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Overview

Rich SchwerdtfegerRich Schwerdtfeger is the Chief Technology Officer, Accessibility, for IBM Software Group, an IBM Distinguished Engineer and Master Inventor. His responsibilities include overall accessibility architecture and strategy for Software Group. Rich participates in numerous W3C standards efforts including HTML 5, WAI Protocols and Formats, and Ubiquitous Web Applications.

He created and chairs the W3C WAI-ARIA accessibility standards work for Web 2.0 applications and co-chairs the IMS GLC Access for All accessibility standards endeavors. He also formed and co-chairs the Open Ajax Alliance Accessibility Tools Task Force that is leading the industry in establishing new WCAG 2 accessibility rule sets and reporting best practices needed to support Web 2.0 applications.

A former steering committee member of the Accessibility Interoperability Alliance, Rich is currently a member of Raising the Floor's team of experts working on a Global Public Inclusive Infrastructure focusing on cloud-based personalized access.

Rich started working at IBM as a contractor in May 1990 and was hired by IBM Research in 1993. When he joined IBM, the information technology industry was transitioning from the use of DOS to graphical user interfaces (GUIs) on Windows and OS/2. At that time, people who are blind accessed computers by using screen reader technology that read and processed a virtual screen buffer of text in DOS. The move to GUIs meant that blind people faced being unable to use their personal computers and the fear they experienced was overwhelming.

Rich describes it this way, "I was fortunate to have been part of the team that converted what you see on the screen to text and have it read to users. My job on the team, led by Jim Thatcher, was producing the first text model of what you saw on a GUI so that our Screen Reader could read it. During the summer of 1991 Joe Lazarro published an article in Byte magazine called "Windows of Vulnerability" that truly encapsulated the fear experienced by blind users. Joe, and others did not know of our work at IBM Research. In December 1991 I wrote an article in Byte Magazine, 'Making the GUI Talk,' that described how we solved the problem. In January, Jim Thatcher was asked to attend meetings in Washington D.C. to address blind people's loss of access to the computer. When Jim arrived at the meeting room he was greeted by stacks of the 1991 issue of Byte magazine and it was as if an enormous weight was lifted from people's shoulders. We had changed the world that day and I was forever hooked on trying to be the answer guy to solve some of the more challenging industry problems in accessibility. Solving these really hard issues and opening doors for these issues is what drives me even today."

IBM later released Screen Reader/2, becoming the first company to produce a screen reader for its own operating system. Screen Reader/2 was years ahead of anything available at that time. It had a full profile (scripting) language and was the first to be able to read Windows applications through its seamless Windows environment.

Rich said, "To this day I recall working in my basement and successfully hacking the Windows display drivers to capture text to be read by Screen Reader/2."

Since that time Rich has led numerous accessibility efforts at IBM, including: the collaboration with Sun on Java accessibility co-architecting the Java Accessibility Application Programming Interface (API) and the IBM Self-Voicing Kit for Java; the Web Accessibility Gateway for seniors; and the IAccessible2 strategy. Each project seemed to build on itself. All of these efforts introduced something new or solved a serious accessibility problem. When Rich and team worked with Sun on Java Accessibility, they created the first accessibility API that could be used across operating systems without the use of reverse engineering. And IBM produced the first cross-platform talking screen reader for Java that also had a built in accessibility test tool. Another joint project with Sun was to implement the Java Accessibility API in Swing 1.0 — the first UI Toolkit to have full accessibility API support in it.

Rich adds, "Also, in an effort to reduce the number of questions that we had by product teams on for Java Accessibility I created the first developer guide for producing accessible called the IBM Guidelines for Writing Accessible Applications in 100% Pure Java. I truly believe this collaboration with Sun set the groundwork for accessibility APIs for the next decade. It was the basis for IAccessible2 and the Gnome Accessibility API (ATK/ATSPI)."

When Rich left Research to take the Accessibility Architecture and Strategy position for IBM's Software Group in the Emerging Technology area, he ran into his greatest challenge. "I recall the day I met with my new boss in Cambridge when he showed me a collection of applications we had purchased from a startup that were essentially some of the first Rich Internet Applications. Through the use of Ajax and CSS you could build rich Internet applications that rivaled most desktop applications that could be delivered on any desktop world wide. These Web applications could be tied to IBM's Web services and rich middleware infrastructure. This would change the world. It would be a huge IBM bet. Today, we call it Web 2.0. The problem – JavaScript and CSS were deemed inaccessible for over 6 years. This accessibility issue was an enormous obstruction for enterprise IT vendors because it was written into most industry procurement criteria that you had to be able to run the same applications accessibly with both JavaScript and CSS turned off. These are the kind of problems I like to solve."

