Awarded in Japan’s Emperor’s name, the Medal of Honor with Purple Ribbon is given to outstanding contributors in valuable invention, creation, and modernization in academic and artistic fields.
The government of Japan awarded the 2013 Medal of Honor with Purple Ribbon to IBM Fellow Chieko Asakawa for her outstanding contributions to accessibility research, including the development of a voice browser for the visually impaired.
Chieko joined IBM Research – Tokyo in 1985, before PCs and the Internet were commonplace, to work on Braille digitization. In the late 1980s, she collaborated with Braille libraries and volunteer groups from across Japan to advance the digitization project. The group launched an inter-library Braille network in Japan with the goal of putting Braille books online in 1988.
Chieko and her team further opened the Internet to the visually impaired in the 1990s by developing the earliest practical voice browser. Until the Home Page Reader’s creation, information on the Internet was closed to the visually impaired. The voice browser interprets web coding, and designs a simple way to navigate web pages — which proved to be one of the biggest challenges in developing the software because the visually impaired cannot use a mouse.
After much trial and error, the team designed an intuitive navigation system that let the blind and visually impaired surf the web using a numeric keypad. A male voice read text, while a female voice read links. Home Page Reader gave the blind and visually impaired the same online access as the rest of society — no more waiting for today’s news in tomorrow’s newspaper. It was ultimately used by a significant number of Japan’s visually impaired citizens, and others around the world.
By the early 2000s Chieko and her team created aDesigner, a tool for web designers and developers to check accessibility issues on their pages at a glance — in hopes of accelerating web accessibility adoption. The team’s disability simulator overcomes the limitations of current industry offerings by ensuring a website’s usability and compliance to current accessibility guidelines. With this tool, designers can experience their site as a user who is blind, color blind, or has other impairments such as cataracts might experience it.
IBM contributed aDesigner to the Eclipse Foundation as part of the Accessibility Tools Framework, a collection of accessibility tools and building blocks developed by Chieko and her team. Japan’s Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications made another tool, miChecker, available to help drive social inclusion and active social participation of Japan’s citizens. Based on the aDesigner, miChecker offers user-friendly features for government agencies and municipalities to ensure accessibility compliance with the accessibility guidelines, JIS X 8341-3:2010.
In 2008, Chieko and her team launched the Social Accessibility research project. It’s a collaborative crowdsouring environment for the visually impaired and other volunteers to work together online to improve the accessibility of the Internet. The project also explores how computer and human intelligence can complement each other, combining the intelligence of man and machine to find out if crowdsourcing can correct automatic translations made by a computer. And can a computer learn from the changes?
“As aging progresses, social connection becomes more important than ever. Accessibility technologies will play an increasingly important role not only in the cyber world but also in the real world. In pursuit of my aspiration to help realize the era of social inclusion for everyone, I am strive to advance my research work together with my colleagues around the world,” Chieko said.
The world’s population exceeds 7 billion, of which about one third consists of those who are disabled, elderly, or illiterate. Chieko’s research work is creating opportunities for more people to participate in society, through technologies such as social computing and mobile computing.