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Icons of Progress

The Accessible Workforce


In 1980, Jim Sinocchi, then a 25-year-old IBM contract administrator in New York City, had high hopes for a career in business or politics. But when he broke his neck while body surfing, and became a quadriplegic, he thought he’d never work again. He was stunned in 1983 when his managers at IBM urged him to come back. Initially lacking confidence, he begged off, but a supervisor who had watched over his recovery insisted that he return—offering to let him take his pick of jobs at the White Plains, New York, location. “They wouldn’t let me fail. They wouldn’t let me quit,” marvels Sinocchi, who returned to work as a wheelchair rider in 1983, gradually expanding from one day per week to a fulltime job. He’s now a marketing and communications executive at the corporate headquarters in New York.

What Sinocchi didn’t understand at the time of his injury was that IBM had long been a pioneer in accessibility for people with disabilities. From its earliest days, it had been designing products, including Braille printers and typewriters, aimed at helping disabled people fulfill their potential. IBM was also a leader in implementing human resources (HR) polices aimed at creating an accessible workplace. “The company has been promoting accessibility for people with disabilities for close to a century,” says Axel LeBlois, executive director of the UN’s Global Initiative for Inclusive Information and Communications Technologies. “What’s really admirable is the record of HR policies within the company. You can’t preach in the domain without leading by example.”

IBM has helped create a climate today where accessibility, due to the Americans with Disabilities Act, is the law of the land in the United States, and where companies of all types are building accessibility features into many products and services. The new thinking—called universal design—is that rather than making versions of things specifically for people with disabilities, products should be conceived and designed from the ground up to take into account the needs and capabilities of a wide range of people. IBM is building such features into its software. “Our tag line is, ‘It’s not about them; it’s about all of us,’” says Frances W. West, director of IBM’s Human Ability and Accessibility Center.

This avid interest in accessibility began with the Watsons—and it was personal. Thomas J. Watson Sr. was a great believer in helping all IBMers achieve their full potential, just as people had helped him in his early years. The company hired its first disabled person in 1914, the year Watson joined—and a full 76 years before the Americans with Disabilities Act. Thomas J. Watson Jr., who succeeded his father as chief executive in 1956, had suffered from depression and learning difficulties as a young man, so he understood that disabilities could be overcome.

A major step forward for IBM came in 1942, when the company hired blind psychologist Michael Supa to create a program for hiring and training people with disabilities. During his 37 years at IBM, Supa institutionalized the company’s concern for people with disabilities. IBM opened a training center in New York City in 1943, subcontracted work to Sheltered and Blind Workshops in Binghamton, New York, in 1945, and added disability coverage to its benefit plan in 1947. Supa’s motto was, “No person is handicapped if he has the right job.”

In the 1990s, IBM Chief Executive Louis V. Gerstner created eight diversity executive taskforces charged with improving the company’s policies concerning women, minorities and people with disabilities. The taskforce on accessibility and disability produced innovations such as a central fund that now makes it possible for IBM managers globally to hire people with disabilities without having to bear the added expense locally of accommodating them.

The emergence of the Internet stimulated a new wave of technology innovation by IBMers aimed at providing people with disabilities the same access to information and communications as everybody else. Blind Japanese IBM Fellow Chieko Asakawa opened the web for non-visual access in 1998 with her IBM Home Page Reader, which converts text to speech and helps blind people navigate the web. Now she’s helping to improve IBM’s Spoken Web technologies, which make it easier for blind, elderly and illiterate people to learn and do business on the web. “We have to find ways to invite everyone into the IT world,” she says.

To help integrate accessibility across IBM’s processes and product portfolio, and drive new innovation, the company in 2000 set up the IBM Human Ability and Accessibility Center within IBM Research. The 40-person organization leads compliance initiatives so IBM products comply with all government accessibility requirements; assists acquired companies in quickly complying with IBM’s accessibility policies; and works with clients and IBM ® Business Partners to help them implement end-to-end policies, processes and solutions for accessibility. Most recently, the group collaborated with IBM Human Resources and the IBM Office of the CIO to create the Accessible Workplace Connection portal, which makes it easy for managers to accommodate IBMers with disabilities, and teaches those employees about the tools and policies that exist to help them do their jobs on an equal footing with their peers.

There are still plenty of challenges for people with disabilities—both inside IBM and, even more, in the world at large. In the United States, the unemployment rate for people with disabilities is typically about 50% higher than the overall unemployment rate, and many disabled people don’t even look for work and therefore aren’t counted. At IBM, the percentage of identified disabled IBMers in the workforce numbers is in the low single digits. But Sinocchi, the wheelchair-rider and marketing and communications executive, believes progress is being made. Over the years, attitudes regarding people with disabilities have continued to evolve, to the point where they now help define what it means to be an IBMer. “Our diversity strategy became our people strategy,” says Sinocchi. “We have created an environment where people feel welcome and valued. We take away the barriers to success and help them contribute to both clients and the company at the highest level of their abilities.”