Returning to Austin, Rich worked on the problem for about a month. He quickly realized the problem was not CSS and JavaScript but HTML. He explains, "If it were not for all those years working on screen readers and accessibility APIs I might have overlooked the problem. Interestingly, the HTML DOM looks surprisingly like a GUI object tree hierarchy. What HTML lacked was the ability to provide the same semantics and keyboard navigation as desktop applications. So, I knew how to solve the problem but to actually make it take hold I had to convince the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) to allow me to start a standard effort to complete the work. To be accepted it had to be free of IP and and allow for industry participation. This required education, all the leadership skills I could muster, and a strong dose of determination."

In 2005 Rich prepared a presentation with an accessibility gap analysis to the then chair of the W3C HTML working group, Steven Pemberton, with a solution he called DHTML Accessibility. Steven Pemberton and Judy Brewer, WAI Director, both supported the idea and Rich formed a team in WAI to make DHTML Accessibility a standard. DHTML Accessibility was later given a new name by Judy Brewer, called WAI-ARIA (Web Accessibility Initiative – Accessible Rich Internet Applications).

Rich shares, "One of things you quickly learn is that to make things like WAI-ARIA a success you need a team of gifted and passionate individuals to make it happen and in the case of WAI-ARIA you need to solicit the industry to participate. At IBM we helped drive the open source community to get support for WAI-ARIA into Firefox and Dojo. We worked with the WCAG 2 community to remove technology restrictions on the use of JavaScript and CSS. We worked with assistive technology vendors to help them re-engineer their Web access to support Rich Internet Applications. Looking back I consider WAI-ARIA the most important advancement in accessibility in the past ten years. It brings the accessibility and usability of desktop applications, for many users, to the Web with 80% less enablement effort than desktop applications and it will be part of the next version of HTML. Today, WAI-ARIA has become ubiquitous. We worked with industry to change the world by turning inaccessible technology into one that is highly accessible and usable."

So what does Rich see as the next big technology change for accessibility? He says,"Going forward, as an industry, we will improve on WAI-ARIA to solve accessibility for technologies like SVG and today I am heads down working on canvas accessibility in HTML 5. Yet, I strongly believe the next big technology change will be in industry's adoption of what I call Automatic Adapting Context Aware applications that adapt to the user's ability, environment, and device. Seeing this need four years ago, I have begun with industry education accessibility leaders to adapt IMS Global Learning Consortium's Access For All specification for mainstream adoption with the help from the Raising the Floor Initiative. I firmly believe that as industry moves toward mobile computing accessibility features will become mainstream technology because at some point we will all be "situationally" disabled. Imagine listening to a meeting on your mobile phone and experiencing a sudden increase in background noise so that you can no longer hear. You are going to need closed captioning – automatically. To do this we will need smarter, context aware applications."

IBM Accessibility Facebook Expert Hour Question and Answer session

Because Rich is an internationally recognized expert on accessibility with twenty years of accessibility experience, we asked him to share his expertise in February 2011 on our monthly IBM Accessibility Facebook Expert Hour (link resides outside of ibm.com) on the topic of Accessibility and Business Trends.

Here is a sampling of the questions and answers during the hour and a half long session.

Maureen Kraft Good afternoon Rich, I was wondering what you see as the trends in IT over the next 2 to 3 years?

Rich Schwerdtfeger IT will move to mobile delivery with and there will an extreme move to adopt HTML 5. HTML 5 is more than just the markup but also additional API services that allow for access to local files GPS data, etc. Also, HTML 5 features like integrated video and audio remove the need for plug-ins to do the same. Also, cross drawing functionality will afford companies the ability to create custom visualizations, such as pie charts, that can run cross platform.
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Rich Schwerdtfeger Other features such as an enhanced set of UI controls will improve accessibility as well as reduce the amount of JavaScript having the added effect of reducing download times.

Maureen Kraft Excellent. Thanks. So providing improvements for accessibility means better performance for all.

