IBM believes that accessibility of information technology (IT) is an important issue that is growing in significance and relevance in many business domains. As an organization we have voluntarily been a leader in accessibility for many years but we are now seeing the emergence of regulations that require or encourage IT products and services to be accessible to people with disabilities. IBM supports the spirit and intent of regulatory activity that creates an inclusive environment with respect to the use of IT but we believe that these regulations should be objective, attainable and standards-based to provide a common set of base requirements that all vendors can work toward.
Regulations or policies that leverage the purchasing power of governments can be very effective in promoting accessible IT products. The US created an accessibility milestone in 1998 when it amended Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act. This law requires US federal agencies to purchase information technology products that meet specifications defined by the US Access Board. The benefit of procurement requirements being driven by governments, the largest purchasers of IT, is that it accelerates the market for accessible products.
IBM believes that the use of regulation to improve IT accessibility will be most effective when it is "harmonized" worldwide, embodying a consistent set of expectations and objectives. If multiple, conflicting regulations emerge, it could become technically and economically difficult for vendors and their clients to support them, and it could create a disincentive to participation in certain markets. The end result is that the user does not benefit and may have fewer options and significantly increased costs.
IBM participates in the development of global accessibility standards that:
Regulations and policies that adopt such standards enhance the market for accessible products and services rather than create barriers or disincentives.
Regulations and policies that are expressed in terms of functionality are more readily applied to new technologies than those that are expressed in terms of technical specifications. When different technical standards are codified into law in multiple countries around the world, this can result in multiple approaches to accessibility requirements and barriers to market participation.
IBM believes that Web accessibility policies should be forward-looking and facilitate direct access to all technologies. Users with disabilities should have equal access to Web technologies that provide a rich, interactive, easy-to-use experience. The Worldwide Web Consortium (W3C) Web Content Accessibility Guidelines version 2.0 (WCAG 2.0), is an open, technology-neutral standard that can be applied to these current and future Web technologies. The W3C recognizes that achieving access to the Internet requires not only accessible content, but also accessible user agents including assistive technologies, and authoring tools that facilitate the creation of accessible content. (See "Essential Components of Web Accessibility" for a description of the W3C position on the interdependency on these components.)
Building on the above point about harmonized standards overall, if Web content specifications differ between countries, multi-national service providers will require different versions of their Web sites for different countries.
Hardware and software accessibility is an area where fragmentation is currently occurring. The US and several European countries have policies or regulations requiring hardware or software accessibility. Currently, each country with such a policy has its own, unique set of accessibility specifications, again pointing to the need for harmonized standards. There are some hopeful signs that accessibility standards efforts are beginning to drive toward harmonization. In the meantime, countries are encouraged to participate in these efforts to ensure they address the needs of their geographies and to define policy in terms of functional accessibility requirements rather than technical specifications, as noted above.
Some countries are considering third party certification, testing, or labeling as a means of guaranteeing that IT products and Web sites are accessible to people with disabilities. Historically, this type of certification tends to freeze innovation by focusing on merely "reaching the bar" to pass certification tests and achieve the product labeling.
IBM believes that voluntary in-house evaluation and reporting systems strengthen the incentive to address accessibility early in the product design cycle. In-house evaluation encourages collaborative problem solving between developers and assistive technology (AT) vendors, and also reinforces a corporate commitment to accessibility. This principle of self declaration has been widely and successfully employed for many years, even in critical areas such as electrical and emissions safety and IBM believes it is the most appropriate approach for accessibility.
IBM is committed to making our products, services, and Web sites accessible to people with disabilities. To achieve this goal, we have implemented an internal corporate instruction that requires IBMers involved in creating product offerings to incorporate accessibility requirements into concept, development, and testing phases.
It is critical, however, that countries do not create unique accessibility specifications but instead adopt international accessibility standards that are harmonized to meet the needs of all geographies and allow for future innovation and new technologies. IBM believes that voluntary, in-house evaluation and reporting systems are the most effective means to ensure that IT solutions are accessible and to encourage innovation that results in improved accessibility for people with disabilities.