December 2015 Issue  Volume 16  Number 12

Product Reviews and Guides

Training with IBM and Freedom Scientific: Teaming Up for Increased Accessibility

In the August 2014 issue of AccessWorld , we spoke with then-new IBM Chief Accessibility Officer Frances West. During our discussions she made the point that an accessible workplace isn't just a corporate responsibility, it can also lead to innovative business opportunities. "As we listen to what our employees need and develop in-house solutions, this gives us a decided advantage in the marketplace," said West.

One solution West mentioned that originated in-house and is now available commercially is the IBM Easy Web Browser platform. This server-side application allows government agencies and businesses to easily make their websites accessible to people with low vision. Site visitors can download the plug-in components, which install automatically, then use a special control panel to adjust fonts, colors, contrast, and other screen elements, or use IBM text-to-speech to read the page aloud.

Another solution IBM expanded from an in-house asset to a commercial product is IBM Media Captioner and Editor. This software uses advanced speech recognition technology to analyze and translate the content spoken on a video into a text transcript, which can then be synced with the original video. The editor was created to help IBM employees with hearing impairments access training videos. Now other companies can use it as well.

The IBM Mobile Accessibility Checker

Recently, IBM commercialized yet another of their in-house accessibility solutions: The Mobile Accessibility Checker. "All too often companies design and develop their mobile apps and websites, then put them out for testing," says P. G. Ramachandran, Program Director of Advanced Technology for IBM Accessibility. "Accessibility becomes a bug to be squashed, and there isn't always time and resources to get the job done before the product needs to go live."

The Mobile Accessibility Checker works with iOS, Android, and hybrid apps, along with mobile websites. It identifies and documents usability issues from the ground up, and designers and developers are automatically alerted to accessibility breaches such as inaccessible controls, lack of description, poor color contrast, and other issues. The checker includes developer libraries that offer best practices so these problems can be fixed as soon as they pop up, instead of waiting until after the product goes live, and then trying to tack on accessibility afterward.

According to Ramachandran, the checker helps developers adhere to industry standards and government regulations. "It also saves time and expense, and eliminates roadblocks for developers who are less familiar with accessibility."

Mobile Accessibility Checker is currently available on an enterprise level through IBM partners, including SSB BART Group, an accessibility software and services organization.

Digital Content Checker and Automated Accessibility Tester

IBM is also making it easier and affordable for smaller organizations to create accessible applications and content. They recently announced a pair of new cloud-based accessibility services, Digital Content Checker and Automated Accessibility Tester, both of which are available on IBM Bluemix, the company's cloud platform for managing apps and services.

Digital Content Checker examines HTML content and EPUB documents, provides a detailed report of all accessibility violations, and then recommends how to fix the issues. Automated Accessibility Tester integrates accessibility reporting and auditing capabilities directly within the Selenium testing framework so any violation can be corrected in the DevOps process before the application is deployed.

"Even the smallest app developer can now use these tools to check and enhance their product's accessibility," notes Ramachandran.

Teaming Up with Freedom Scientific

Leveraging their accessibility assets into yet another go-to-market opportunity, this past July IBM licensed their in-house accessibility training portfolio to Freedom Scientific, makers of the popular JAWS screen reader and MAGic screen magnifier. Freedom Scientific, in turn, is customizing this wealth of materials into eLearning packages tailored to the specific wants and needs of various large corporations, governmental agencies, and universities.

"Over the past few years we've witnessed a significant uptick in the numbers of companies and agencies interested in learning about accessibility," says Ryan Jones, a senior trainer with Freedom Scientific. "Our ability to license and customize these modules enables them to jumpstart their accessibility education and training without having to create an entire program from scratch."

The Enterprise Accessibility Training Modules are text based, and take from 30 minutes to 2 hours to complete. They are not available to individuals, but a quick title check of a trio of the eight modules aimed toward ?all hands? offers a glimpse into their potential utility.

Along with general audience training modules, other modules are directed at designers, developers, quality assurance testers, and program project leaders. Of course teaching about accessibility is only half of the mission. Standards must be set, procedures put into place and tracked over time. IBM has been doing just this for years using their in-house Compliance System, and as this article goes to press, Freedom Scientific is finalizing arrangements with IBM to license this platform in order to offer it to large organizations alongside the accessibility training modules.

"IBM, along with many other large companies, may have hundreds, even thousands, of projects in the works at any one time," observes Ramachandran. "Keeping track and documenting what has been done to enable accessibility for each project, when and by whom, is critical information. Our Compliance System enables us to track accessibility initiatives and workflows. We can capture internal and external accessibility statements, document accessibility standards conformance results, and maintain a system of record to align policies, processes, results, and accountability across hundreds of departments and thousands of projects."

If you've used a screen reader for any length of time, you have undoubtedly encountered websites and mobile apps that to some degree or another simply do not work well with speech. Those who reach out to the developers or use contact forms to report accessibility bugs usually discover that the smaller the company, the faster and more accommodating the reply. Send an accessibility bug report to Winston Chen, the developer of Voice Dream Reader, and he will usually begin working on a fix immediately. Send a report to Amazon, or CNN, and it's likely you won't even receive an acknowledgement other than an automated, "Your issue has been passed along to our developers" message. After that…nothing.

Part of the reason for this may be that the rep who received your message simply had no "accessibility" checkbox to tick before sending your issue up the chain of command. In addition, there may not be a person or position responsible for monitoring accessibility bugs and the status of their resolutions, let alone someone whose responsibilities include encouraging designers and developers to include accessibility from the start.

In the October issue of AccessWorld I described an accessibility management system called AudioEye. Basically, this company (also called AudioEye) corrects accessibility issues on the fly and delivers a fully accessible website for its clients, making corrections as needed. This system has positive aspects going for it:

  • An accessible webpage is delivered to the end user, even if the native page is unreadable with a screen reader.
  • There is a central point of responsibility; even if dozens of developers are working on a website and they inadvertently undo each other's accessibility fixes, ultimately, a readable page is delivered.

However there are also some negatives:

  • With AudioEye taking care of accessibility, designers and developers may not feel the need to address accessibility directly, if they think of it at all.
  • Clients using AudioEye may not learn how to address accessibility issues at their source. If a poorly laid out PDF file is created by an advertising department and repaired by AudioEye, the people in advertising may never learn how to properly structure a PDF.

The IBM/Freedom Scientific solutions bring accessibility knowledge and responsibility back to the enterprise. From help desk technicians to chief developers, accessibility is placed on to-do lists, and results are monitored and tracked. Granted, problems may still get mired in red tape and bureaucracy, but overall learning will have a broader base, and, hopefully, will be ongoing.

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