Baby boomers are likely to face some of the same battles as others who have difficulty hearing, seeing or controlling their movements, and IBM is aiming to offer them new tools to stay productive.

K.C. Jones, Contributor

September 30, 2005

4 Min Read

As IBM's Human Capital Management group offers help to companies with huge numbers of employees reaching retirement age, the group is relying on IBM's years of experience helping people overcome disabilities.

"It's something IBM has had a deep commitment to for a long time," Accessibility Services Program Manager Sara Basson, Ph.D., said in an interview Friday. "It obviously predates any government mandate. Now, from a larger business perspective, there's a real impact."

Baby boomers are likely to face some of the same battles as others who have difficulty hearing, seeing or controlling their movements, and IBM is no stranger to their difficulties. With a program specifically addressing the needs of the disabled and several existing technologies - for overcoming speech, hearing, visual, tactile and cognitive impediments - IBM is positioned to offer baby boomers tools they need to stay productive and connected as they age.

The company began dealing with disabilities in 1914, when it hired its first disabled employee. That was 76 years before the federal government instituted the Americans with Disabilities Act. In the 1940s, Big Blue helped train and hire disabled workers to replace those who joined the military for World War II. IBM also welcomed disabled veterans long before the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.

Researchers developed: the Model 1403 Braille printer in 1975, a talking typewriter in 1980, and a talking display terminal in 1981. They produced screen readers and a Home Page Reader. Then, IBM adopted a worldwide standard for incorporating accessibility into a variety of areas. The standard includes mandatory use checklist during all stages of product development and release.

A recent research article in IBM's journal suggest the company is targeting Graphical User Interfaces, platform accessibility architecture, the assistive technology (including system accessibility features), developer tools support and applications to deliver accessible solutions.

Though IBM is keeping its most cutting-edge able product developments under wraps for now, Basson said there are several developed and developing items that IBM is likely to aim at baby boomers in the workplace.

The Home Page Reader, WebAdapt2Me, ViaScribe, and CaptionMeNow will all serve aging workers as well as people with disabilities.

The Home Page Reader allows blind people to access the web. Not only does the system use speech synthesis, it changes the voice when it reaches a hyper link, giving a blind person something that grabs their attention, the way a blue, underlined word grabs the attention of those who can read the text on a screen.

WebAdapt2Me is designed for people who are visually impaired, but not blind, and those who have cognitive and motor difficulties. Basson said it was first made available as a philanthropic offering through to seniors learning how to use the Web. WebAdapt2Me allows users to increase font size, get rid of wall paper and jumping icons, to reduce clutter and change the spacing of words.

There's a keyboard optimizer that uses artificial intelligence to figure out what someone is trying to type when they can't lift their finger from a key quickly. ViaScribe allows people who can't hear to read presentations, and it can capture visual information, including video and slides for multimedia Web casts.

ViaScribe was developed as a result of a request from Canadian professors who had done all kinds of things to make learning accessible but could not afford stenographers to translate their lectures. The solution now has a broad range of users, including quadriplegics, some of whom were frustrated by note takers who didn't capture everything they heard.

The company has developed a mouse that can cope with tremors, a ThinkPad with ridged keys to help blind users find their place and laptops that can be opened with one hand.

Some of those working on the latest inventions know from experience what disabled users need. Researcher Dimitri Kanevsky, a theoretical mathematician with dozens of patents and patent applications, has been completely deaf since he was three-years-old. Bason said he's working on speech recognition, where IBM has made some of its greatest strides.

"We're sort of tackling the biggest, hardest, broadest problems," Basson said. "Accessibility work becomes a catalyst for really pushing the envelope for research, and it really is research that matters. It's something everyone's really juiced about, with some of the greatest minds in the world, all co-located, the Nobel Prize types, to have them with something like accessibility as a goal."

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