The core of Microsoft’s work is this: A mission to empower every person, company and organisation in the world to achieve more. Pratima Amonkar, APAC Lead, Cloud & AI Business and Chair, D&I Council at Microsoft tells us more.
Besides upskilling persons with disabilities, Microsoft also connects them with partner companies for full-time work, internships, mentorship and training.
She adds that technology will play a big part in making this possible. After all, from the apps we use in our daily lives, to the speed at which companies have leveraged AI, the cloud, robotics, and the like to navigate through the pandemic, one thing is clear: The future is one that is digital-first.
As a trusted global leader in strategic digital transformation, Microsoft undoubtedly possesses the technical expertise to develop products that are inclusive by design and can empower every person and organisation on the planet to achieve more. Yet, the company is acutely aware that a mission of such magnitude "is not a thing that one person or one company can accomplish alone”.
"That's why we are working closely with governments, communities, customers and partners around the world to achieve this goal,” Pratima explains.
As an ongoing commitment to the Digital for Life (DfL) movement, and as part of Microsoft’s global digital literacy initiative, Microsoft Singapore has partnered with SPD and SG Enable to develop the Digital Enablement Programme (DEP).
The DEP aims to create accessibility, close the digital divide and enable people with disabilities to participate in the workforce. This is made possible through a three-pronged approach to upskill persons with disabilities, connect them with employment opportunities, and improve accessibility in the workplace.
As APAC Lead, Cloud & AI Business and Chair, D&I council at Microsoft, Pratima is an advocate for digital inclusivity and spearheads the work Microsoft does to empower the digital transformation of customers, partners, governments and citizens alike.
The disability-digital divide
Pratima explains that Microsoft’s accessibility focus is driven by the fact that an estimated one billion people in the world live with disabilities. In fact, in 2020, statistics in Singapore showed that around 3 per cent of the resident population had difficulty performing at least one basic activity. These disabilities can range from visible conditions such as visual or mobility impairments to invisible ones such as mental health problems and neurodiverse diseases.
The figures mean that persons living with disabilities represent one of the world’s biggest untapped talent pools—the problem is that a disability divide exists. Only one in 10 of these people have access to the tools they need to contribute to the economy.
“At some point, most of us will likely face some type of temporary, situational or permanent disability,” Pratima shares. What is needed, then, is to “act with a bolder ambition to empower disabled talent and create accessibility”.
Spurring the development of accessible technology
Microsoft's expertise lends itself well to the cause. Over the years, the company has consistently built inclusivity and accessibility into its products by design.
Take Microsoft's Seeing AI and Immersive Reader applications for example. Seeing AI taps on your smartphone's camera to read words and describe objects, narrating the world around its user. For a visually impaired person, the ability to read effortlessly can open doors to better communication, knowledge acquisition, and thus career advancement.
The Immersive Reader on the other hand offers features such as dictating speech, splitting words into syllables, and hiding everything but a single line of text. This enables those who struggle in the regular classroom to focus and improve comprehension.
The potential of such technology is limitless, but the fact is this: “We can’t create the next generation of accessible technology unless we attract more people with disabilities to play a bigger role in helping to develop it. And we need to create an inclusive workplace that nurtures this talent,” Pratima says.
Building skills for the digital-first world
An inclusive workplace starts with equipping people with the required skills. As part of this, in January 2021, Microsoft supported a pilot SPD digital skills training course for job-ready persons with disabilities. This mix of on-site and virtual lessons was customised to equip persons with disabilities with essential digital skills for a world of hybrid work. This would improve their job competency and prepare them for future employment.
The DEP is an extension of this pilot. It includes a 35-hour training course for persons with disabilities and is structured into various tiers catering to different digital literacy levels.
In the first tier, participants pick up basic skills like how to use TraceTogether, WhatsApp, and make medical appointments. In the advanced classes, participants learn to access online government services, safeguard their personal data, and use productivity tools—including Microsoft Teams, Outlook, and OneNote—on their digital devices. Those who are job-ready are also trained in admin support skills like file management. All training sessions are conducted in person by SPD trainers and supported by Microsoft’s staff volunteers.
