The program aims to improve access to Internet and workplace technologies for people with disabilities, the aging, and non-native language speakers.

K.C. Jones, Contributor

August 28, 2006

3 Min Read

IBM has announced a program to give computer science majors the technical skills to develop or adapt computer programs for people with special needs.

The program aims to improve access to Internet and workplace technologies for people with disabilities, the aging, and non-native language speakers. IBM's new Web-based lecture teaches techniques to make electronic documents and the Web more accessible.

"While there are many courses on programming skills, few, if any, lectures are devoted to encouraging students to consider the needs of computer users with sight, hearing or mobility disabilities when they write software code," Wayne Dick, Chair of the Computer Engineering and Computer Science Department at the University of California State University, Long Beach, said in a prepared statement. "IBM's considerable expertise in assistive technologies will help computer sciences majors differentiate themselves in the job market, and give the students the satisfaction of helping others and solving challenges."

Between 750 million and 1 billion people have a speech, vision, mobility, hearing or cognitive disability, according to the World Health Organization. One-quarter of the U.S. population turn 55 by 2008, and about two-thirds will have a disability after turning 65, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The census and the American Association of People With Disabilities estimate that people with disabilities have a collective income of $1 trillion and control up to $10 trillion in financial assets.

IBM's new program complements the company's University Relations Academic Initiative, which provides education-related tools and technologies to encourage the use of open computer standards and open source among teachers. More than 1,900 institutions, 11,000 faculty members and 450,000 students are involved in that initiative. Participating schools receive free access to IBM software, discounted hardware, course materials, training and curriculum development.

IBM hired its first disabled employee in 1914. The company has countless products and applications for the disabled as well as accessibility centers around the world. It employs more than 100 researchers, computer scientists and experts dedicated to accessibility. The company is one among many adapting technology for people with disabilities. Apple, Microsoft and countless smaller technology players offer accessible products and applications.

Through the new program, computer science professors can incorporate IBM's material into their curriculum, and students can compete in a contest to create open source software for people with disabilities. IBM is seeking student entries based on a new international standard, the OpenDocument Format (ODF) for its Accessibility ODF Coding Challenge 2006.

Gartner predicts that 50 percent of governments and 20 percent of commercial organizations will require ODF by 2010.

"This contest brings together three critical ideas that have significant importance in the computer industry today: open standards, open source, and accessibility," Bob Sutor, IBM Vice President, Standards and Open Source, said in a prepared statement.

Computer-based jobs are one of the fastest growing occupations through 2012, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Some of those, like systems analysts, database administrators, computer scientists, are forecast to grow 40 to 70 percent in the United States.

Frances West, director of IBM's Human Ability and Accessibility Center, said IBM is distilling its experience and "bringing it to bear for the generation of computer scientists-in-training, who can really make a difference in their professional careers."

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