The year was 1914 and T.J. Watson, the founder of IBM, hired the company’s first employee with a disability. He didn’t need the Americans with Disabilities Act-which became law in this country some 76 years later-to realize that it’s good business to evaluate potential employees on the basis of what they can do instead of what they can’t.
So began IBM’s deeply held belief that everyone should have equal access to information and the technology that delivers it. This philosophy is clearly beneficial both for individuals and for society, and it is good for business.
The current wave of equipping businesses with accessible technology is driven by the need to comply with government regulations. In 1998, the U.S. Congress amended the Rehabilitation Act in a law now referred to as Section 508. That law required all U.S. Federal agencies to make their electronic and information technology accessible to all people with disabilities.
The principle behind Section 508 is that inaccessible technology interferes with people’s ability to find and use information quickly and easily. Section 508 aims to eliminate barriers to information, create new opportunities for people with disabilities and spur new technologies that will provide access to information for everyone.
Section 508 is enforced through the procurement groups of federal agencies. Those procurement departments are mandated to buy only electronic and information technology that gives employees and members of the public with disabilities access comparable to the access given others. Thus, companies wishing to do business with the federal government have had to make sure their technology is accessible.
Many other countries have enacted similar legislation. In Canada, businesses are guided by the Canadian Human Rights Act. Web accessibility and barrier-free technology laws and regulations also exist in the United Kingdom, Germany, Italy, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Japan, Australia and New Zealand.
A wide array of businesses has emerged to help companies comply with government regulations. Some manufacture assistive devices, while others produce accessible computer hardware, software and applications. Consultants and systems integrators help businesses comply with regulations by recommending and installing accessible information technology.
If the adage money talks is true, then businesses will be persuaded to offer accessible technology not only because of government regulations, but because of the improvement in business opportunities when technologies are accessible. Business people relate to statistics showing market opportunity, and those statistics are compelling. An assessment by the World Bank in 2002 found that of the more than six billion people in the world, more than 500 million have some sort of disability. In the U.S. alone, people with disabilities have more than $225 billion in disposable income, according to the National Organization on Disability. This part of the population spends many more hours per week than most Americans do on the Internet, where they presumably are spending some of that disposable income.
In addition, technologies once developed primarily for people with disabilities are now serving the aging population, whose vision, hearing and overall agility is not what it once was. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, some 420 million people worldwide are age 65 and older. Several factors have led to the aging of the worldwide population, including a declining birth rate and increased longevity. In the U.S., the baby-boomers born after World War II are about to become senior citizens, and better health and lower pensions are leading many to work far later in life than the traditional retirement age of 65.
IBM is engaged in many facets of the move toward accessibility in business. The company actively participates in worldwide bodies setting standards for information technology and Web accessibility; there IBM pro motes the adoption of open, accessible standards allowing the broadest possible portfolio of accessible technologies, from different vendors, to work smoothly together. Following the company motto innovation that matters, the inventors in IBM’s Research Division, which hold an impressive 35,000 patents, have led the way with the development of technologies like the powerful speech recognition tools embedded in IBM’s assistive devices. At six Accessibility Centers scattered across the globe from Austin to Australia, IBM ensures that all components of its products, from the hardware to the middleware that applications run on, are accessible. Finally, IBM’s Global Services unit offers accessibility consultation services to its clients.
Recently, IBM has focused on new products and technologies ideal for businesses and large organizations. For example, late last year IBM introduced a pilot program called the Liberated Learning Initiative, in con junction with the Alexander Graham Bell Institute in Toronto, Canada. Through this program, universities are using IBM’s Via Scribe technology, which translates the spoken word into computerized text. With Via Scribe, as professors give their lectures, their words are translated in real time into text displayed on a large screen in the classroom. Via Scribe assists students who are deaf or speak English as a second language, as well as those in the MTV generation whose attention tends to wander; all feel the Via Scribe technology helps them learn better. Via Scribe works in English, French. Chinese and Japanese.