Part of the DEP curriculum is designed by SPD, while the rest incorporates Digital Literacy content from Microsoft. Any trainees who complete any of Microsoft’s six basic digital literacy courses online will also receive an e-certificate of completion to boost their employability.
Of the 17 participants in the 2021 pilot who received access to employment opportunities, 11 have successfully secured employment upon completion of the programme. Now, with the more robust curriculum and training format, Microsoft aims to work with partners to train 140 persons with disabilities from SPD by 2023.
The DEP offers trainees hands-on activities so they can practice their newly acquired digital skills.
Networks that enable inclusive hiring
However, Pratima cautions that skilling is simply a means to an end— it is equally important to support these workers in finding jobs. Candidly she points out: “Microsoft cannot hire everyone that comes out of [the DEP], but we can definitely introduce them to potential employers.
Efforts to match job seekers with employers began with the APAC Microsoft Enabler Program launched in 2020.
The Microsoft Enabler Program involves partnerships with 19 companies across countries like Singapore, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Philippines, South Korea and New Zealand and has helped over 110 persons with disabilities match with potential roles.
In Singapore, the programme is now over a year old, and has brought in partners like Cognizant, Crayon Pte Ltd, HCL Technologies, Ingram Micro Asia Ltd, NTT Data Singapore, NTT Asia Pacific Holdings, Rackspace Technology, TechData Singapore and Wipro Networks Pte Ltd, to provide full-time roles, internships, mentorships, and training opportunities to persons with disabilities.
Now, Microsoft is taking it a step further and connecting partners with SG Enable’s Job Placement Job Support programme, an initiative that offers employer consultancy and capability-building programmes to organisations that are keen to hire persons with disabilities.
Together with Microsoft’s workshops educating employers on how to work with persons with disabilities, these employer-support measures strive to ease the path to employment for people with disabilities.
Pratima explains that this is essential because inclusivity requires both hands to clap. “Very often we look at just one side of the fence—how we train people to have the right skills,” she says, adding: “But at the end of the day, if employers don’t understand how to work with a person with disability, it all falls apart.”
Finding partnerships with power
Reflecting on how each of the DEP partners has been crucial for the digital gap to be closed, Pratima reiterates the value of collaborating with those who both share the same vision and can bring complementary skills to the table.
Working with SPD, for example, gave Microsoft an avenue to share its volunteers, expertise and digital innovation to create societal impact, while tapping on SPD’s insights and great rapport in the community to reach the full spectrum of persons with disabilities.
Looking to the future, she shares that the goal is for Microsoft to move beyond building a talent pool and helping persons with disabilities seek jobs.
Rather, the hope is that “these people who have now entered the workforce create the next grounds for accessible technology, the next set of innovation, and continue to contribute to the whole journey towards digital inclusivity.”
The DEP is but one of Microsoft’s many steps in this direction, and with its deep network of partners across the public and private sectors, we can expect to see more virtuous cycles in motion.
In support of the DEP programme, IMDA Chief Executive, Mr Lew Chuen Hong joined one of the sessions to observe and meet the volunteers and trainees.
You can contribute to building a resilient, digitally inclusive Singapore:
“People with disabilities represent one of our largest untapped talent pools in Singapore. Through continued public-private partnerships like DEP, which foster a culture of inclusion, we can act together with the bolder ambition to make technology accessible for all. This will allow everyone to participate in society fully and empower every person and every organisation to achieve more as we work together to create a resilient, digitally inclusive Singapore.” – Richard Koh, Chief Technology Officer, Microsoft Singapore.
For more information on how you can create a resilient, digitally inclusive Singapore by joining the Microsoft Enabler Program, and other Microsoft community initiatives, please reach out to Yik Wai Yi, Singapore Communications Lead at firstname.lastname@example.org.