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Ability Summit
Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, right, speaks with Jenny Lay-Flurrie, chief accessibility officer at the company, during the Ability Summit in Redmond, Wash. (YouTube screen grab)

Microsoft’s mission to create technology that can empower every person doesn’t just begin and end with the products it is creating. It extends to the people it hires, the standards it holds its partners and vendors to, and the workplace it has created.

And the man at the top, CEO Satya Nadella, is personally inspired by all of it he said during a discussion at the company’s Ability Summit in Redmond, Wash., on Thursday.

“The consciousness of the place has changed, which is what’s most exciting to me,” Nadella said during the event aimed at showcasing accessible technology and the importance of inclusive design. “That’s at least what leads to the start of all big things.”

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In a talk with Jenny Lay-Flurrie, chief accessibility officer at Microsoft, Nadella reacted to some of the breakthrough tech being developed by the company, including Seeing AI, an application that uses artificial intelligence to see and narrate the world around low-vision users.

“Empowering people and their capability using AI — whether it is language, whether it is speech, whether it is vision … and most importantly being able to fuse all three of these abilities — I think is going to be breakthrough because it’s going to help us all at some point in our life,” Nadella said. “That combined with a real universal design as the product ethos, that’s why I think it’s the golden age of being able to build products for everyone. And that’s our mission.”

Lay-Flurrie said there are 150,000 users on Seeing AI, and they’ve taken 5 million pictures. And Nadella said the product has changed Microsoft’s perspective of what it means to build products that are generally super useful for people of all abilities.

And he stressed the importance of bringing the quality and design that is expected in any consumer grade product to products that anyone in the disabled community wants to use, mentioning the Xbox Adaptive Controller as an example.

“Hold us to high standards,” Nadella urged the audience. “What we want from you is that inspiration for what more we can do, what more should we do.” He encouraged folks attending the summit to bring a critical eye to everything from products on display to ease of accessibility around the Redmond campus.

Nadella shared the story of his 21-year-old son Zane, who was born with cerebral palsy, and coming to understand how technology could play a role in improving Zane’s quality of life.

He said accessibility, accessibility technologies and universal design — and the work that Microsoft is doing in the area — have given him a deep sense of meaning and satisfaction at work. And he ties his appreciation for all of it back to empathy.

“That’s what made me a better father, better partner and hopefully a better leader at Microsoft,” Nadella said.

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