Technology The Great Equalizer

By Joe Mullich

May. 29, 2004

Jim Sinocchi calls technology “the great equalizer” for people with disabilities. When he speaks to someone on the phone or sends an e-mail, the recipient has no idea he’s receiving a message from a paraplegic in a wheelchair. “When you’re disabled, people make judgments about you before you open your mouth,” he says. “Technology smooths that over and helps people focus on the intellect and the exchange of ideas.”

    IBM has a long history of creating technology for disabled people, including the first powered Braille typewriter. In 2000, IBM’s chief executive officer issued a corporate directive that accessibility be incorporated into all the company’s products and services. “What IBM is saying is that providing accessibility to people with a disability is not a second thought, but something they take into account in the initial planning,” says Roy Grizzard, assistant secretary of labor at the U.S. Office of Disability Employment Policy.

    That same year, IBM opened its Accessibility Center, which operates in seven locations, including the United States, Europe, Australia and Japan. The seven centers, located in research labs, formalize the process of ensuring that accessibility features are embedded in new products. The center’s advisory council is made up of key executives in all lines of business.

    “Accessibility is one of the hottest areas in technology because of 508,” says Frances West, director of the IBM Accessibility Center. She means section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act, which requires federal agencies to purchase electronic and information technology that is accessible to people with disabilities. Many state agencies have followed suit. Arizona, for example, had IBM Global Services develop a disabled-friendly Web site called “Arizona @ Your Service,” which links to numerous state, local and federal agencies.

    IBM knows that a lot of technology that starts off as niche products for disabled people, such as speech-to-text programs to help the visually impaired, is eventually embraced by society as a whole. “As long as people view accessibility as a separate initiative, it will continue to be an uphill battle,” West says. “From the get-go, we have viewed this as a mainstream issue.”

Workforce Management, June 2004, p. 56Subscribe Now!

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