70 per cent of those disabilities are invisible to the eye. It’s therefore critical that in an increasingly digital world, it’s ensured that everyone is able to participate in day-to-day activities now performed online – like working from home, shopping online, and accessing remote medical appointments.
If you don’t know if something is accessible, it’s not. There’s no in-between.”
Jenny Lay-Flurrie, Chief Accessibility Officer at Microsoft
Efforts to address this gap in the market don’t only exist at a macro level. At the micro end of the spectrum are smaller-scale startup accelerators like Remarkable - situated within the venture arm of the Cerebral Palsy Alliance - dedicated to supporting founders in creating innovative assistive technology to commercialise their product.
We work around their [the founder’s] product-market fit, their business model and their go to market strategy to make sure they can get it out to the customers who need it most. We also focus on the governance and sustainability of their business.”
Pete Horsley, Founder of Remarkable
Globally, venture capital (VC) investment into health and assistive technology has spiked since the start of the COVID-19 outbreak, as the pandemic increased demand for them in-line with the migration of many services online. In early 2021, Evinced Inc., a startup that aims to help companies make their websites and software accessible to people with disabilities, raised $US19.5 million of Series A funding; the round was led by Microsoft’s venture fund M12 among others.1
During the 2021 Macquarie Technology Summit, Jeff Orlowsky, a senior event marketing manager within Macquarie’s Corporate Affairs team, sat down with Jenny Lay-Flurrie to learn more about Microsoft’s recent five-year pledge to closing the disability divide, how to be an advocate for your own needs and the alignment between Macquarie’s and Microsoft’s usage in accessible communication environments like Teams and PowerPoint.
Download and listen to the podcast episode below:
The opportunities within the disability sector are not only sizable from an investment point of view but arguably more-so from a cultural and societal perspective. As digital societies are established online, a one-in-a-lifetime opportunity exists to ensure those ecosystems reflect those ‘offline’ and include everyone.
The internet was founded on principles of equality, transparency and access, and as arguments around net-neutrality continue to come into the limelight, the same can be said about designing technologies for a majority audience and the need to bring in more minority, niche audiences to that process. As large tech companies continue to weave accessibility through their product offerings and nimble startups pioneer innovative technology, the true potential of tech for people with disabilities will be unlocked and in turn, digital societies will flourish from their inclusion.
The Macquarie Technology Summit once again brought together global leaders driving technological change across multiple aspects of business and community.