IBM’s practice of actively recruiting and accommodating employees with disabilities has had a ripple effect on increasing accessibility throughout larger society. IBMers living and working with sensory, motor and other disabilities have firsthand experience to offer to the product development process at IBM. Their insights have helped to develop innovative products and services that embrace the principle of universal design—the idea that the best designs meet the needs of a wide range of people with a wide range of capabilities.
Powering accessibility with the open community
One innovation envisioned by a disabled IBM employee that has had far-reaching impact is the Social Accessibility Project. The project, launched in 2008, is a social-computing-based service that makes web pages accessible to visually impaired users through the assistance of volunteer supporters. Japanese IBM Fellow Chieko Asakawa, who has been blind since the age of 14, directed the six-person team that developed the project.
The service works like this: A blind or otherwise visually impaired web user encounters a page that is missing what is known as alternative text, or “alt text,” the text description of an image that typically accompanies it in HTML code. Without alt text, a screen reader has no way to describe an image to a blind user, a problem that grows as web pages become increasingly media-rich. After the user reports such issues to the Social Accessibility Project website, members of the open community—sighted virtual volunteers—can add alternative text without changing the original content of the page, using the social accessibility utility. The alternative text is then stored in a system as external metadata, and is automatically loaded when the user or subsequent users visit the page.
Empowering young people with disabilities
IBM’s longstanding recruitment of people with disabilities has its seeds in the 1940s, when product demand soared and America’s military entrenchments overseas drained the workforce of men.
Since beginning its formal disability hiring program in 1942 under Michael Supa—the blind 24-year old who coordinated the hiring and training of hundreds of people with disabilities during his first two years on the job—IBM has continued to actively recruit and mentor people with disabilities through a suite of outreach efforts. A number of these activities—such as visits to middle schools and high schools by IBM luminaries with disabilities—aim to educate youth with disabilities about the opportunities available to them in science and technology.
Reaching students with disabilities
IBM worked with the American Association for the Advancement of Sciences and NASA in 1997 to create and launch the Entry Point internship program. The program matches college students with disabilities with internships in business and industry, helping to groom them for leadership positions.