Microsoft 365 Harnesses AI for Accessibility in the Workplace

The company's assistive toolset will soon help users catch accessibility issues while they are working on Office content.

Microsoft accessibility

Microsoft is already using machine learning and other artificial intelligence technologies to help enterprises ward off cyber-security threats, break language barriers and give harried workers more control over their Outlook calendars. Now, in observance of Global Accessibility Awareness Day, May 17, the Redmond, Wash., software maker is turning its attention to Microsoft 365 users in the workplace.

Microsoft 365 is a software and cloud services bundle that includes the Windows 10 operating system, the Office 365 productivity suite and Enterprise Mobility + Security (EMS), a cloud-based mobile device and application management toolkit for businesses. On May 16, the company announced that it is building on its Microsoft's intelligent, accessibility-enhancing capabilities with three new features that are scheduled to roll out over the next couple of months.

Accessibility Checker, a tool that scans for accessibility issues in content authored on the Office applications for Mac and Windows, will soon be a little more proactive about alerting its users, according to Jeff Teper, corporate vice president of OneDrive, SharePoint and Office at Microsoft. Rather than invoking the tool, it will continually run in the background, notifying users when they make styling choices like using low-contrast text or other behaviors that may hamper their colleagues' ability to read a Word file, for example.

The tool will also be enhanced by a Recommended Actions feature that guides users through the process of fixing issues that trigger an alert. It will prod users into adding a text description to an embedded image so that it is picked up by screen readers and other assistive technologies. Alternately, users can ask the software to suggest a description based on an image's content.

In Outlook on the PC, the application will soon display a MailTip reminding users that certain recipients prefer that accessible content land in their inboxes. MailTips is a feature that alerts Outlook users when they are about to make common or potentially career-ending mistakes, like sending sensitive information outside of the company.

When they arrive, the features will join a growing collection of accessibility tools available to businesses that have invested in Microsoft's business software system, reminded Teper.

"With automatic alt-text for images in Word and PowerPoint, we give you a head start by providing descriptions for images recognizable by Computer Vision," stated the Microsoft staffer in a May 16 announcement. "The Presentation Translator add-in for PowerPoint enables you to display live subtitles in more than 60 languages. Additionally, Microsoft Stream generates automatic transcripts for videos in English and Spanish using AI to convert speech to text."

And more innovations are on the way, both from Microsoft and its developer community.

During the Build developer conference in Seattle last week, Microsoft launched the AI for Accessibility program. Over the next five years, and at a cost of $25 million, the company will supply coders with AI tools to help "accelerate the development of accessible and intelligent AI solutions to benefit the 1 billion-plus people with disabilities around the world," said Brad Smith, president and chief legal officer of Microsoft, in a May 7 blog post.

Pedro Hernandez

Pedro Hernandez

Pedro Hernandez is a contributor to eWEEK and the IT Business Edge Network, the network for technology professionals. Previously, he served as a managing editor for the Internet.com network of...