January 2008 Issue  Volume 9  Number 1


Motivated to Make a Difference: An Interview with Frances West of IBM

In 1986, IBM formed the Special Needs Group to develop and market products specifically designed for people with disabilities, giving rise to the innovative OS/2 screen reader and, later, the Home Page Reader self-voicing web browser. Since then, IBM has substantially changed, shifting from a company focused heavily on developing technology products like PCs to providing the knowledge and services that support technology-rich environments. IBM's main revenue now comes from selling support services.

However, the focus on accessibility embodied in the Special Needs Group has continued, and changed, to assist IBM business units to integrate accessibility into IBM solutions, and focus on the maturing population. In 2006, the name was changed to the Human Ability and Accessibility Center to more accurately reflect IBM's vision of accessibility.

AccessWorld spoke with Frances West, the director of the center, to find out how IBM's focus had changed. We also wanted to hear about services and tools that the company currently offers, and to try to better understand how IBM is harnessing research and knowledge to push accessibility much deeper into the technology environment. Here is our interview with West:

AccessWorld: Many of our readers know IBM best for the DOS and OS/2 screen readers and the Home Page Reader self-voicing browser. How has the Human Ability and Accessibility Center's focus changed?

Frances West: The center is within the IBM Research Division. Part of the rationale was if you deal with accessibility, you need research. Research is like finance or human resources, a corporate function. In 2006, we changed the center's name because the market for disability is beyond just people with disabilities; [it includes] aging baby boomers. Thus, changing the name gives it a broader definition. We did not want the center to be typecast as catering to a small population. Disability is universal for every man and woman.

Head shot of Frances West.

Caption: Frances West, director of IBM's Human Ability and Accessibility Center.

AccessWorld: What does the IBM services and solutions focus mean for accessibility and people with disabilities?

West: IBM has switched its focus to services. A lot of issues are related to the web infrastructure. The Center educates ... [business units] on the value of accessibility and how to embed disability into their strategy and implementation.

... We can point to cases where accessibility was an asset. You cannot make accessibility work as a stand-alone business. The best scenario is accessibility built into the infrastructure. The problem is: people get confused. They make a leap to thinking accessibility should be seen as a stand-alone business. They do not have the resources to do that. We are beginning to understand the misconceptions of business executives.

AccessWorld: Your center staff members aim to shift the debate away from making the business case for including access toward including accessibility as part of a definition of a high-quality product or service.

West: This has to become a requirement. It is hard. You need to be supported by senior management. This is one of those areas in which corporate culture actually comes into play as a force.

AccessWorld: Are parts of IBM now working with you as champions in this area?

West: We have moved from the basement period and are pushing the agenda higher and closer to our core business than ever. We are making inroads. We get called on by senior executives. Each time, we prepare our case better. We have a lot of internal strategy sessions. They [senior executives] are asking tough questions. We are down to specific questions. For example, what can accessibility do for my hardware or software? We have to withstand this testing. We have to be conscious that we do not go down the path of thinking of accessibility as a stand-alone business. This will not yield a positive outcome.

AccessWorld: Tell us the latest about accessibility to Lotus Notes.

West: As you know, Lotus Notes is going through a transformation. It started out client centric. We are moving on to a web presence. The exciting part is that we announced Symphony, one of the first commercial products based on ODF [open document format]. Symphony is a suite of productivity tools that enables users to create spreadsheets, word-processing documents, and presentations based on ODF. It is available free for download.

West described Symphony as being "for casual users. It is not for the heavy-duty office worker." She added "We think that technology should be shared and open source in some cases to encourage innovation."

AccessWorld: ODF has been swirling around the blindness community. There is a fear about the base of screen readers built on a proprietary office structure. Should we be afraid of it?

