University of Toronto signs up for IBM accessibility program

An IBM-sponsored program to help ensure that computer science graduates learn to design products with disabled people’s needs in mind could mean better product design for everybody.

IBM has so far signed up five universities, including the University of Toronto, for its Accessibility Common Courseware Exchange for Software Studies (ACCESS). That program will help the institutions develop and share course materials to teach students how to design software that people with disabilities can use comfortably.

The project had its roots in a programming contest that IBM organized for students, said Angel Franco, project manager of the company’s Human Ability and Accessibility Center. The students were asked to write computer programs to check whether Web sites are accessible for people with disabilities.

That contest made it apparent that many students were learning little or nothing about designing for people with disabilities, Franco said. “It appeared that this was the first time it had over occurred to them to ask the question: Well, how does a blind person use the Internet?”

IBM then conducted a survey that verified that “in many places, very little was being taught about anything to do with human-computer interaction,” least of all issues specific to disabled people, Franco said.

Universities around the world will be able to contribute lessons, tools and courseware related to accessible technologies to an open repository hosted and supported by the IBM Academic Initiative. Materials in this repository will be available to academics who join the Academic Initiative, which Franco said they can do in a few minutes at no cost.

The repository will be available online, IBM said.

IBM has seeded the repository with two lectures of its own, and the five institutions that have already signed up either already have put in material or will soon, said Franco.

Along with the University of Toronto, the other initial participants are the University of Illinois, California State University at Long Beach, Georgia Tech and Rochester Institute of Technology.

About 2,000 universities around the world are members of IBM’s Academic Initiative, which will be promoting the ACCESS program to all of them, said Franco.

The University of Toronto’s Adaptive Technology Resource Centre has been developing teaching materials related to accessible design since its inception in 1993, said Jutta Treviranus, director of the centre. The ACCESS program will help the centre share its work with others. “It will get our curriculum out there more. It will give us an additional pool of resources,” she said.

“It’s a very fledgling area, and so we need a critical mass to move things along,” Treviranus said. “One of the things that this IBM program will do is it will collect sufficient curriculum so that people can launch inclusive design programs.”

The University of Toronto plans to launch such a program in the fall of 2008, Treviranus added. Operating within the university’s Faculty of Information Studies, it will offer students a dual specialization in inclusive design and one of a number of other areas.

Alan Cantor, a Toronto consultant who specializes in accessible technology, welcomed IBM’s move. “This is wonderful news and a long overdue development,” he said.

Cantor said he has worked with many engineers and developers educated in the 1970s through the 1990s, and very few of them had been taught anything about designing for the needs of people with disabilities. Yet some 10 per cent of the population today has a disability of some sort, and that figure will rise to around 20 per cent by 2020, Cantor said.

As the population ages, there will be more older people with physical limitations such as deterioriating eyesight who want to continue using computers, Franco said. “That’s a really key audience.”

But it’s not only people with disabilities who benefit from accessible design. Designing to accommodate disabilities leads to better over-all design, Treviranus said.

A popular example is the curb cut – the section of a sidewalk curb that is cut away at many street corners to allow wheelchairs to cross the street more easily. This helps wheelchair users, but also helps a far greater number of people pushing baby carriages and shopping carts, as well as rollerbladers and others, Treviranus pointed out.

When manufacturers ask for advice on making their products easier for people with disabilities to use, Cantor said, his suggestions often make the products easier to use for everyone. For example, he has suggested changing colours in software screens to improve contrast, which makes the display easier for everyone to read. Easier-to-read markings on controls are another example.

“The hope for the future of better product design, design that can meet the needs of all people, lies with the the people who are in school today learning their craft,” Cantor said.

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Grant Buckler
Freelance journalist specializing in information technology, telecommunications, energy & clean tech. Theatre-lover & trainee hobby farmer.

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