Chieko Asakawa

Chieko Asakawa, IBM Fellow, IBM Research - Tokyo, Japan

Chieko Asakawa talks about the need for accessibility

“Accessibility,” says Dr. Chieko Asakawa, “is about enabling human capability through innovation, so that everyone can reach their full potential, regardless of age or ability.” Asakawa is an IBM Fellow and IBM Research scientist, but her interest in the subject is far more than academic. She has been blind since the age of 14.

And she’s far from alone in the need for increased accessibility. There are more than 7 billion people on Earth, and about one-third of them are disabled, elderly or illiterate.

“When I became blind, there were no personal computers, no internet, no smartphones. There was not even a device to take notes in Braille; I had to use a Braille typewriter,” says Asakawa. “How did I prepare for classes? One of my family members had to read a textbook to me so that I could re-create it in Braille. To look up an English word starting with an 's,' I remember going through several volumes of the English-Japanese Braille dictionary. I don’t remember exactly how many, but the full dictionary may comprise something like 100 volumes. Come to think of it, it was back then when my quest for accessibility started.”

285 million people are estimated to be visually impared worldwide
The internet gap
39 million are blind, 246 million have low vision
54% of american adults with disabilities use the internet, 81% of american adults without disabilities use the internet
285 million people are estimated to be visually impared worldwide
39 million are blind, 246 million have low vision
The internet gap
54% of american adults with disabilities use the internet, 81% of american adults without disabilities use the internet

Accessibility is about enabling human capability through innovation.

The dependency began to change in 1984 when Asakawa became a student researcher at the IBM Research lab, where she worked on a system to translate English text into English Braille. She formally joined IBM Research in 1985 and soon developed a Braille dictionary system that made the most of computer storage. “We no longer needed to own or pore through dozens of volumes of the English-Japanese Braille dictionary,” she says with evident relief.

The advent of the internet raised both new opportunities and new challenges for accessibility. “I still remember clearly how astonished I was when I first accessed the internet. If I created a software to convert the text information on the web into synthesized voice, I could read information all by myself.” That’s when Asakawa quickly moved on to develop the voice browser called Home Page Reader in 1997.

She vividly remembers one of many comments received from Home Page Reader users around the world, “For me, the internet is a small window to the world.”

Quest to make the real world accessible

Today, information accessibility has dramatically improved. Not only for the blind, but for others as well. For example, smartphones provide access to the web anytime, anywhere. But for Asakawa, accessibility means much more than being able to surf the net. The biggest accessibility challenge remains the real world.

“Without a human assistant, I have a difficult time enjoying shopping and walking in unfamiliar places. The city is full of visual information, and that is something that I miss all the time if I don’t have a human assistant.” To overcome real-world accessibility challenges, Asakawa is working with Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) to find out how new technologies can play a key role. “My dream is to create a cognitive assistant agent which recognizes everything around me, lets me know who is in the meeting room, who is approaching me, or if there is a parked bicycle in my way."

Causes of visual impairment worldwide

Chieko Asakawa

Early efforts at cognitive assistance are focused on developing technology to allow Asakawa to move around by herself, aided by smartphone navigation in both indoor and outdoor environments. With a prototype video analysis technology under development by CMU, Asakawa’s smartphone tells her who is approaching, and in what mood, to help her engage socially. "Computers need to have an ability to process this data and make sense of it to better support people, to help them live and work more successfully,” says Asakawa. “Technologies have helped me make some dreams come true – reading textbooks, surfing the net by myself. Cognitive assistant technology is the next big thing for me to make more dreams come true – to enjoy window shopping while walking along a street by myself and traveling by myself."

People with disabilities probably won’t be the only ones to benefit. “History shows us that the needs of a limited population hold potential for new innovations,” says Asakawa. “The telephone and the keyboard, for example, are said to be inspired by impairments. Imagine if you are in a foreign country with no knowledge of the local language. Having a cognitive assistant may become handy for you to find good restaurants or places that you want to go, or to catch important information like signs. Such an assistant may be able to tell you where you put your car keys, or that you are about to forget to buy a carton of milk at a grocery store.”

There are many challenges to be overcome to achieve real world accessibility, but Asakawa is optimistic because she believes in power of the people. "Collaboration is such a powerful thing that we can make the impossible possible."

In that spirit, Asakawa and Carnegie Mellon are working with communities around the world, open-sourcing fundamental technologies for researchers and developers with a hope of accelerating the effort through collaboration. To learn more about the initiative or how you can contribute, follow the project on Facebook.