A Child, A Father, and the Power of Empathy

‘Imagine you see a baby lying in the street, and the baby is crying. What do you do?’ asked Richard Tait, a Microsoft hiring manager back in 1992 to the then unknown young man from India. The young man answered that he would dial 911. Tait, who went on to co-found Cranium Games, walked the young man out of his office, put his arm around him and said: “You need to get some empathy, man. If you see a baby crying in the street,  pick up the baby”.

The unknown young man was Satya Nadella, Microsoft’s current CEO. Something else about Mr Nadella must have shone through, since he got the job anyway. Four years later, his life took a sharp turn following the birth of his son. Noticing that the baby was not moving the way it should during the final weeks of pregnancy, Satya Nadella and his wife Anu went to see a doctor. Hours later, their son Zain was born. He was born with cerebral palsy, which in his case seriously limited his ability to move and maintain posture and balance.

Zain’s birth was a life-changing moment. In 2017, Nadella looked back at the birth of his son, writing in a Linkedin post: “Becoming a father of a son with special needs was the turning point in my life that has shaped who I am today. It has helped me better understand the journey of people with disabilities. It has shaped my personal passion for and philosophy of connecting new ideas to empathy for others.”

Zain Nadella spent most of his life in a wheelchair, depending heavily on his parents and on doctors at the Seattle Children’s Hospital. Zain was a lover of music and his musical taste was wide-ranging, from Leonard Cohen to Abba through to Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. During his earlier days, he depended on others to browse his favorite songs. Until a few empathetic teenagers designed a Windows app that enabled Zain to control his music with a sensor in his wheelchair.

Being dependent on others to do basic things is frustrating. As a visually impaired person, I experienced great frustration when I needed to ask others to read out  my  text messages in the days before I learned  of screen readers. I can imagine the joy and excitement when Zain realized he could control his music without anyone’s help.

Mr Nadella, having witnessed the positive change made by empathetic inventions in his son’s life, realized his power to change more lives by encouraging empathetic design of software and hardware.

Exploring the latest version of Windows 11, one can only appreciate the number of features focusing on accessibility, such as Narrator and live captioning. Inspired by his son, Satya Nadella actively champions people to come up with solutions for various problems through annual Hackathons, which has already produced impressive solutions such as seeing AI, that helps visually impaired people to use their mobile camera to see and read the world.

In his book “Hit Refresh,” Satya Nadella identifies Mixed Reality as one of the key elements of the future. However at present, mixed reality has many limitations. Altspace, a virtual reality platform acquired by Microsoft in 2017, is not accessible to screen readers. Screen reader users cannot create their own avatars, or navigate independently around the virtual worlds. They cannot even sign into the environment without a sighted person’s help. Still, it is not all doom and gloom out there. Microsoft is developing its own Mixed Reality platform called Microsoft Mesh, with accessibility hopefully “baked in” to its foundations, with a genuine commitment to ensuring that its entire functionality is accessible to all user groups.  When such accessible platforms appear, they will open new doors for people with disabilities to express themselves and to explore the world around them.

It has been barely a month since we heard about Zain Nadella’s death. He will be remembered not only for his sunny smile, his love of diverse music, and the joy he brought to his parents, but also for the role he played in his father’s life, in expanding Mr Nadella’s understanding of the lives of others. He will be remembered by millions of disabled people for his indirect role in encouraging tech companies to design products with accessibility in mind.

When looking back on the life of Zain Nadella, I am reminded of Lord Muruga from Hindu mythology, who is known for teaching his own father Shiva a most fundamental lesson. But unlike Lord Muruga who taught his father the real meaning of the word Om and the wisdom contained in the Vedas, Zain Nadella taught his father the real impact of products designed with empathy.