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Microsoft Backing Inclusive Technology

SEATTLE — The ways that humans interact with technology are as varied as the ever-expanding digital landscape. But for more than a billion people with disabilities worldwide, accessing technology isn’t a matter of ‘how’ but ‘if.’ Americans with disabilities are nearly 20 percent less likely to own a tablet, smartphone, computer and have access to high-speed internet, according to the Pew Research Center.

In recent years, tech companies have risen to the challenge of shrinking the digital divide between people with disabilities and those without. For Microsoft, artificial intelligence (AI) holds one key to increasing accessibility. A year ago, Microsoft launched a $25 million grant program called AI for Accessibility that provides funding, support and collaboration to teams or individuals creating tools designed to empower people with disabilities. Grantees are awarded varying resources and credit for Microsoft services ranging in value from $10,000 to 20,000 depending on the project requirements.

In honor of the eighth annual Global Accessibility Awareness Day — a campaign that aims to highlight the need for inclusive technology — Microsoft announced Thursday seven new grantees that will work on AI-powered projects over the next year. Their plans include a speech recognition app that helps people with speech disabilities communicate in real time and a chatbot that prepares job seekers with cognitive disabilities for interviews.

Inclusive technology benefits the needs and preferences of everyone, said senior accessibility architect at Microsoft Mary Bellard. For instance, a person who is blind may choose to hear an article read aloud, but the same technology might also be used by a sighted person who is driving.

“The opportunity for accessible and inclusive technology is even bigger than the billion-plus people in the world with disabilities,” said Bellard.

One project backed last year is InnerVoice, an app that uses Microsoft AI to help people with autism spectrum disorder read social cues and practice speech.

The grant allowed creators Lois Jean Brady and Matthew Guggemos, autism specialists and speech pathologists, to add AI and a chatbot to an app that was already on the market. After a child takes a picture with the InnerVoice app, the photo is transformed into an AI-powered avatar that talks to the child. A chatbot feature also allows the user to practice conversations.

Juell Brandt, an administrator and teacher at Missouri’s Cedar Ridge School for the Severely Disabled, said that InnerVoice has helped students speak who were previously nonverbal. One Cedar Ridge teacher uses the app every day to ask her students about the weather, or what they did at home the night before. The students also use InnerVoice to ask questions on field trips, such as when they conversed with the owner of a miniature horse farm.

“One of them didn’t have any vocabulary when he got here at five, and now he speaks all time,” Brandt said about a student who uses InnerVoice. “Once we open the door for him he doesn’t stop talking.”

Applications for Microsoft’s grant program are accepted on a rolling basis for projects focusing on employment, communication and everyday life. Preference is given to grantees with disabilities or those in partnerships with the impacted community.

“We don’t want to just make tech for tech’s sake,” said Bellard. “I could make a ton of different applications that show the value of computer vision, but if a person who is blind or a person with a cognitive disability doesn’t actually find value in it, then what was the point?”