While Via Scribe converts speech to text, Home Page Reader does the opposite, converting text on the screen to computerized speech. It is designed to help people who are blind or who have low vision make sense of the layout, graphics and moving video of today’s Internet. The software is useful to people in business who need to use the Internet to communicate with employees, customers and suppliers, as well as people who use the Internet at home to follow stock prices and do their shopping. Recently, IBM introduced the newest Home Pager Reader, version 3.04. It speaks in English, Brazilian Portuguese, French, German, Italian and Spanish and will soon accommodate Thai and Japanese.
“These technologies are designed not only to help companies and organizations meet government requirements for accessibility, but to dramatically boost the productivity of their employees as well,” said Frances West, director of IBM’s Worldwide Accessibility Center. “Opening up the information resources of the Web is good for business, for individuals and for society as a whole.”
IBM’s long-term vision is to see companies move beyond mere compliance. Toward that end, IBM is advancing the idea that accessibility should be part of every company’s strategic business plan. Every business should offer its employees and customers accessible information technology, not just as something that’s nice to have but as something that’s a must have.
IBM representatives are actively working with regulatory bodies, the community of people with disabilities and other companies in the assistive device and accessibility industries. Through this collaboration, IBM hopes to inspire no less than a societal transformation, where information is equally available to all.
Most people who surf the Web never think twice about being able to access their favorite sites. For people with disabilities. however, going online can be a confusing, frustrating and wholly unsatisfying experience. Around the world, millions of people with disabilities are gaining recognition as a significant and growing market for products and services, and they are making their needs and expectations known. The expectation for information technology (IT) to be accessibility for people with disabilities came to the national forefront last summer when consumer websites Priceline.com and Ramada.com agreed to high-profile settlements with New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer over noncompliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Hewlett-Packard (HP), the world’s largest consumer IT company, has been implementing accessibility design and features into its website for several years. More recently, members of the HP Web accessibility team have been actively promoting to other businesses and organizations the importance of accessible websites and sharing key learnings and best practices. ABILITY Mag azine talked to Natasha Lipkina, HP’s manager of global Web accessibility, about what drives HP’s commitment in this area, how the company made accessibility a top priority, and what HP has learned in the process.
ABILITY: Tell us about your role at HP.
Natasha Lipkina: I joined HP six years ago, and I am responsible for managing accessibility for our global Web presence as well as HP’s e-business. We’re talking about a huge site-thousands of pages, hundreds of products, dozens of languages, and new content coming in on a daily basis. It’s all got to be accessible to everyone. My group works closely with the HP Accessibility Program Office and the Web development team to oversee strategic planning and implementation.
ABILITY: When we talk about Web accessibility, what exactly does that mean?
NL: There are many different definitions of Web accessibility. To HP, it means ensuring that anyone with Web browsing capability can not only access and clearly understand Web content, but also has the ability to interact with it. The bottom line is, regardless of a person’s disability, he or she should have virtually the same experience online as anyone else.
Our commitment extends beyond HP.com, as well. For example, our Web-based business-to-business functions, e-mail, online advertising and promotions are all fully accessible. We try to ensure that everything we touch is accessible for all of our employees, customers and partners.
Our Web accessibility standards integrate Worldwide Web Consortium (W3C) Guidelines and Section 508 Web standards [Section 508 is an addition to the Rehabilitation Act requiring full accessibility for all federal IT purchases]. We do our best to ensure that all our customers can easily access information on our website and accomplish the tasks they need to, from learning about our products and our company to applying for a job with HP.
ABILITY: Why did HP take this approach?
NL: As a technology leader, we couldn’t be late to the game. We recognized the huge market represented by people with disabilities. We really started in 2000 by updating our Web design standards. We were ahead of Section 508 enforcement and took a proactive approach to building in accessibility. As quickly as we could, we developed plans and strategies that could be put into place immediately, knowing we would address systems for ensuring compliance later. HP made accessibility a priority and provided to our internal Web development teams the tools, resources and knowledge they needed.
ABILITY: You mentioned ensuring compliance-how does HP do that?
NL: It was critical that we develop not only the policies and standards, but also a robust system for enforcing them. We require regular self-assessments from HP Web publishers, asking them to take responsibility for the outcomes. Ensuring accessibility is a never-ending task, requiring us to constantly stay abreast of changes and developments in technology as well as ways to make those new features and applications usable by everyone. With continual changes in standards and regulations, we are constantly training new team members. We also invite external organizations, such as the National Federation for the Blind, to help us monitor compliance.
