IBM, Bell Canada offer assistive IT strategies

The International Open Forum on e-Learning and Standardization kicked off Thursday, which featured Bell Canada and IBM’s discussions on the challenges faced by making IT accessible for all, and how they’re dealing with them.

Canada has almost four million differently-abled people, but even the able might not be so for long. One factor driving the immediate need for more widespread accessible technology, said Bill Curtis-Davidson, business development and solutions leader with IBM, is the aging population. “With a maturing workforce, we need to adapt,” he said.

But to adapt successfully, said Bill Abbott, a regulatory lawyer with Bell Canada, companies need to be proactive when it comes to its adaptive technology, and position it as a business case, rather than a series of Band-Aids. “(Assistive technology) is seen as a regulatory obligation, not as something that takes you far or fast towards innovation. You need to change that outlook to seeing it as a business opportunity,” he said. “You need to put it as a business case with a strategy built into it to get accessibility going, from the executives down on to the front lines. A business case should make money, and that drives innovation—if there’s money in it, people will bring their best brains to it.”

One way to build a solid strategy is to connect with advocacy groups that can help inform the company about the needs of the differently abled, he said. That way, if the accessibility plan doesn’t go well, the company has still practiced due diligence and has allies in the community with which to consult. This, said Abbott, reduces risk, which will strengthen the business case further.

Also, try positioning the inclusivity of accessible technology as a bonus for everyone. (During the conference, examples of widely-used technology that originated as adaptive devices included the telephone, transistor radios, and the typewriter.)

Instituting company-wide inclusivity policies and devices also is often the more cost-effective option. Said Abbott: “Accessibility is usually seen as on an individual-by-individual basis, but retrofitting is expensive if you’re running small projects all over. You should get more bang for your buck.”

Implementing these best practices should go hand-in-hand with not only a long-term strategy, but a short-term plan. Advocacy groups (and some companies) tend to look too far towards the long-term when it comes to an ideal accessible future. Abbott, however, suggests drafting and managing a short-term plan to make sure that concrete actions are being taken and completed, which, he said, ensures a clarity of vision—and execution.

He admits that Bell Canada has not reached the 100 per cent accessibility level yet, but the company’s commitment to inclusive technology and practices is a key business driver. Abbott said, “Business is not a bad word—money matters. And if you put accessibility in a business context, it really helps you move faster.”

IBM is another company hard at work on crafting solutions to help the differently abled go faster, and better. Rich Schwerdtfeger, distinguished engineer and senior technical staff member with IBM Emerging Technologies’ accessibility strategy and architecture software group, said, “Inclusive technology is critical in meeting the needs of business customers,” citing the aging population, the current vogue of productivity, and the mounting laws demanding accessibility.

With the goal of inclusivity for the Web-centric culture (including Web 2.0 and rich Internet applications), his team has been working on Accessible Rich Internet Applications (ARIA), the W3C open standard Web specifications that improve accessibility for persons with a disability. He said, “The Web does a poor job of managing information unless you go into rich Internet applications—HTML is not keyboard-accessible.”

Working through Web content (the accessibility framework ties in automatically with programs like Firefox, Google, AOL, and Yahoo), ARIA makes Web 2.0 pages behave like a desktop (complete with tabs), which is more easier recognized and manageable, courtesy of a keyboard navigational model. (The program is not device-specific; the user could program a mobile device with the necessary keypad commands to surf the Web.) Other browsers and assistive technology vendors are coming on board, he said, which will make ARIA more widespread.

This program is laying the groundwork for the accessibility challenge of on-demand Web content and mash-ups that don’t work well with adaptive technologies. “If you aggregate services from different providers, say putting New York Times content or a Google map on your Web site, you need inclusive design. Can I enlarge the font? Does it have on-screen keyboard support? Does it work with my assistive technology device?,” he said. Each thing you have to pull up should have an accessibility mandate, said Schwerdtfeger, which is what ARIA seeks to further, by working with a variety of browsers and devices.

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