Skip to main content

Mike Squillace: The philosophy of accessibility


Cathy LawsIt's evening on 6th Street in Austin, Texas and music spirals through the air and out the doors of Pete's Dueling Piano Bar. The pianist can't see the keys or the crowd, but the notes still ring true. Sight is not necessary to understand the message that music conveys. At his part-time gig as a piano player, Michael Squillace's sight does not take center-stage; it's secondary to his talent and ability to effectively interact with the audience. That's a concept that also carries over into his day job with IBM, where he works to improve accessibility as a software engineer for the Human Ability and Accessibility Center (HA&AC).

Developer by day, musician by night, Mike's skill set is diverse, to say the least. His resume also includes a PhD in Philosophy from Michigan State University, where he taught ethics, political theory, and the philosophy of law for several years after he graduated in 1995. His work as a teacher was filled with positive experiences. Not only did he enjoy engaging students in conversations that allowed them to think independently, he found the campus culture to be diverse and generally accepting of his disability. After teaching for some time, Mike decided to broaden his horizons. He went back to school to earn his Bachelor of Computer Science from the University of Texas, where he graduated in 2004.

Mike describes his earliest professional challenge as, "just getting my foot in the door." After teaching himself JAVA™ and becoming certified, Mike aced a phone interview with a manager from IBM. Clearly impressed with his technical skills, the manager seemed interested in hiring Mike to work as a co-op. When Mike inquired about the accommodations he would need, the manager was surprised to discover that Mike was blind. Although IBM has a long history of commitment to diversity, sometimes just one person's preconceived notions can create barriers for people with disabilities. As a result, Mike's first hiring manager reassigned him to a different department and position than he originally interviewed for.

Fortunately, this new opportunity opened many doors for Mike. A colleague who was initially hesitant to work with a person with a disability, realized Mike's potential and recommended him for a position with the HA&AC. Mike was hired full-time with IBM and now works to promote, design, and develop tools that help evaluate accessibility compliance. In September 2005, his hard work led to a promotion as team lead. His current project, "a dynamic and semi-automated accessibility evaluation engine for JAVA and Web-source clients based on Eclipse" is about to be released to the open source community. Mike explains, "This framework will allow developers to check accessibility during the creation phases of software development." Ultimately, the framework allows developers to stop accessibility problems before they start, instead of trying to make a finished project accessible (a much more complicated, and often expensive, task).

Finally settled into a challenging position with the HA&AC, Mike feels that the comfort level has heightened when it comes to working with people with disabilities. Although, he makes it clear that he thinks society still has a long way to go culturally, professionally, politically. "I think there is a tendency in business and government to define accessibility in terms of checklists and guidelines." Mike's biggest concern is that usability and convenience are often overlooked to achieve these predetermined requirements. It makes sense that people with disabilities deserve the same quality user experience as everyone else and this is the challenge Mike welcomes every day: to help make accessibility easier, better, faster. He is part of a team of people that work to help him meet these goals. And in the end, Mike feels, "IBM makes an impact on accessibility."

Profiles of human ability

Join the conversation