Civilized society has a long history of defining people by one characteristic—skin color, gender, religion. Imagine for a moment that you are 18 and truly gifted—brilliant even—with the intellect, imagination, and creative problem-solving skills to change the way people use technology. Now imagine that certain restrictions prohibit you from developing that potential because you also happen to be deaf.
Dr. Dimitri Kanevsky, an IBM Master Inventor with more than 100 patents to his name, doesn't have to wonder what that would be like, because it happened to him.
Deaf since the age of three, Dimitri exhibited an aptitude for math early on, attending a special school for mathematically gifted children in the Soviet Union. But Soviet policy at the time restricted the admission of students with certain disabilities, such as vision and hearing impairments, to state universities. Fortunately, Dimitri's parents and school administrators were tenacious, petitioning the Soviet Ministry of Education for his admission to college. Dimitri's petition was granted, and in 1969 he entered Moscow State University, where he went on to receive both his Master's Degree and PhD in math.
After graduation, Dimitri held a number of mathematical research positions at prestigious academic institutions, including Tel-Aviv University, Weizmann Institute of Sciences (Israel), Max-Plank Institute for Mathematics (Bonn), and the Institute for Advanced Study (Princeton), where Albert Einstein once lived and worked. Collaborating with some of the world's greatest mathematicians, Dimitri worked on mathematical problems in algebraic geometry and number theory. But ultimately, the inventor in him went looking for a way to apply mathematics to solve practical problems. So in 1986, he joined IBM.
At IBM, Dimitri found the environment, resources, and support to begin inventing in earnest. Since joining the company, he has broken new ground in the field of speech-recognition technologies. If your computer or cell phone can transcribe or respond to voice, chances are Dimitri's partly responsible. He invented the concept of Artificial Passenger, a tool that uses voice to help prevent drivers from falling asleep at the wheel, which was recognized by press worldwide. Dimitri's work on Artificial Passenger resulted in the development of a conversational interactive application that prompted IBM to begin devoting resources to automotive speech research. He also created the world's first automatic speech recognizer in Russian, developed the first uses for speech recognition as a communication aid for deaf telephone users, and contributed algorithms and inventions that led to technologies that transcribe broadcast news, to name a few.
Dimitri has been widely recognized for his work both in- and outside of IBM. His patent on conversational biometrics was recognized by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Review Committee as one of the top five patents of 2003. And Dimitri's work on mathematical algorithms in speech, which are used in speech technologies worldwide, contributed to a Scientific Accomplishment award, a prestigious acknowledgement of significant contributions to IBM Research.
By any standards, Dimitri Kanevsky has had an exceptional career, despite early hurdles that might have kept him from reaching his full potential. Still, he is cautiously optimistic about how the corporate world's view of people with disabilities is changing. "The progress in how people perceive disability is part of a general trend toward acceptance and encouraging diversity. But the business world is a very competitive place, so a lot of challenges still remain," said Kanevsky.
When asked what he most wishes governments, businesses, and the general population understood about accessibility, Dimitri stresses the importance of acknowledging people's abilities, rather than their disabilities. He says, "It is important to focus attention on a person's strengths and talents rather than on their weaknesses. Businesses and governments should encourage a spirit of teamwork, rather than competition." Imagine that...