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John Williams
IBM’s Building An Accessible IT World Barrier Free
John M. Williams

Imagine a world where accessibility meets information technology innovation. Imagine an IT world where disability is not considered an employment liability. Imagine a technological world so advanced that it reduces the numbers of people becoming disabled because they have instant access to information that prevents illnesses and either short-or-long term disability.

Imagine IT creating a world without communications barriers for everyone. Imagine hearing IBM and instantly thinking global accessibility.The world of IT improving the lives of everyone is exploding as IBM initiates a dynamic, doggedly determined global strategy of providing accessibility solutions by ensuring all of its IT software and hardware products are accessible to persons with disabilities.

And simultaneously providing global accessibility services.

Web accessibility is defined as providing access to web people with disabilities. The larger scope of accessibility includes benefits to people without disabilities.

What are the motivations behind IBM’s global accessibility goal? It’s sound business policy and Section 508 of the 1998 Rehabilitation Act.

The two goals may seem contradictory, but in IBM’s mind they are synonymous with global business-to-business customer inclusiveness and services.

“Based on our knowledge of both the public and private sectors, IBM believes that accessibility will become a purchasing consideration affecting billions of dollars of mainstream IT spending, driven not simply by the possibility of regulation, but also by the business value that accrues by making information technology more accessible to all users, including employees, customers and partners,” says Ralph Martino, vice president of strategy and marketing services, IBM Global Services.

The altruistic policy is echoed by IBM’s Shon Saliga, director, IBM Worldwide
Accessibility Center, Austin, TX, when he says, “We are determined to build a world without communications barriers for everyone because it is sound business policy.”

The Accessibility Center is part of IBM’s research organization. For information on the center visit http://www-3.ibm.com/able/. Worldwide accessibility is a laudable goal. Other companies have had them,but they have evaporated quickly because they lack the hard-driven commitment from the chief executive officer. The question begging to be asked is: Does this commitment have a priority from IBM’s CEO Sam Palmisano?

Jani Byrne, Business Director, Worldwide Accessibility Center, emphatically says, “The global commitment for worldwide accessibility comes directly from IBM’s Chairman and CEO Sam Palmisano.”

Under Palmisano’s leadership, worldwide accessibility is a mainstream business strategy, with two components. The first is internal. There is Corporate Instruction 162 that directs the corporation to ensure that all new technology meet a set of accessibility standards for employees.

As for the second component, to ensure technology reaches the marketplace with equal impact, Palmisano directed the Worldwide Accessibility Center to work with IBM’s various units to incorporate accessibility into their business solutions.

Accessibility and The Marketplace

What statistics support an accessibility business strategy? The numbers do.

Secretary General Tomas R. Lagerwall, Rehabilitation International, NYC estimates “there are 600 million people with disabilities worldwide.” Rehabilitation International is a worldwide network of people with disabilities, service providers and government agencies working together to improve the quality of life for disabled people and their families Seven percent of the world’s population is older than 65-years-old. As the baby boomers age and deal with accessibility, information technology requires accessible and more user-friendly products.

Secondly, as a result of Section 508 of the 1998 Rehabilitation Act, the IT market within the federal government is about $45 billion annually. IBM wants to capture this market and the spiraling effect 508 is having in the states and foreign countries.

Karen Kenny, project director, Collaborative Center for Assistive Technology & Training, Northampton, MA, says, “States are starting to clamor for 508 implementation and will soon do more with 508 compliance.”

Section 508 states that as of June 21, 2001federal agencies' electronic and information technology is accessible to people with disabilities. The law also mandates that federal web sites are accessible. However, if providing accessibility is an undue financial burden to the vendor, the vendor does not have to comply. Still, the drawback to non-compliance could mean the vendor will not sell equipment and services to the federal government.

How big is the federal market for employees for people with disabilities? The Office of Personnel Management says more that as of September 2000, about 120,525 people with disabilities work for the federal government. Roughly 6% of the federal workforce has a disability.

Since the federal government has a recruitment program to employ more people with disabilities accessibility is even more important.

