Home history A commitment to accessibility A commitment to accessibility
For more than a century, IBM has pioneered the quest to advance accessibility and inclusion technologies
A hand on an embossed sheet of paper in a braille typewriter, 1974

All too often, people who see, hear, move or think in a manner outside of what is considered mainstream have remained cut off from the world of information — and therefore limited in their opportunities to advance in the workforce. IBM has long been striving to right this wrong by developing technologies that break down barriers and make analyzing and harnessing information more broadly accessible.

Over the past century, IBM has introduced dozens of innovations in adaptive and assistive technology, from more efficient Braille translation to smarter natural-language processing techniques and apps that help overcome cognitive challenges. People with disabilities — or “diverse abilities,” as IBM has adopted — represent a huge resource, both as consumers and as insightful employees. IBMers with sensory, motor and learning differences bring firsthand perspective to propose and develop novel solutions that can be used around the world.

IBM’s leadership in accessibility reflects a core ethos of IBM’s first CEO, Thomas J. Watson Sr., who thought that every employee should have every opportunity to reach their full potential. Beyond altruism or market ambition is the belief that serving the widest-possible range of people and abilities yields the best designs. As Ruoyi Zhou of IBM Research pointed out: “Accessibility, quite often, is a catalyst for innovation.”

Accessibility, quite often, is a catalyst for innovation Ruoyi Zhou IBM Research
Diverse perspectives drive ideas

IBM began hiring people with diverse abilities in 1914 — decades before the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 or the American With Disabilities Act of 1990. In the 1920s and ’30s, the company would teach its growing number of employees with hearing or vision loss how to operate production equipment. It adjusted workspaces to accommodate people of diverse needs, providing greater independence while also offering equal pay.

In 1942, the company hired Michael Supa, who had lost his eyesight in childhood, to build a formal program to recruit and train more people with disabilities. Supa, a psychologist, believed that gaining a better understanding of oneself and others could create a more inclusive work environment. He eventually taught hundreds of classes as part of the General Education program at IBM. “The more we know, the more adequately we are able to function as human beings,” he said.

IBM’s contribution to the production of, and access to, Braille materials is a great example. In the 1950s, IBM researchers collaborated with Braille experts to create the Braille Translation System. The IBM 704 would read books coded on punched cards and reproduce them in Braille far faster than a human could. This increased Braille literary collections and expanded them to include textbooks and technical titles. IBM also introduced a Braille printer for larger-scale production as well as, in 1968, the first electric Braille typewriter, complete with a novel “erase” lever to easily flatten mistakes.


The more we know, the more adequately we are able to function as human beings Michael Supa IBM General Education Program teacher
Accessibility through a human-machine connection

Speech-recognition technology presented an exciting new frontier both in computer science and in the growing effort to increase accessibility. IBM introduced a voice-recognition device in 1961 called the Shoebox (named for its humble size), which followed the asymmetry in human speech rather than sound frequencies, to understand and respond to commands. This invention and future iterations set the stage for controlling computers using voice and paved the way for present-day automated customer service and smart speaker technologies.

Throughout the 1970s and ’80s, speech recognition research accelerated. IBM electrical engineer Fred Jelinek led efforts to create a voice-activated typewriter. His advances made it possible for computers to understand, transcribe and translate written and spoken language. Jelinek is commonly credited with creating the statistical methods that underpin all of today’s speech-recognition and natural language processing technologies and devices.

Amid this environment of innovation, IBM mathematician Jim Thatcher and his colleague Jesse Wright, who was blind, foresaw the barriers that anyone without sight would encounter trying to access any highly visual tool like a PC. They developed a screen reader for DOS that used a synthesized voice to convey on-screen information, and dozens of blind IBMers served as beta-testers. “It was important to blind people to make their PC plug in and talk to a mainframe,” Thatcher said. “There were lots of blind people working in computers because of talking terminals.”

By the time government regulations on accessibility expansion arrived in the 1990s, IBM had been pioneering the movement for decades. The company had long since realized that broadening the market in such a way was simply good business.

By the time government regulations on accessibility expansion arrived in the 1990s, IBM had been leading the movement for decades
Accessing the internet and harnessing smart phones

Then the emergence of the internet brought a new wave of innovation. At IBM Research Tokyo, computer scientist Chieko Asakawa, who lost her sight at age 14, had already tackled digitizing Braille. Now she led an effort to develop the Home Page Reader. It enabled users to independently navigate the web by articulating text, frames, images and text links. It described graphical elements like clickable maps, allowed users to understand complex tables like television listings, and differentiate types of content (hyperlinks versus plain text, for example) by using different voices.

Asakawa also collaborated with Carnegie Mellon University to design NavCog, an app that helps people with vision loss find their way in public spaces by using their smartphones. It combines AI, robotics, physical-positioning sensors and computer-aided vision. “I just wanted to develop a home page reader,” said Asakawa, who would become an IBM Fellow in 2009. “But IBM helped me start contributing to a better world.”

In 1999, the IBM Accessibility Research team was formed to concentrate on developing and improving technologies that could remove obstacles and create better experiences for the estimated 1 billion people in the world with some kind of disability.

I just wanted to develop a home page reader. But IBM helped me start contributing to a better world. Chieko Asakawa IBM Fellow
A ‘spirit of innovation and inclusion’

In the 1980s, IBM began creating programs to assist people with cognitive challenges. A variation of IBM’s Easy Web Browsing software, designed to help those without sight navigate the web, now also aids users with dyslexia and other learning differences. In addition, the IBM AbilityLab has developed the Content Clarifier, a programming interface that simplifies, summarizes or augments digital content based on an individual’s preferences and capabilities.

AI has become a powerful tool in further expanding accessibility and inclusion. According to the WHO, there could be as many as 900 million hearing-impaired people by 2050. To respond to this need, IBM engineer Leoncio Huamán Peredo used IBM Watson to develop Vision D, a viewer that allows people with hearing impairment to see in text what their interlocutor is saying — without sign language or losing eye contact. Peredo worked with the Association of Deaf Youth and Adolescents of Peru to develop the device, which attaches to any pair of glasses. César Campos, general manager of IBM Peru, noted, “Leoncio symbolizes the spirit of innovation and inclusion that has prevailed in our corporation for more than 100 years.”

Throughout the world, governments, universities and other institutions look to IBM’s expertise and thought leadership to help break down the barriers to universal accessibility. IBM began sharing its open-source Equal Access Toolkit and Checker, launched in 2020, with designers and developers around the globe to help them make their websites and apps accessible. It’s yet another example of IBM leading by example.

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