IBM accessibility: It's business, not charity

Accessibility is no longer merely a philanthropic endeavor for IBM Corp. Producing accessible solutions is now part of a business initiative to make technology more usable for everyone, rather than only people with disabilities.

The baby boomer generation will soon reach retirement age, but 80 percent of Americans plan to work well past that point. Twenty percent of the population will be 65 or older by 2030, and based on current figures, at least half of that group is likely to have a disability, according to a 2003 report called "How Will Boomers Fare at Retirement?" by the AARP, formerly the American Association of Retired Persons. Disabilities include hearing, vision and mobility loss — all factors that impair a person's use of technology.

The rising number of senior citizens creates a high demand for technology that is adaptive to their needs. For this reason, a shift in how people view accessibility is needed, according to Frances West, director of IBM's Worldwide Accessibility Center. "All of us are going to get old eventually, [so] all of us can benefit."

Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act requires that all government Web sites meet accessibility standards, but IBM officials insist that compliance is only the first step to meeting the needs of customers. Agencies and companies need to "leverage technology so that systems have an inherent understanding of who [the users] are," West said.

For example, West thinks a PC should be programmed to automatically realize that if a person is older than age 45, the font size on all applications should be larger. "The system recognizes who you are and responds accordingly," she said.

To move industry and government from simply meeting compliance standards to creating usable products, developers must focus on usability beginning in the design stage, said John Kemp, chairman and co-founder of the American Association of People with Disabilities.

"Designing to the average is exclusionary," Kemp said. "Universal design means planning products that are usable by all — or at least by as many people as possible."

To demonstrate his point, Kemp described an Air Force exercise in which 680 cadets are brought into a courtyard, read the average clothing sizes of Americans — their shoe and pant sizes, among other things — and told to leave the group if they did not fall within one size of the average. After five sizes were read, only two cadets remained in the courtyard.

The exercise illustrates that relying on the average not only excludes those who are traditionally thought of as having a disability, but also anyone without perfect eyesight, hearing and physical abilities. This includes the majority of people over the age of 55.

IBM officials are planning to release a number of new applications with universal design in mind to assist people with disabilities.

One such product, ViaScribe, automatically puts spoken words in captions so that college and university professors or anyone giving an oral presentation can have their lectures and speeches captioned in real time. The program has obvious benefits for people who are hard of hearing, but test situations also have demonstrated learning benefits for students for whom English is a second language, visual learners and even those who occasionally tune out due to fatigue or boredom.

The combination of legislation, changing demographics and maturing technologies is causing companies such as IBM to look at accessibility as a must-do initiative at the corporate level.

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