The Future of Accessibility Shines Bright

Guest post from Richard Schwerdtfeger, IBM CTO of Accessibility

Headshot of Richard Schwerdtfeger

Richard Schwerdtfeger, IBM CTO of Accessibility

Twenty-six years ago I walked into the IBM TJ Watson Research Center to help create the very first Graphical User Interface Screen Reader for the IBM PC.

I did not know it but the impact of making the Graphical User Interface accessible on Windows and OS/2 and an article I wrote for Byte, “Making the GUI Talk,” ushered in a new generation of access for the blind, forever changed my career, and continued IBM’s leadership in accessibility innovation for the decades that followed.

During my time at IBM, the accessibility team reached a number of significant milestones:

  • First Voice Recognition navigation and dictation tool for the mobility impaired
  • First talking browser, Home Page Reader, for blind and low vision users
  • Collaborated with Sun Microsystems to create the first cross-platform accessibility API
  • First software accessibility guidelines (IBM Guidelines for Writing Accessible Applications Using 100% Pure Java™)
  • First cross-platform screen reader (The Self Voicing Kit for Java) that also included an accessibility test tool

Our innovations were not just limited to blind, low vision, and mobility impaired, we also built the world’s leading speech therapy tool, Speech Viewer, that was instrumental in teaching speech-impaired users, such as the deaf, to speak for the first time.

IBM is unique as we are one of the few companies that has built assistive technology. This enabled us to take the world in new directions in the areas of accessibility infrastructure. In fact, these early efforts formed the foundation of our work on WAI-ARIA and IAccessible2 Accessibility API. Today, WAI-ARIA is used all over the world to meet web accessibility compliance criteria and IAccessible2 is used by nearly 70 percent of desktop browsers, Open Office, and Eclipse-based applications to communicate with assistive technologies.

Accessibility has often been viewed as a compliance requirement – something we are forced to do. Despite this, I have always felt that designing for people with disabilities has kept us on the leading edge of technology innovation.

The everyday user is now catching up and beginning to use these technologies in their daily lives. For example, every phone has voice recognition built in because it is faster (and safer) to speak than type on these devices, especially while driving. Screen readers are now bundled into the same mobile devices and people who are “situationally-impaired” can now listen to their mail.

Recently, the latest iOS software includes automatic transcripts of voice messages for most of us who can’t hear messages in noisy environments. Internet of Things devices like Amazon’s Echo are able to allow users to shop, hear the news, and control the home without ever having to touch anything or look at a display.

Illustrated graphic with a young family on one side of a gold arrow pointing up and to the right with an elderly man with a cane on the other. Captions says, "By 2050, global aging projects indicate the old will outnumber the young."Yet, the biggest innovations in accessibility and the human experience are yet to come.

IBM is now focused on addressing disability issues for the cognitively impaired and aging market. By 2050, more than one out of five people will be age 60 or older and new technologies will offer enormous business opportunities for those who can empower our aging population so they can live longer, healthier and more independent lives. IBM is currently leading the W3C Cognitive Accessibility Task Force effort to define the requirements needed to address this broader market and using Watson cognitive computing to help meet those needs.

The world for accessibility technology is ever changing and the accessibility problems of tomorrow will not be the same as yesterday. How we interact with machines will change and the need for addressing cognitive issues and providing personalized access will become even more important as we move away from the traditional desktop and mobile touch devices to solutions that are more intelligent based on more natural interaction with humans.

This will mark my last year at IBM as I will be retiring to pursue other interests. I have been fortunate to have participated in and lead in the creation of technology that makes life easier for more people. I could not have done that without the support of IBM. I look forward to seeing where IBM takes us next.

1 Comment

  • Fred Esch says:

    Nice history lesson Rich. Accessibility is composed of a suite of enabling technologies that change the world and are becoming ubiquitous like GPS. Congrats on a career that helped improve the world.

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