The following blog post was written by James Thurston – Director of International Accessibility Policy at Microsoft. James works with Microsoft’s global subsidiaries, NGOs, and governments around the world to develop public policies that support broad digital inclusion.

-----

One of the best parts of my job is that I get to collaborate with inspiring organizations around the world that are working to create a more accessible and inclusive society.

Last month, I was at the second annual conference of Access Israel, a non-profit group working to improve quality of life for people with disabilities. Over two days, I learned about the incredible range of accessibility work happening across that country.

Yuval Wagner, Chairman of Access Israel, welcomed hundreds of guests to the conference.  He had the vision to create the organization in 1999 after being paralyzed himself in an accident as a pilot in the Israeli Defense Forces.

At the conference, Israel’s Commissioner for Equal Rights for Persons with Disabilities, Achiya Kamara, laid out his vision for how and why Israel must move forward on its commitments under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

Mark Todd explained how accessibility touched all aspects at the London 2012 Olympics and Paralympics, where he was responsible for accessibility. Now, he is continuing that focus as he works on the next two Olympics.

What was most impressive, though, was Access Israel’s overall commitment to a truly inclusive society, where people with disabilities are integrated with dignity, respect, equal rights and maximum independence.

Accessibility is not the organization’s goal, but instead a means to reach its goal of true integration of people with disabilities that allows respect, equality and maximum independence, Michal Rimon, CEO at Access Israel, told me.

“Our name is Access Israel since our goal is to enable everyone access to all parts of Israel -physical, technological, service, etc… This is the only way to achieve true integration,” Michal said.

A key component of this strategy is raising awareness of disability, something I learned on the first night of the conference when I attended a Senses Dinner, one of Access Israel’s signature events. During the meal, each course featured the experience of a different disability. For the first course, we were blindfolded, making it hard to eat and even to tell if I received the right food.

I have been working in disability policy for more than a dozen years and this dinner was a unique experience, both educational and at times quite emotional.

“In our experience the most efficient way to bring about the desired change is by exposing the community to people with disabilities and their daily reality, challenges, barriers, and accomplishments. Our methods have proven to successfully increase awareness of the general public, planners and decision makers to the importance of accessibility.” - Access Israel, “Who We Are.”

Access Israel's programs include:

  • Our Business Forum engages leading businesses to promote accessibility with a unique model that integrates accessibility into large scale companies. We have a systematic approach that encourages these organizations to provide 100 percent accessibility for all customers, including those with disabilities, while helping organizations implement accessibility in the most efficient and professional manner.
  • Educational programs that increase student awareness of disabilities and change perspectives through lectures and experiential activities. Access Israel is active in elementary and high schools across Israel, with activities aimed at both students and faculty. Our goal is to create an environment that will truly integrate people with disabilities into the educational system and throughout Israeli society.
  • National campaigns that increase awareness of the importance of accessibility by initiating and leading national campaigns in various media channels.

Access Israel and Microsoft Israel have been collaborating for years to promote accessibility in policy arenas, among the public, and in practice. Through trainings days, workshops and conferences for developers, educators, policymakers and users in Israel, Access Israel and Microsoft bring the power and magic of technology into the lives of people with disabilities.