No one knows how many employees with disabilities work for the 50 states and thousands of local governments.

“The impact of Section 508 will grow as state governments and governments around the world implement similar regulations and policies,” says Byrne.

While no one can tell the number of people with disabilities working in the private sector, the U.S. Department of Labor estimates about 11-million adults with disabilities of working age are unemployed. Advocates say that access to technology can provide jobs to most of these adults.

An employment advantage to accessibility is it enhances productivity throughout an able-bodied employee’s career and the career of an employee with a disability, and increased productivity means increased revenues in the private sector.

Advanced Technology

IBM’s advanced technology, for example, provides access to web information. Web Adaptation technology allows users to personalize Web features to meet their needs. These features include adjusting distracting backgrounds for clear presentation of information; changing font size and the type of font, adjusting spacing between letters, alternating color contrasts and selecting images on the page to magnify and enhance.

A proud Saliga says that as a major part of our accessibility goal, “we are
ensuring that the infrastructures of Unix, Linux and Lotus support IBM’s accessibility efforts.

The homogenization of our access to web, whereby the World Wide Web becomes your web, also includes our Easy Web technology.”

Easy Web technology provides a navigation bar with adjustable features for people who can benefit from a simple clear interface that displays the basis function of web navigation. The browser speaks text aloud displaying it in large font in a display panel. For the navigation bar, Easy Web allows users to customize fonts and color contrasts for optimal presentation of information on the screen.

What other products does IBM have in its arsenal?

In its March appearance at the California State University Northridge’s 18th Annual Technology for Persons with Disabilities, IBM showcased research technologies allowing people to access information in different ways, including: linguistic analysis software to assist people with either visual, mobility or cognitive disabilities. Also shown were products that optimize keyboard hand position, set accessibility parameters and adjust for hand tremor movements, and translate head movements to direct on screen cursor movements.

Aware that tens of millions of people in the workplace are either dyslexic, learning disabled or have other cognitive disabilities, IBM developed technologies to interpret language and make it easier to learn and to comprehend.

These work tools go along with IBM’s worldwide accessibility effort because they reduce hurdles to writing, reading and comprehension. They help employees perform better in their jobs with increased confidence in their communication.

Enriching the benefits and availability of computing and information resources is part of IBM’s larger vision of “On Demand’ computing, which is delivered to customers when, where and how they need it.

Nicholas M. Donofrio, IBM senior vice president, Technology and Manufacturing, says, “IBM is committed to making technology even more natural to use by embedding accessibility features into our solutions that can easily be activated to support employees, customers or partners with either temporary or chronic disabilities.” He sees accessible technology as a real competitive advantage to government and private sector employers, stressing, “Accessible technology provides companies, government and organizations with the ability to better hire, train and retain employees; to provide increased customer satisfaction; and to increase efficiency, effectiveness and productivity of all employees.”

Accessible technologies and features are quickly evolving from special needs to mainstream usage as more users demand natural, portable and hands-free usage of IT.

To achieve worldwide dominance, IBM launched an ambitious, major international marketing business-to-business campaign. In talking to people at IBM, one senses there is an excitement over the company’s commitment to global accessibility.

Throughout IBM, employees, as they develop new products or sell existing ones, are drilled to “think” accessibility. Seminars are held with such divisions as the Pervasive Computing Division to collaborate on incorporating accessibility solutions into devices to expand sales.

Additionally, report cards listing products that are and aren’t accessible are issued quarterly throughout IBM. Divisions, whose products are not accessible, are directed to make them.

There is an unshakable belief that IBM can make worldwide accessibility a reality. Being realists, IBM knows worldwide accessibility will not happen quickly. Still its efforts can have the following effects:

• Motivate other computer companies to expand their accessibility efforts.
• Hasten worldwide business-to-business accessibility efforts.
• Strengthen the world’s economy as more people with disabilities are employed.
• IBM becomes the dominant accessibility company worldwide.
• Spur federal agencies to implement Section 508.

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