Programming for all

Noting shifting demographics, aging baby boomers and a growing disabled population, IBM Corp. is seeking to draw attention to the need for universities to teach principles of accessible design in their computer science curricula.

The push includes IBM-developed accessible design course exercises and materials that professors can accesses online to use in their classes, and a contest that challenges students to propose and design an open-source software for people with disabilities, based on the Open Document Format.

According to data from the World Health Organization, between 750 million and one billion people out of a global population of six billion have a speech, vision, mobility, hearing, or cognitive disability, and as baby boomers age, those numbers will only increase.

Frances West, director of the IBM Human Ability and Accessibility Center, said the dependency of that population on technology for access to information has become critical.

“We felt it was really important to raise the awareness and also the understanding of the need of accessibility in universities,” said West, adding that universities are lagging behind. “For anyone who has vision impairment, or who is blind, they actually have a higher need of using computers for gaining information.”

Since most information is presented textually, people with a vision impairment need screen readers to read the text aloud to them. For those with a hearing impairment, participating in a Webcast is impossible without captioning or transcription. The increasingly dynamic and complex nature of Web pages with the evolution to Web 2.0 also presents accessibility challenges.

West said there is technology from IBM and other companies to facilitate the user experience, such as screen readers, but if they’re to work, the developer needs to design with them in mind when they’re coding the underlying program or Web site.

“We think the programmers of the future, as they start leaning about computer science in university, need to understand some of the important basic principles,” said West. They include, when creating Web pages, understanding that dynamic content will be aggregated and presented to a blind or vision-impaired user. “In order to make the information that’s online accessible you really need both the application and also the underlying platform and the OS.”

Within IBM, West said her centre came about from the desire to put into practice accessible design principles.

As director of the Adaptive Technology Resource Centre at the University of Toronto (U of T), Jutta Treviranus is working to increase awareness and education of accessible and inclusive design principles. And while progress is being made, she said the world of academe still has a long way to go.

“It’s extremely important that there be education regarding inclusive design and accessibility,” said Treviranus, adding accessible design needs to be a part of the development process from the beginning, and so should be a core part of computer science and engineering education.

At the U of T, Treviranus said it is not currently integrated into the curriculum in a formalized way. Depending on the instructor and interests at the time, it might be given guest-lecture status or addressed with a project, but she said she feels it needs to be more formalized, with more resources devoted to it.

“The ideal would be if it was woven into a number of topics in a very natural way, so when you talk about project management you talk about accessibility evaluation, and when you talk about software architecture you talk about architectures that allow the separation of the presentation and the method of control from the underlying code, [and so on],” said Treviranus.

The positive thing, said Treviranus, is that accessible programming doesn’t mean learning new skills, just writing code in an open way. For example, not assuming that everyone can use a mouse and so not hard-coding the requirement for a mouse to complete a needed function. She said Web design standards like Cascading Style Sheets also lend themselves to accessible design.

“What you need in accessibility and inclusive design is allowances for diverse methods of accessing the system,” said Treviranus. “It doesn’t mean that you have to do anything special, it just means (you need to) allow a flexible presentation framework, so I can plug out one presentation and plug in another.”

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