Microsoft’s Voice of Accessibility

Posted December 21, 2012

Speaking to Jenny Lay-Flurrie, you’d never know she has been deaf almost all of her life. Even through her charming British accent, Lay-Flurrie speaks sparklingly clear – like a television news anchor.

Her job is senior director for Microsoft’s Accessibility Customer Experience, a demanding role that requires meetings, both in person and worldwide, with customers and co-workers for as many as nine hours a day. That’s a lot of listening and communicating for anyone.

But Lay-Flurrie takes it all in stride – and says she always has. As a toddler, Lay-Flurrie developed deafness as a result of measles, and her hearing has progressively declined since. Her sister has congenital hearing loss and her father has mild hearing loss as well. “It was a noisy home,” she joked. But she credits her parents, both school principals, for being acutely aware of her and her sister’s needs.

Jenny Lay-Flurrie

“My mom was just phenomenal and taught me to lip read from a very early age,” Lay-Flurrie says, who is from Birmingham, a large city about 120 miles north of London. “Primarily, the reason I’m able to speak as clearly as I do today and navigate in a hearing world like I do was from my mother’s influence.”

Lay-Flurrie went to a conventional grade school and was a high achiever through high school. She had some accommodations like sitting in the front of the class as well as using hearing aids, but lip reading, she says, helped her most. She later went to a music school, studied to be a clarinetist, and graduated with a music degree.

“It was not always easy,” she says. “I would never, ever say that it was. There were definitely moments where I came across obstacles, but you just have to get over them.”

As much as Lay-Flurrie loved music, after college she realized that she needed to find a reliable job that would pay the bills. “I knew that I had a great future ahead of me whatever that was. I thought, ‘I’m not going to let my disability control that. I’m just not,’” she says.

She found her niche in information technology. For many years, she worked in information technology service and support roles for companies in the U.K. and Germany. She joined Microsoft in 2005, and moved to the United States a year later.

Lay-Flurrie first worked as senior director of Advertising Support and Services within Microsoft’s Customer Service and Support Division, where she was responsible for the service and support of Microsoft’s Search Online Advertising Products (like Bing and Ad Center), as well as services and sales, driving $50 million in revenue. Also in this role, she saved the company more than $10 million by instituting improvements to the products as well as a better customer experience.

Now Lay-Flurrie heads the Accessibility Customer Experience, where she manages the customer experience of Microsoft’s products for users with disabilities. “We’re really trying to drive initiatives to better support and understand the customer experience, allow that customer voice to come through to help us do great things with our products now and in our future,” she says.

“I would say the key thing that makes Jenny the right leader for this role is passion: Passion for those with disabilities, passion for Microsoft, and passion for our customers. Put those three things together in a single person and it drives impact,” says Rich Kaplan, vice president, Customer Partner Experience at Microsoft.

Lay-Flurrie loves the demands and dynamics of her career, but it is not without its challenges, especially for someone with deafness. For example, often there are meetings where 30 people will be on a conference call (she has one or two American Sign Language interpreters or real-time captioning, depending on the call), making it nearly impossible to keep up. So it’s up to her to level the playing field. “I’ll say, ‘Sorry guys, you really have to decide who’s talking – but one of you, not two.

Another challenge is the meeting space itself. Oblong tables and dim lighting tend to be tough for lip readers, says Lay-Flurrie who prefers the proximity of people at a round table with brighter lighting. Often she will request a round table in a well-lit room to ensure better communication.

Lay-Flurrie says it’s her conviction and courage that helps her get through the various work challenges, in addition to taking advantage of technologies like hearing aids, captioning, interpreters, video conferencing and e-mail. “If I don’t ask. … If I don’t have what I need to be successful, the only one who is going to lose out is me,” she says. “You have to own your disability.”

Outside of her role, Lay-Flurrie also chairs the cross-disability group at Microsoft, an employee resource group, where the focus is on enabling people to be successful regardless of ability. Her compassion and understanding benefits everyone, says Rob Sinclair, chief accessibility officer at Microsoft. “Every day, Jenny brings great passion and a wonderful sense of humor to her work, and I consider her a key contributor to our on-going pursuit of a fully inclusive workplace and accessible products and services,” he says.

Even with all these contributions to Microsoft, there’s no time for Lay-Flurrie to rest on her laurels. “I’m nowhere near done,” she says. “Oh no. There’s much more to come.”