West: Absolutely not. It is part of the natural evolution of technology. We started out with the PC revolution, when no one knew much about computers. In the past 20 years, a lot of technology has come along. At the core are the data that are stored in applications. The idea of ODF is to combine freedom of movement of data in different contexts on the basis of companies' needs. It is about opening data access. It allows freedom of movement of data. Within IBM, we are Windows users. Migration can be scary. It really is a choice, not strictly one or the other. Two years from now, it could be something else. People are now much more aware of accessibility needs and benefits. With the new standards coming out, accessibility will not be an afterthought. We are pushing to have accessibility built in, so we can appeal to a broader customer base.

AccessWorld: Screen-reader companies have emphasized broadening access to Microsoft Office applications. Are they working with you on ODF?

West: GW Micro and Freedom Scientific are active participants. It is a situation in which you [screen reader companies] have a cash cow on your hands based on Windows Office. This does not mean that there is no other action. The market will bear witness to this. If these companies are not part of this [effort] we would have concerns.

AccessWorld: If a company that a blind employee works for switches to ODF, should the employee panic?

West: I hope that the company will [provide] education. We will definitely provide these services. Training is required.

AccessWorld: We wanted to touch on Easy Web Browser and IAccessible2. What are these tools?

West: Tools, not rules, is our slogan. Section 508 is a policing policy. To achieve accessibility as an embedded structure, you have to focus on the development process. The way to do so is through tools. Not every programmer will know accessibility, so we make it easier for programmers. IAccessible2 is an open API [application programming interface] standard to complement MSAA [Microsoft Active Accessibility]. It allows assistive technology to provide functional programs and to edit documents in a more organized way. We donated IAccessible2 to the Free Standards group. Instead of each vendor figuring out how to plug its technology into applications, we are providing this information to vendors.

Easy Web Browser is an end-user application. It is a technology. For example, if you go to Macys.com, you will find a link. If you click on the link, you will go through a one-minute download of the application onto your computer. You can modify the font or text size and trigger a screen reader. It is not for blind users, but for senior citizens. It customizes to your preferences.

AccessWorld: Is IBM promoting Easy Web Browser as a tool or as a showcase for developers?

West: It is not a tool kit. It is used to start conversations with customers, who end up redesigning their web sites. In 2009, California will have a rule that kiosks and web sites will have to be accessible. Easy Web Browser can sit on a kiosk and be embedded into an existing web application to provide a better experience for users.

AccessWorld: Is IAccessible2 being used by GW Micro and Freedom Scientific?

West: They all helped develop it. RNIB [Royal National Institute of Blind People] has also been involved. We needed to have a way of translating sophisticated web 2.0 functions for users. That is the reason for developing IAccessible2. It is implemented in Firefox 3.0 and Lotus Notes Symphony Editor.

AccessWorld: We read an article recently about research by IBM Ireland on access to virtual worlds. Tell us about virtual worlds, such as Second Life. These virtual worlds are taking things to another level. What can we do about accessibility?

West: This is a huge new platform. AFB should be aggressive in reminding people that they need to take it into consideration. I think this platform is the next revolution. The whole Internet gaming experience is so catchy. At the same time, if we do it correctly, accessibility can be built in because it is still in the beginning stages. These applications can be tremendous for learning and leisure. Sears and Cisco have opened virtual stores in Second Life. You can shop online at Sears. You can go into a three-dimensional kitchen and move furniture around in a simulated way. As for education, children love games.

AccessWorld: We are also interested in learning more about you. How did you get involved in leading the Human Ability and Accessibility Center?

West: I have over 25 years' experience with IBM. I spent my time in sales and marketing. About four years ago, this opportunity came up in research. At first, I did not know a thing about accessibility. My husband encouraged me to take on something totally different. When I came in, I saw a great opportunity to create a difference in the world and to help drive the business side. This is the best job I have had at IBM. Every day I come to work motivated because I feel like I am making a difference. It is for the betterment of the world. I am extremely excited about the opportunity.

Related Articles

A History of Accessibility at IBM by Annemarie Cooke
Musings on the Evolution and Longevity of Accessible Personal Digital Assistants by Guido Corona

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