David Lau Hi Rich, With the Mobile platform (especially touch screen smart phone devices) gaining huge momentum in recent years, what are the current advancements in terms of accessibility?

Rich Schwerdtfeger As we speak I will be co-chairing an effort to produce device independent events in the W3C that allow browsers to map low level keyboard and touch input to higher level commands like: open, close, expand, collapse. This will allow users with disabilities to drive applications via touch or keyboard without the author having to write device-specific software. This will dramatically help accessibility.

Rich Schwerdtfeger Also, new mobile OS platforms like iOS and Android are integrating assistive technologies into the platform but enabling third parties to also produce assistive technologies for the device.

Christine Banke  Rich, with the convergence of TV & Web are you hearing any rumblings about standards for Internet TV, it's UI (apps, programming guide, etc) and the devices we use at home (remote, set-top boxes)?
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Rich Schwerdtfeger I am sure there are. I know there is a lot of discussion about the use HTML 5 in set-top boxes. Really, HTML 5 is becoming our convergence application platform worldwide. Also, there is an ISO standard called the Universal Remote Console that essentially allows your remote to become your UI to the TV regardless of the users ability. A good person to talk to about that is Gottfried Zimmerman.
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Greg Kraus How well have businesses been preparing for dealing with WCAG 2 Level AA?

Rich Schwerdtfeger Well, I think this is a real success story for enterprises. Well over a year ago IBM began supporting WCAG 2 A and WCAG 2 AA is on its way. The bigger hurdle was WCAG 2 A support. Besides customer demand one of the driving factors is WCAG 2 AA harmonization into emerging accessibility legislation like the 508 Refresh. I do know that other companies, like Microsoft, have similar strategies to address WCAG 2.

Greg Kraus I hope that is the case, but it has not been my experience with even some of the largest players in the IT field. It seems like WCAG 2 Level AA conformance doesn't always trickle down from the rhetoric at the top of an organization to the actual implementation.

Rich Schwerdtfeger Well, if these providers are going to sell to any government agency federal, local, or international within the next 2-3 years they had better get a plan in place. It may be that some of these enterprises do not have an accessibility program that is attuned to these changes. As you can imagine addressing WCAG 2 AA requires some lead time.

John Evans Good morning/afternoon Rich. As more applications are moved into distributed network/cloud platforms, will this trend require a wholesale re-design of most assistive technologies and compliance checkers, or will it only be a minor transition from their traditionally single server/cpu client architecture to virtualization?
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Rich Schwerdtfeger It depends. If you are delivering virtual desktops to remote devices for many there is not change necessary. However, things like screen magnification will be problematic as network performance will be an issue. This will need to be addressed in the cloud services implementation.

Rich Schwerdtfeger For other situations cloud-based services create huge opportunities for assistive technology to be delivered when platform services are not available. For Google provides a browser API to cloud services that provide text-to-speech and assistive technology could leverage this to be delivered on multiple OS platforms without waiting for these services to be there or having to license them.

Rich Schwerdtfeger One of the efforts, addressing this is Raising the Floor's Global Public Inclusive Infrastructure.

Laura Lanham Kelley  Rich — Are there any efforts underway to develop mobile standards for accessibility?

Rich Schwerdtfeger Yes, for the Web. We’re producing new standards to allow applications respond to user interaction using device-independent events in the W3C. This would allow a blind, or mobility-impaired user to operate a Web application using a gesture or alternative input to the browser when at times a keyboard cannot be used.
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Rich Schwerdtfeger Another is Access For All to address personalize access for users with disabilities. Neither is limited to mobile.
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Marc Johlic Hi Rich - Thanks for taking the time to chat with us today! I see you've mentioned HTML5 and mobile. I'm curious - What features of HTML5 make it a convergence platform for industry and why is this also important to mobile?
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Rich Schwerdtfeger ARIA integration, video and audio tag support, a richer set of UI controls, canvas drawing capability, access to local data stores, media driven styling (media queries), and additional related applications services for file access, GPS location access, etc. All this can be run cross platform. This is why HTML 5 is huge for mobile as companies don't have to do all this platform dependent. Writing for specific platforms is incredibly expensive, especially when the device may go out of favor.

Peter Fay Hi Rich: As Social Networking approaches to collaboration move from the Internet into the Enterprise...how will IBM ensure that these new solutions will be accessible to everyone.

