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IBM Accessibility tribute to Dr. Jim Thatcher

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News has spread throughout the IBM accessibility community that one of our family, Dr. Jim Thatcher passed away this weekend at the age of 83. Jim worked for IBM for 37 years and left a legacy that to this day works to make technology accessible to persons with disabilities.

He first joined IBM as a research mathematician along with his thesis advisor Dr. Jesse Wright, who was blind. They worked together in IBM Research on several mathematical computer science topics. At that time, the current technology was the 3270 terminal which was inaccessible to Dr. Wright and other blind and visually impaired employees. Talking terminals were available but at a cost of $10,000 per employee.

Susanne Keohane, Jim Thatcher and Mary Jo Mueller

Susanne Keohane, Jim Thatcher, and Mary Jo Mueller

With the advent of personal computers in the early ’80s, Jim and Jesse believed that a cheaper, more usable solution was possible.  So they cocreated an audio access system for DOS known as IBM Screen Reader.  At the time they had no idea that the term “screen reader” would become an eponym for all such technology that provides blind users access to operating system platforms and the software that runs on them.

My personal journey with Jim began when the Special Needs Systems team (now called IBM Accessibility) was developing Screen Reader/2. It was the first screen reader for a graphical user interface. I was tasked with developing customizations for popular software applications to improve the user experience for blind and visually impaired users. All of this was new to me – a new programming language, understanding the access barriers for the blind, and the desired user experience that could provide the best access to OS/2 and the applications that ran on it.  Jim was a patient and helpful teacher, showing me how to use the profile language he developed to refine the user experience. With each iteration of the screen reader and application profiles, we would Beta test with users, providing me with yet another valuable learning experience. Getting user feedback on implementation is key!

Jim worked on the IBM Home Page Reader, a talking web browser originating from IBM Japan research, invented by IBM Fellow Chieko Asakawa. He also established the IBM Accessibility Guidelines to guide IBM product teams in developing accessible hardware, software, and web content. The sum of his work has helped to make IBM technology accessible to persons with disabilities.

When Jim retired from IBM in 2000, it did not stop his passion for accessibility. He co-authored an acclaimed book Web Accessibility: Web Standards and Regulatory Compliance. He taught, performed evaluations and consulted on the topic. His influence has been felt by millions worldwide – not only the recipients of his vast knowledge, but also people with diverse abilities who are able to learn, work and play using accessible technology.

Jim was a pioneer who paved the way for accessibility as a career choice and made the world a better place through his example. He earned many accolades, including the 1994 Distinguished Service Award from the National Federation of the Blind, the Vice President’s Hammer Award, the first ACM SIGACCESS Award for Outstanding Contributions to Computing and Accessibility, and the CSUN 2011 Lifetime Achievement Award.

Farewell Jim – my mentor, my friend. It was an honor and privilege to have worked with you. I owe you a debt of gratitude for helping me launch and shape my 19+ year (and counting) career in accessibility. The IBM accessibility team and the larger community of accessibility professionals at IBM salute you and will carry on your rich legacy.

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