Assistive technology is specialized hardware or software that “assists” the functional capabilities of people with disabilities. A screen reader, for example, is an assistive product that uses a text-to-speech synthesizer to translate on-screen text to audible speech.
Accessible information technology (IT) facilitates everyday activities for many people with disabilities, and IBM seeks to embed accessibility features into many of its products and services. Throughout its long history directing research and product development toward solutions for people with a variety of disabilities, IBM has been a leader in innovations for the visually impaired in particular. From the Braille typewriter developed in 1914 for IBM’s first blind employee, to more recent tools and programs that facilitate non-visual Internet use, IBM has pioneered products that have expanded the world of information for people living and working with a visual impairment.
1964: Automating English to Braille translation
IBM researchers and Braille experts collaborated for three years to successfully automate the translation of Braille. Before their invention, changing English into raised-dot Braille was a painstaking manual process that relied on skilled Braille transcribers. The new system used a US$2 million IBM 709 Data Processing System mainframe donated by IBM to the American Printing House for the Blind, which read books coded on punched cards and reproduced them in Braille at a rate of 55,000 words per hour. Such speed was a radical reduction of production time and rapidly enlarged Braille literary collections.
1970s: Laying the foundation for speech recognition
IBM’s Frederick Jelinek worked to create a voice-activated typewriter that could translate a spoken sentence into text typed on paper. His groundbreaking advances made it possible for computers to understand, transcribe and translate written and spoken language. Jelinek was among the first people to recognize the importance of probability-based modeling in automatic speech recognition. He is commonly credited with creating the statistical methods that underpin all of the speech-recognition and natural language processing technologies and products being sold today.
1999: IBM Home Page Reader
Also developed at IBM Research - Tokyo under Dr. Chieko Asakawa, the Home Page Reader was a talking web browser that converted the text on web pages to speech, and enabled blind and visually impaired users to surf the web using a numeric keypad. The application was offered in the US, Europe and Asia, and was capable of reading web pages in American or British English, French, German, Italian, Spanish, Japanese and other languages.
2005: Easy Web Browsing
The successor to Home Page Reader, IBM Easy Web Browsing software helps the visually impaired navigate web sites with greater ease through several assistive functions. For example, users can magnify sections of text on a page—or hear them read out loud—with the simple move of their mouse. IBM researchers also developed a variation of the software with a suite of advanced functions created specifically to aid users with dyslexia and other learning differences.
2008: Innovation for the illiterate
Developed by the IBM India Research Lab in 2008, IBM Spoken Web is designed to make the Internet available to the illiterate and those who are visually impaired via standard telephone lines. This project—the recipient of numerous awards, including a 2009 National Award in "Technology Innovation" from the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment in India—is expected to revolutionize digital inclusion in developing and emerging markets.
2010: Lotus Connections 3.0
The first accessible collaboration software, IBM Lotus ® Connections represents a significant step forward in closing the digital divide in social media and social software. While many mainstream social media sites remain largely inaccessible to the visually impaired and others with disabilities, Lotus Connections 3.0 is a feature-rich, very accessible and usable enterprise social software solution.