Without Sight, a Visionary Leader
Chieko Asakawa connects disabled users to the Web
To connect blind users with the vast advantages of the Internet, Asakawa led IBM Research in developing Home Page Reader, an early talking Web browser released in 1999. The tool’s successor, IBM Easy Web Browsing software, helps vision-impaired, dyslexic and learning-challenged users engage with Internet content.
It’s easy to assume that it’s up to the user to adapt to access content. But content providers can also make simple changes to help disabled consumers use their sites. A text-to-speech screen reader is useless on an image whose only alt text is the word “image,” for example. Part of Asakawa’s work has involved helping content providers understand the opportunities to reach disabled people. aDesigner, which Asakawa’s team introduced in 2004, is a disability simulator that sighted Web developers can apply to their pages to mimic blind users’ experiences. This can help maximize the tools that convert text and images into spoken cues. aDesigner is still available through the Eclipse Foundation, to which IBM donated its code in 2007 as part of the Accessibility Tools Framework.
Asakawa’s team strives to create adaptive technology based on real-world needs from the user’s perspective. “How effectively could we respond to user's real needs? That was the question we tried to answer,” she says. She points to Tottori Prefecture, a local government in Japan. Through a partnership with nonprofits and Tottori Prefecture Information Center (a semi-public company), the prefecture is solving accessibility problems on its websites by acting on user feedback. When public users report accessibility problems, such as a lack of descriptive text, a team of metadata editors makes improvements using IBM’s Web Accessibility Improvement System running on a cloud environment. The program directly benefits three stakeholders: the metadata editors, many of whom are sighted disabled employees; visually impaired users; and the prefecture. “Accessibility improvement efforts are seemingly endless,” Hiroshi Morimoto, director of Tottori’s information policy division, said in an IBM video about the initiative.
By acting on user feedback, the prefecture is employing a social-networking model, which Asakawa says is an emerging opportunity in accessibility. “Haptic is another new frontier,” she says. “Current mobile devices have small haptic functions, touch, gesture and vibration. The direction will lead to more tangible and intuitive haptic information presentation.”