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University Partners with Microsoft to Launch New Research Center

May 28, 2020

The University of Washington is launching a new Center for Research and Education on Accessible Technology and Experiences (CREATE) and Microsoft is helping to fund the effort with a $2.5 million inaugural investment.

Microsoft and the UW have long been aligned in a shared commitment to accessible technology and a world that is more accessible through technology. With a leadership team from six campus departments in three different colleges, CREATE will build upon the UW’s existing work in education, research and translation.

“This is the next step in a long-standing journey to empower people with disabilities with accessibility and technology advancements,” Microsoft President Brad Smith said in a news release Thursday. “UW has truly embedded accessibility as part of their culture and we’re proud to support their next step to drive thought leadership on accessibility to empower people with disabilities.”

Microsoft and the university have worked together in the space for more than a decade, driving innovation in accessibility research. This partnership has led to student internship and career opportunities, and ongoing research engagements with the Ability Team at Microsoft Research.

According to the UW, current projects include developing audio-first representations of websites for smart speakers; understanding how perceptions of software developer job candidates with autism may impact hiring decisions; sign language recognition; and mental health.

Jenny Lay-Flurrie, chief accessibility officer at Microsoft, told GeekWire that the journey at the tech giant and the university has been very similar, with a commitment to thinking about accessibility as a cultural entity, driven systemically into the fabric of each institution. She called the investment a “no brainer.”

“There is such a swell and a need for this,” Lay-Flurrie said. “We need more research investment thought leadership when it comes to accessibility. If anything’s brought that more to light, it is the times we’re living in right now.”

Referring to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, Lay-Flurrie said it has driven home how much of a dependency we all have on technology.

“When you think about people with disabilities, that dependency is even more profound,” she said. “If you have vital information being conveyed, everyone should have access to that, whether it’s in a newsreel, a website, or in a document. It really has brought home the need for inclusive digital transformation.”

The announcement comes a week after Global Accessibility Awareness Day and Microsoft’s release of details around how it is making Windows 10 easier to see and use for people with low or no vision. Other tech companies are also addressing accessibility, as Google, for instance, said it will make wheelchair accessibility a more prominent detail in Maps.

CREATE will be led by UW faculty from the Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering, The Information School, UW School of Medicine, Mechanical Engineering, Human Centered Design & Engineering, and the Disability Studies Program.

It will build upon current projects in prioritizing and automating personalization; transitioning transportation to be accessible; augmenting abilities through wearable technologies; developing inclusive, intelligent systems and data sets; and “do-it-yourself” accessible technology production.

The hope is that Microsoft’s investment in and endorsement of the UW’s work will spur additional investment from other partners. The goal right now is to raise $10 million for CREATE, to provide five years of support.

“The University of Washington has for many years led the field in cutting-edge accessible technology research and design,” said Jacob O. Wobbrock, iSchool professor and inaugural co-director of the center, along with Allen School professor Jennifer Mankoff. “Our faculty and students are incredibly motivated to tackle the hard problems of accessibility. Now, with CREATE, we will be able to take on even bigger collaborative challenges in this space.”

Source: Geek Wire