Microsoft commits $25M over 5 years for new ‘AI for Accessibility’ initiative to help people with disabilities

Nadella and his son, Zain, who was born with cerebral palsy. Partially because of his personal life, Nadella is an outspoken advocate for accessibility and universal design in tech. (Microsoft Photo)

Microsoft is committing $25 million over five years to develop artificial intelligence-powered technologies to help people with disabilities.

The aim of the new program announced at the Microsoft Build developer conference in Seattle this week is to use AI to help people with disabilities deal with challenges in three key areas: employment, human connection and modern life. Microsoft said it will award seed grants of its technology to universities, developers, institutions and others; help scale promising ideas; and work with partners to incorporate more accessibility functions in their products.

Microsoft pointed to a few Microsoft apps that have already helped people with disabilities. Microsoft Translator has been an important investment for the company as it has sought to improve the ability of its AI to help people have conversations in different languages. Last year at Build, Microsoft introduced Seeing AI, an app that uses the smartphone camera to narrate what it’s seeing.

The AI for Accessibility initiative follows the blueprint of Microsoft’s previous AI for Earth push. The program began with a $2 million pledge that Microsoft later increased to a five-year, $50 million investment. It aims to put Microsoft’s vast AI resources in the hands of universities, non-governmental organizations and other groups to help solve issues related to climate change, water, agriculture, biodiversity and more.

The initiative is led by Chief Accessibility Officer Jenny Lay-Flurrie, but the project also hits home for Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella. His son Zain suffered in-utero asphyxiation which caused severe brain damage and left him with cerebral palsy. Nadella detailed the impact his son’s birth and life has had on him in his new book, “Hit Refresh,” and spoke about it at the 2017 GeekWire Summit. 

“Quite frankly I struggled with it,” Nadella said at the Summit. “I struggled with it for perhaps multiple years because the well laid out plans of mine as sort of a mid-level or even an entry-level engineer at Microsoft were all sort of out the window. I needed to recalibrate. For a long time I thought, ‘Why is this happening to us, and me?’”

Nadella credits his wife — who not long after her C-section, was driving Zain to doctor’s appointments — with getting pull him out of his funk. Watching his son’s medical care also underscored the responsibility Microsoft carries to make sure it’s technology gets the job done.

“One day I was sitting waiting for him to come out of his surgery and all of the equipment around me and all of it was Windows. And I was saying, ‘Hey, it all better work.’ It just gave me an understanding of the responsibility of a platform company, a technology company.”

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