ABILITY: What kinds of challenges do websites that aren’t designed with accessibility in mind pose for users with disabilities?
NL: For most people, the Internet is a gateway to the world. It can be so liberating and make life so much easier and richer. But for people with disabilities, it can be just the opposite. Navigating online can be an extremely frustrating experience. Take, for example, users with impaired vision who use screen readers [devices that use a synthesized voice to explain content on the screen]. If a website isn’t coded to interact with screen readers, then the screen reader can’t work. The user won’t get accurate context for images or information on the page and won’t be able to move around the site. We understand these frustrations. Our Web team includes people with disabilities and is extremely passionate about ensuring that people with different kinds of disabilities have full access to our site.
ABILITY: Why should a company bother with Web accessibility?
NL: There are several driving factors, including business benefits, legal requirements and social responsibility. From a legal standpoint, although the requirements and regulations started out in the United States and Europe. they are becoming increasingly prevalent in most parts of the world. Everyone saw what happened with the settlements last year, so companies are realizing that they expose themselves to legal liability if they are not accessible.
ABILITY: Can you talk more about the business benefits?
NL: There are numerous business benefits. Millions of people around the world have some type of disability. When your website isn’t accessible to them, they will never be your customers. And we’re talking about many types of disability. For example, age-related impairments are a growing trend. Studies have shown that more than 50 percent of working-age computer users in the U.S. are affected by some form of vision, hearing. dexterity or other impairment.
More than that, the same improvements that make your site accessible for people with disabilities make it better and easier for people without them, too. For example, providing alternatives to visual images for people who are blind or have low vision also allows users with slower connections to download information and navigate your site more quickly and easily. Additionally, new platforms like PDAs and Web enabled mobile phones have limited support for complex programs and large images, and providing accessibility features facilitates Web use from these modalities. These platforms are the future of Internet access, so to keep your content from getting to people who use them makes no sense.
Another benefit an accessible website brings is improved search engine functionality, making it easier for customers to find the content they are looking for. And when sites become more accessible to search engines, they appear higher in search engine rankings, providing a competitive advantage. Accessibility also creates efficiencies in managing website content. Using simple design allows users to view the same content on a variety of platforms without the designer’s having to recreate it each time.
ABILITY: You also mentioned social responsibility as a motivating factor.
NL: Yes, it’s a significant motivation, a huge part of everything we do at HP. Making the Web and other information technology accessible to everyone is the right thing to do. Business and legal benefits aside, HP has a strong legacy of advancing diversity in all its forms and using technology to make life better for people around the world.
ABILITY: Are there any other ways that HP has implemented its commitment to Web accessibility?
NL: One of our main goals is to integrate accessibility from the beginning into our product development process. Our Web-based Accessibility Toolkit for product designers provides information about accessibility requirements, legislation and best practices, giving designers the tools needed to ensure that products are accessible to everyone. To help customers interested in product accessibility, HP was one of the first companies to document the accessibility features of our product portfolio-our desktops, notebooks, handhelds, printers and other products. This information is publicly available online on our voluntary product accessibility template (VPAT) database.
ABILITY: What results has HP seen from its efforts?
NL: We’ve had great feedback and input from users with disabilities. We look at our commitment to accessibility as a learning process. When we get suggestions, we go right in and find out how we can improve features and site design. Our global website was recognized by the U.S. National Federation for the Blind (NFB) in 2004 as an e-business leader for Web accessibility, NFB’s Nonvisual Accessibility Web Application Certification program recognizes websites that can be used equally as well by people who are blind as by people who are sighted. HP is the only company to earn certification in two consecutive years.
To help spread the word, we’re promoting to other businesses the merits and importance of Web accessibility and sharing our experiences. We’re members of W3C and sponsors of the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) I serve on the WAI Steering Committee and on the Edu cation and Outreach Working Group. HP also makes presentations and joins panels at industry conferences, such as the California State University at Northridge (CSUN) adaptive technology conference.
ABILITY: If you had to give one piece of advice to an organization that wanted to make its website accessible. what would you tell them?
