The first law of accessibility: consider the needs of disabled people as early as possible when you are designing a product. Cathy Laws, manager of the IBM Human Ability and Accessibility Center's (HA&AC) CI 162 consulting team and a long-time advocate for incorporating accessibility into IBM products, is one person who sees that this rule is followed at IBM.
Cathy graduated from Texas Christian University (TCU), and, in her early career at IBM, developed a strong interest in how good user interface design and technical documentation can provide a better user experience. This interest eventually motivated her to seek out a job involving a more user-centered focus and to further her education. Her Master's degree program in Computing Technology in Education (MCTE) at Nova Southeastern University allowed her to do research into usability studies and human-computer interaction with a focus on how people with disabilities could use technology in online learning and work environments.
"In 1987, I was struggling with a decision to focus solely on my family or continue my career with IBM. I learned about a new group called Special Needs Systems whose mission was to help people with disabilities access technology. That seemed like a meaningful job and one I was willing to work at while still accommodating my young family. I joined the group and spent the next 18 years as the technical team lead and user-interface designer of many exciting and leading-edge technologies that helped people with disabilities improve their quality of life at home, school, and work."
Cathy worked on IBM SpeechViewer™, a product that helped speech therapists provide an interactive, computer-based environment in which people could overcome speech impairments. She also helped develop technologies for people who have other disabilities. Since 1989, she has led worldwide IBM and vendor teams who have developed screen readers and magnifiers for people with visual and learning impairments—for DOS, OS/2®, Windows®, Linux Gnome, and the Web. The most well-known of these technologies was IBM Home Page Reader (HPR), which was a talking version of Internet Explorer that made testing the accessibility of Web sites much easier for Web developers.
Some of Cathy's most important work was with the Worldwide Web Consortium (W3C) Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) on Web accessibility standards. Cathy and others involved in the development of HPR, Mozilla, and other accessibility architectures and technologies created the User Agent Accessibility Guidelines (UAAG). These guidelines have helped the assistive technology industry to achieve higher levels of compliance with W3C Web accessibility standards and incorporate greater ease-of-use in their technologies for visually impaired Internet surfers.
"When I was working on my Master's degree in the mid-nineties, I first heard the term 'ubiquitous computing' and how computer technology was being integrated into everyday life–in everything we see, hear, use, wear, and touch…often in an invisible way. I think the advancement of ubiquitous computing can provide exciting new solutions for everyone, especially for people with disabilities and those of us who are baby boomers quickly approaching senior status. I hope to see developers of all technologies embrace the concepts of universal design and incorporate accessibility best practices into all of their designs and implementations."
Cathy's career at IBM includes time as the manager of the Accessibility Architecture and Development team for IBM Software Group. That team, along with her current department, focus on incorporating accessibility and assistive technologies into IBM and open source technologies and platforms such as Dojo widgets for Web 2.0 applications, Firefox browser, Linux® GNOME platform, IBM Lotus® Workplace™ editors, and Eclipse.
"I think it is essential that all IBM teams, as well as businesses, government, and educational institutions, see the benefit of weaving accessibility practices, standards, and techniques into all that they do. Along with many others, I believe best practices, or 'laws', for accessibility in development processes, tools, technologies, and policies benefit everyone, not just people with disabilities."