Chieko Asakawa
The IBM computer scientist and researcher, who lost her sight at 14, recognized early on that technology would be key to a more accessible world for all
A woman in a striped shirt and suit jacket

Chieko Asakawa has devoted decades to making the world a more accessible place. Early in her career as a computer scientist she played a critical role in the development of groundbreaking accessibility technologies, including a revolutionary web-to-speech system called the IBM Home Page Reader. More recently, Asakawa has been investigating how artificial intelligence can bring people with disabilities greater independence in their everyday lives.

Asakawa lost her ability to see at a young age. When she was 11, she hit her left eye on the side of a swimming pool, causing damage to her optical nerve. Three years later, she would become blind. Once an accomplished sprinter who had dreamed of becoming a professional athlete, Asakawa suddenly required assistance for nearly every task. It was the early 1970s in Japan and accessibility technology was still in its earliest stages. “The hardest thing for me,” she would later recall in a TED talk, “was losing my independence. Things that until then seemed simple became almost impossible to do alone.”

The young Asakawa’s frustrations hardly tempered her ambitions. Encouraged by her family, only four years after losing her sight she traveled to the United States to study. When she returned to Japan for university, she pursued a degree in English literature. Lacking Braille editions of the books she needed for class, she created her own by transcribing the texts as her brothers read them aloud. “Come to think of it, it was back then when my quest for accessibility started,” she explained.

Chieko Asakawa has devoted decades to making the world a more accessible place
Opening access to computing for the blind

Asakawa first encountered computer science at the Nippon Institute, which offered a two-year course in information technology for blind students. During her studies, she often utilized an Optacon, an electromechanical device that allows blind users to read printed material without a Braille translation. While helpful, she found the tool cumbersome and inexact. It revealed a calling. “I had an idea that a computer could help to bridge the gap between sighted and blind people,” she recalled. “I thought I could effectively use my own experience as a blind person working in science and technology to make it come true.”

In 1984, Asakawa accepted a post as a student researcher at the IBM Tokyo Research Lab. A year later, she joined IBM full time. For the first decade there, she focused on the kind of accessibility technology she had wished for as a student, including the Braille Editing System (BES), the IBM Braille Forum Network and the Braille Dictionary System. Her work had immediate impact.

For Japanese speakers who were blind and wished to write and edit their work, the BES became indispensable. It was the closest thing to a word processor for people who couldn’t see. It enabled users to input Braille directly to their computers and easily make edits. Asakawa’s Braille Forum Network, meanwhile, facilitated a system of exchange for blind users across Japan. A user could upload the text of a transcribed Braille book to a host computer and allow others to then download it as Braille data. “Through these experiences,” Asakawa explained, “I became sure that computers could truly improve the quality of life for the blind.”

I had an idea that a computer could help to bridge the gap between sighted and blind people Chieko Asakawa IBM Fellow
Accessibility technology goes online

During the latter half of the 1990s, as the internet made inroads into modern life, Asakawa turned her attention to providing the best possible online experience for those with vision loss. She believed that internet access shouldn’t require a special formatting system like Braille. Instead, the Home Page Reader (HPR), which she developed and launched in Japan in 1997, allowed users to navigate the internet using a simple numeric keypad that converted text and icons to speech. In 2001, Asakawa was awarded a patent for her invention.

Eventually available in 11 languages, the HPR would become the most widely used web-to-speech system at the time. Its success strengthened Asakawa’s resolve to make even more headway in the development of accessibility-oriented technologies. “Home Page Reader was a real turning point for me,” Asakawa said. “My vision got much wider, much deeper.”

As the internet evolved into an increasingly graphical platform, she created a program that enabled web designers to simulate how users with lower vision experience their sites; she also developed collaboration software that provides users the chance to report accessibility issues on different pages. Around this same time, Asakawa began to pursue a PhD in computer science from the University of Tokyo — while maintaining her full-time job at IBM and raising her two daughters. She earned her doctorate in 2004.

Home Page Reader was a real turning point for me. My vision got much wider, much deeper. Chieko Asakawa IBM Fellow
A world of human capability

More recently, advances in AI-powered digital assistants — a broad class of tools and technologies used to enhance human capabilities, including reasoning, decision-making and workflow management — have provided Asakawa another powerful tool to help her quest. In 2014, she partnered with Carnegie Mellon researchers to develop NavCog, an app that uses Bluetooth, sensors, computer vision and machine learning technologies to narrow location accuracy to less than two meters and help users move unassisted through indoor locations like campuses, malls or airports. The NavCog app provides flexible route navigation and announcements of points of interest, such as shops, restaurants or other facilities.

Relying solely on a smartphone for navigation assistance, however, had its limitations. Over the next few years, Asakawa and her team began development on her AI suitcase, which uses IBM Watson to help blind users navigate difficult terrain both indoors and out. By gripping the handle, the user activates the suitcase’s motorized wheels, which guide them to their destination. In this way, the suitcase acts as a smart alternative to a white cane — helping the user to avoid people and obstacles in their path. Through the power of AI, the suitcase also alerts users to key elements around them — such as the arrival of a train or the number of people standing before them in line. Eventually, Asakawa hopes such tools will allow blind individuals to move about the world with confidence while providing useful information from the visual world.

During her long tenure at IBM Research, Asakawa has garnered 10 patents, become the first Japanese woman to be named an IBM Fellow, and served as an active member in several professional societies and advocacy initiatives. In 2019, she joined the ranks of the National Inventors Hall of Fame and that same year became an IBM Distinguished Service Professor at Carnegie Mellon’s Robotics Institute. And in 2021, she became the chief executive director of Japan’s National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation (Miraikan).

Over the years, Asakawa has evolved into a true champion of the blind and disabled communities, speaking publicly about the importance of universal accessibility and the value of diverse perspectives in the field of technology. Through her work and leadership, she has fundamentally altered the landscape of accessibility technology on a global scale. And as one of IBM’s leading Accessibility Designers, she continues to harness new developments as a way to level the playing field for people of various abilities the world over. “Accessibility is about enabling human capability through innovation,” she has said, “so that everyone can reach their full potential, regardless of age or ability.”

Accessibility is about enabling human capability through innovation so that everyone can reach their full potential, regardless of age or ability Chieko Asakawa IBM Fellow
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