NL: It’s critical to get a long-term commitment from the upper management. This type of program requires an investment of time, money and people, and getting buy in from the top helps ensure the right resources are in place. HP’s top leaders have made it clear that accessibility is a priority and have put resources in place to support that commitment.
I know you asked for one piece of advice, but here’s another-it’s crucial to address accessibility issues during the design and development stage. If you know the requirements going in, you will save time and money and avoid many late nights and huge headaches. It’s an investment of time and resources up front, but when you weigh the business benefits and avoided legal exposure, it’s worth every penny. HP puts this investment into everything we do on the Web, so we spend little time going back or catching up. It’s really part of our culture now.
To work with children with differing levels of ability, therapists and educators have needed a toolbox of assistive technology consisting of wires, connectors, switches, alternative keyboards and other adapted equipment. Cosmo’s Learning Systems now offers a one-stop shop. A unique learning and rehabilitation tool, Cosmo’s Learning Systems is designed for children in the developmental age range of two to eight years and targets therapeutic and educational goals.
Dr. Cori Lathan and her colleagues at AnthroTronix have developed this unique product line through five years of testing and evaluation in clinics, hospitals and schools. Therapists, educators, engineers and families of children with disabilities worked together to create Cosmo’s Learning Systems. During the research and development process, the need became clear for a learning system that incorporates therapy and education goals while allowing children to have fun. Through a user centered design process, a new and innovative design emerged that incorporated the best elements from other products currently available in the marketplace.
Everett is a five-year-old with cerebral palsy who attends weekly therapy sessions. One of his goals is to practice fine and gross motor skills with his right hand. Everett’s therapist Nancy believes he is becoming bored with several of the standard games and exercises during therapy. Knowing Everett loves computer software games, Nancy is now able to liven up his therapy sessions by using Cosmo’s Learning Systems to introduce a software game into therapy.
Cosmo’s Learning Systems consists of Mission Control and Cosmo’s Play and Learn software. Mission Control is a computer interface device that replaces the standard keyboard and standard mouse. It has four color-coded buttons with aFFx activators that respond to variations of pressure. The difference between on/off switches and aFFx activators is analogous to the difference between on/off light switches and dimmers. The aFFx activators introduce greater variation into activities and promote a more interactive experience for children. Mission Control also includes a built-in microphone sensitive to sound, as well as eight external ports for switches or other inputs. For a therapist or educator, these features allow one device to serve a variety of children. Mission Control is used to connect to Cosmo’s Play and Learn software.
Playground Discovery, the first software package in the suite of Cosmo’s Play and Learn software, is designed for children ranging from three to five years in develop mental age. The child takes the virtual character Cosmo through a variety of games and activities. Because of the high level of interactivity, each developmentally appropriate activity is fun and motivating as Playground Discovery challenges, teaches and promotes therapy goals.
The software can be customized for each child’s needs through a simple mapping program. For example, a child can receive either a single set of instructions or a complex set of primary, secondary and tertiary instructions. After each session, a summary of results is available to be saved or printed out. Cosmo’s Activity Book is included with the products, providing coloring sheets as well as an overview of the system, educational goals and activities.
When playing typical software games, Everett generally uses his unaffected left hand to play. Instructed to use his right hand in therapy sessions, Everett uses the proportional activators on Mission Control to play through a series of activities with the character Cosmo. He presses and holds the activators to blow virtual bubbles of different sizes and shouts to pop the bubbles. The activities requiring two button presses help him practice the use of both hands at the same time. During the session, Everett also learns about color discrimination and spatial discrimination. He learns to differentiate big from little and left from right. At the end of the session, Nancy gives Everett’s mother a few fun activity sheets to use at home to reinforce the goals from the software game. Everett’s trial sessions have been so productive that he and his mother are both eagerly awaiting the opportunity to obtain Cosmo’s Learning Systems at home.
While this technology was designed for children with disabilities, it can also be used by children without disabilities who do not use a standard keyboard or mouse. In addition, Mission Control can be used with any off-the-shelf software that recognizes a standard keyboard and mouse. The future vision for Cosmo’s Learning Systems is for children with and without dis abilities to use one or more of the components in their classrooms and then go home to continue experiencing Cosmo’s adventures.