Rich Schwerdtfeger IBM software across the board has a focus to integrate WAI-ARIA into all our social collaboration software from Sametime e-meetings to Lotus Connections. This provides a rich accessible experience that we feel exceeds desktop accessibility and will lead to accessibility in products on all browser platforms that support accessibility services.
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Brian W. F. Peaston Hi Rich, Are there any up-to-date standards/guidelines that address the specific challenges of modern touch screen user?

Rich Schwerdtfeger Yes, there are two new efforts in the W3C to define the delivery of touch events to Web applications and a new one started by Apple to deliver device independent UI events regardless of the input device. I am going to co-chair that effort within the next 1-2 months.
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Susann Keohane  Rich, can you tell us about Access for All?

Rich Schwerdtfeger I glad you asked this. Access For All, originally began as an education standard. As we move to mobile it is increasingly important that our applications be context aware. That includes personal preference adaptation.

Rich Schwerdtfeger Access For All defines resource semantics (in a Web page a resource might be the use of a third party's map service like Bing or Google Maps) to describe its accessibility capabilities. It also defines accessibility preferences whereby the resources are defined in terms of those preferences.

Rich Schwerdtfeger An application can then map content to meet the user's need in varying environments as would be experienced on mobile devices.

Eelke Folmer Over the last three decades, video games have evolved from a pastime into a force of change that is transforming the way people perceive, learn about, and interact with the world around them. Unfortunately most video games are inaccessible to users with disabilities. With the emergence of technologies such as HTML5 and WebGL that allow for playing 3D games through a browser do you see a role for WCAG 2 to define accessibility standards for video games? ….especially since video games are increasingly being used for non entertainment purposes?, e.g., education, rehabilitation, health, training?
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Rich Schwerdtfeger Well, this is perhaps bigger than WCAG 2. IBM Research has done a great amount of work on addressing accessibility in things like Second Life. Concepts like 3D semantics and the use of crowd sourcing to supply those semantics by all participating uses is critical. For example another user could add descriptive text to content in these games. Certainly WCAG 2 provides for semantics to be applied in these 3D games.
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Rich Schwerdtfeger What is lacking is the technology to meet the needs of WCAG 2 and the introduction of social collaboration tools to enhance the accessibility of these games.

Brian W. F. Peaston Also, consider the convergence of mobile computing and gaming. For instance this year we have already seen the Sony Playstation NGP and the Sony Ericsson Xperia Play. In this particular case hardware gaming controls are now an alternative input means on the devices and introduce new opportunities/challenges for accessibility e.g. for internet access.
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Rich Schwerdtfeger On the other hand Microsoft's Kinect could be a very effective way for a person with mobility impairments to interact with their gaming devices. Basic gestures and movements may make things easier.
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Eelke Folmer Thanks for your answer. The internet is predominantly text-based and two dimensional and can be easily accessed through a screen reader. 3D environments are fundamentally different entirely visual and no textual content. Adding descriptive content for virtual world objects is an important first step that IBM has pioneered but this is only part of the solution. We have been doing similar research and we found that screen reader users are easily overwhelmed if you were to provide a textual description for every object near their avatar. We need to develop novel interaction mechanisms that allow users with disabilities to meaningfully interact with such emerging 3D technologies.
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Rich Schwerdtfeger Well, in fact the work done by Bill Carter at IBM research provide higher level contextual information that provide data on where you were and what things are around you during your passage through Second Life. Also, people could be assistive avatars to help you navigate through 3D space.
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Eelke Folmer Bill Carter and IBM have done some great work in this area. If you look at the amount of research that has been put in Web accessibility research versus accessibility of 3D environments, then this work just represents the tip of the iceberg. There is still so much to research and discover. Unlike the Web where we can learn from people with disabilities that have found hacks or workarounds to get access, many people with disabilities are completely excluded from 3D technologies. I worry about the emergence of natural interfaces such as gestures that already replace the interfaces of everyday devices such as ATM's or check-in kiosks at airports. These devices are notoriously inaccessible to users with visual impairments and despite Kinect being more natural for the most of us it will raise barriers for users with visual impairments. (though here's a little hack that allows someone to play a Kinect game without visual feedback http://eelke.com/realtimesensorysubstitution.html link resides outside of ibm.com)
Thanks for your time!.

As you can see, Rich is a knowledgeable guy, and it was a popular session. So popular in fact, that we'll have Rich back for another IBM Accessibility Facebook Hour very soon.