Accessibility: The Intersection of Innovation and Inclusion

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On this seventh Global Accessibility Awareness Day, let’s talk, think and learn about digital accessibility, inclusion and people with disabilities. As a researcher, I enjoy technology, especially when it comes to helping people with disabilities. Over the years, our team has invented and developed many new technologies that enable accessibility. I would like to share a few here.

Guiding the Blind

IBM Research is the innovation engine of IBM – and accessibility, quite often, is a catalyst for innovation. As the proverb goes, “necessity is the mother of invention.” One example: The amazing project led by Dr. Chieko Asakawa , an IBM Fellow and a blind researcher: A Smartphone Guide for the Blind . This project combines artificial intelligence (AI), computer vision, image recognition, location technology, mobile technology and voice navigation to help visually impaired people find places independently. For visually impaired people navigating and getting where they need to go, location technology with four to five meters of precision is not sufficient. Our solution offers high precision location technology with one to two meters of accuracy.

Social interaction can also be a big challenge for the visually impaired. With advanced computer vision, the app can tell users not only who’s coming their way but also the person’s facial expression. This allows the user to greet the person with confidence.

Improving Reading Comprehension

Cognitive disabilities are often overlooked. Today’s accessibility standards and policies largely address physical disabilities. To help people with cognitive disabilities, we developed Content Clarifier, which uses machine learning, natural language processing and Watson technology to transform digital content to better suit an individual’s preferences and capabilities by simplifying, summarizing or augmenting content. This solution also helps those learning English as a second language. We are currently working with a school for students with learning disabilities, and the initial results show encouraging improvements in students’ reading comprehension and writing skills. We hope this technology can be used to improve productivity for people with disabilities at work as well as at school.

Accommodating Employees with Disabilities

To help create an inclusive and productive work environment, we joined forces with West Virginia University’s Center for Disability Inclusion and the Job Accommodation Network. Together, we developed a first generation Mobile Accommodation Solution, a case management app to help businesses better accommodate employees with disabilities. This app is now available in the Apple App Store and the Google Play Store.

Our long-term vision is to collect data through crowdsourcing via this app. By applying machine learning and other AI technology, we can develop standardized disability taxonomy over time and, more importantly, optimize accommodations for employees with disabilities. We would much appreciate your using our tool, sending us your feedback, and working with us on this exciting project to make all workplaces more inclusive.

Inclusion is IBM’s heritage. Innovation is in our DNA. As the Accessibility Research team, we play a key role at the intersection of inclusion and innovation. With IBM’s leadership in AI, we are empowered to take accessibility to the next level.

Homepage image courtesy of Pixabay.

Director of Accessibility Research, IBM

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