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Bill Huber: Advancing accessibility innovations at IBM


Cathy LawsTalking with Bill Huber, an IBM software test engineer, could be the highlight of your day. He's bright, funny, articulate, and positive. His current job is 72 percent technical and 28 percent people-oriented. And, when you talk with Bill through a sign-language interpreter, you get the impression that he'd be just as happy to have those percentages reversed.

Bill attended Rochester Institute of Technology and graduated with a degree in Management Information Systems (MIS) in 2000. This, he says, was the people part of his education.

"I chose MIS because I really like to interact with people and I wanted to better understand accounting, how to work effectively in teams, how to negotiate, how businesses are run and the goals of driving profit and revenue – more of interpersonal skills working with people."

Even though he did not attend the National Technical Institute for the Deaf, a college of RIT, Bill's decision to go to RIT was partly influenced by the support services they offered for deaf students. "RIT was fantastic. There were quite a number of interpreters—about 60 or more. And, they are of different skill levels. Level 4 interpreters are top-notch; they sign similar to a native deaf person and have the cultural and academic exposure to deaf culture. RIT had a lot of resources and the 600-level courses that were taught at night were interpreted by level 4 interpreters, so once you got past your introductory classes, you were in great shape. Not only did they provide top quality interpreters, but also they paid hearing students to jot down notes to be shared with deaf students."

Bill worked as an intern at IBM before becoming a full–time employee in 2004. During that time, he earned his master's degree in computer science from Pace University in White Plains. Bill pursued this degree because he saw that companies wanted professionals with more technical skills and he wanted to be competitive in the marketplace. And competitive he is: Bill received a distinguished academic achievement award for being in the top five percent of his graduating class and he has recently had his first patent filed with the U.S. patent office.

His experience at Pace was notably different from his experience at RIT. Bill says, "RIT is state of the art in providing accommodations to students with disabilities, but Pace is 180 degrees opposite." At Pace, he had to work hard to get connected to their resources. For example, it took several months to get interpreter services for the full semester. He found that he had to advocate for himself and though he sometimes had to wait a long time, he did eventually get what he needed.

That may be why he chose to work for IBM. Bill feels that IBM is one of the forerunners in information technology with innovative, cutting-edge technologies that they can offer to people and clients all over the world. "I saw myself being a part of that. I wanted to be on the bandwagon."

Maybe as importantly, Bill saw that IBM was committed to being a model for other businesses. He cites the IBM cost recovery program as an example. "I don't know of other businesses that take the financial responsibility of accommodating people with disabilities from the first line management team. Because IBM absorbs the cost of necessary accommodations at the corporate level, first line managers don't have to spend their budgets and can feel freer to hire people with disabilities with less regard for their disabilities and more attention to their abilities."

Bill also wanted to be part of getting accessibility out to the public and IBM is in the forefront of that work. Currently, Bill and several master inventors from IBM Research are in the very early stages of developing technology solutions for deaf and hard of hearing people in the work place.

"We're looking for solutions that can accommodate the deaf and hard of hearing community in terms of communicating with hearing people so that the saying 'deaf people can do anything but hear' is not truly accurate. We want to make it so that we can almost hear. You see, the disadvantage to not being able to hear is often evident in informal chats—all the talk that takes place around the water cooler—there's a delay in the information getting to the deaf person. That's what we're trying to solve. I think that what I anticipate is that we're not even milliseconds behind—whether you're reading the text or listening—everybody's hearing the same thing at the same time."

Bill is also looking at the communications between deaf and hearing people from "the other side." He would like to work on creating software that helps deaf people who don't speak articulately. He wants to develop computer programs that "translate" their speech so that it becomes more accessible to hearing people.

For himself, Bill dreams of having "a portable interpreter who's available on demand." At IBM, Bill has had the same interpreters for the past seven years, so they understand each other very well. "It would be nice to be able to dial in to an interpreter who is familiar with me, and I with her. She could be standing at some particular camera, anywhere in the world, almost sort of like a holographic device. I think it's doable."

Bill's positive attitude is also evident at his "real" job where he tests new features of the z operating system for IBM mainframe computers. He says it's challenging to learn the low-level designs of new functions and complex programming, find ways to automate test cases, as well as talk with people outside of his department, development unit, and system test group. His managers and mentors have helped him overcome some of the communications hurdles by getting a policy approved to install IP hookups for a video relay service. His manager is supportive in other ways too: "He compliments me greatly on my work and performance. My disability doesn't matter to him. He doesn't see what I can't do; he's given me work that includes more than just my function test role—a broader spectrum of work with lots of face-to-face interaction with colleagues. He sees me as just another IBMer—almost like my disability is invisible to him."

This is the attitude that Bill would like to see from everyone in the workplace. An emerging disability-free mindset seems to be the result of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in the United States. Bill believes that this landmark legislation has changed everything dramatically and opened many new doors for people who have disabilities. Still, he'd like to see events to educate people who don't really know disability. Bill feels that IBM is doing its part:

"I think that what IBM is doing (e.g., providing central funding for accommodations, interpreter services and access for people who use wheel chairs) can really impact other businesses, society, and communities. At IBM, people are working with diverse groups of colleagues. They go home to their families and talk about how they are interfacing with people who have disabilities. Then these family members go out and "spread the word" to people they know. This concept is expansive and it grows exponentially. There is a huge sociological impact when a company such as IBM commits to striving to be the best in making its workplace accessible for anybody, including people with disabilities."

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