User Experience

What I Learned about Accessibility During My Summer with IBM

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Guest post from Cynthia Chen, a senior at Lexington High School in Lexington, MA

I don’t think I quite realized the importance of accessibility until I started my summer study at IBM.Headshot of Cynthia Chen, author of this blog article.

It is amazing what technology can do for people with disabilities. It’s also quite easy to forget that real people use these same solutions in their day-to-day lives, such as text to speech, speech to text, and captions.

Each person I met on the IBM Accessibility Research team taught me something new, whether intentionally or unintentionally. I had the pleasure of meeting Tom Babinski and his guide dog, Baldwin, who showed me how he uses a screen reader on his PC and other handheld devices. Erich Manser reviewed PowerPoints and PDFs that I had made accessible, which allowed me to see firsthand the different issues that might need to be resolved.

Learning about Accessibility

What was interesting is that even though Tom and Erich have visual impairments, they are some of the most cheerful and hardworking individuals I have met. After learning that Tom travels around to different IBM locations training designers and developers on accessibility, and that Erich is an avid marathoner, it helped bring the aspect that accessibility in technology is not just designing more advanced IT. It’s actually much more personal and real.

For instance, with regards to PowerPoint and PDFs, it became apparent why changing font size and type, adding alt text onto images, adding speaker notes to “busy” graphics, checking the tab order, making sure the slides are as simple and clean as possible, and checking the color contrast (avoiding red/green and bright colors) was so important for someone with a visual impairment to navigate and understand what was on each slide.

I also researched how to convert PowerPoint presentations to accessible PDF files. I found it particularly frustrating that the alt text for images in PowerPoint didn’t automatically transfer over to the images in the PDF files so the alt text had to be re-entered manually.

However, seeing the finished product made up for all of the challenges in making documents accessible. That’s what more people need to understand.

It’s About Everyone

The process itself can make it seem like that the task is never ending, but after getting approval from both Erich and Tom, I realized that this activity will be used to improve communications and understanding.

My experience is just a drop in the ocean compared to the large-scale advancement of IT done by other individuals at IBM, but it’s the realization that the advancement of technology helps create information equality for everyone in their own daily lives.

For example, sidewalk curb cuts and ramps not only help individuals in wheelchairs, but it allows for baby strollers to be pushed with ease and mail carriers to deliver packages. Electric toothbrushes help individuals who have trouble controlling their hand movements to brush their teeth, but it also helps people, such as yours truly, who like having the two-minute brush setting  so they don’t have to watch the clock or time their brush.

Technology like Amazon’s Alexa has the ability to act as an elderly individual’s personal assistant, but it also helps people multitask, whether ordering an Uber while doing the laundry or playing music to help calm down a crying baby at night.

My experience as a visiting student at IBM this summer allowed me to have the opportunity to interact with passionate individuals who are very successful in their field of work. Besides garnering a multitude of technical skills, I truly enjoyed spending time learning about accessibility and inclusion, and discussing these ideas with fellow colleagues and seeing their work, as well.

Cynthia Chen is a senior at Lexington High School in Lexington, MA. She also interned with John Rochford, Director, INDEX Program, Eunice Kennedy Shriver Center at University of Massachusetts Medical School regarding technological accessibility for individuals with cognitive and intellectual disabilities. She really enjoyed learning more about accessible IT during her time with IBM in Cambridge, Mass.


Social Media Manager & Webmaster, IBM Accessibility

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