IBM Helps Disabled Users Get More From Assistive Technology

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IBM Gives New Technology to Free Standards Group to Maintain as Industry Standard; Freedom Scientific, GW Micro, Mozilla, Oracle, SAP and Sun Are First to Back the Technology

IBM today announced that it has developed software interfaces that will make it easier for assistive technologies to provide those with disabilities access to advanced features in software programs - such as editing functions, hyperlinks, charts and menus. These features can be found in rich browser applications based on DHTML, AJAX, and WAI-ARIA, and desktop applications based on the OpenDocument Format.

The new application program interfaces, designed for Windows and dubbed IAccessible2, have been accepted by the Free Standards Group, which will develop and maintain it as an open standard, available for all to use. Freedom Scientific, GW Micro, IBM, Mozilla Project, Oracle, SAP, and Sun Microsystems are the first to back the technology, and will be involved in developing it as an industry standard, or use it in products with which they are associated.

Assistive technologies, such as screen readers, enable the blind to use computers by verbalizing information such as text and graphics controls provided by an application such as a Web browser or word processing document. Until now, assistive technology programs have required constant, custom modifications to keep up with new versions of software applications, with new document formats and operating systems, and with the interactive way electronic information is presented today.

Furthermore, efforts to provide access to these types of applications have required non-standard means that may vary between applications and between versions of applications -- and are sometimes error-prone. Features and information in rich text documents that are difficult for those with disabilities to tap include headings and captions in tables, fonts, text colors, text selected for cutting and pasting, hyperlinks, and caret location.

Many browser-based Rich Internet Applications or Web 2.0 technologies, such as AJAX (which enable bursts of information, commentary, and live updates on a Web page), don't have standardized programming interfaces to communicate behind the scenes with assistive technologies. They cannot easily say what is occurring on-screen and how interactions on a static portion of a Web page may affect a "live" region on another.

By standardizing the interfaces, and with the stewardship of the Free Standards Group, assistive technology vendors now have a more consistent, less expensive way to easily extend their software for new technologies and computer operating systems. Likewise, mainstream software application vendors can more easily extend their programming interfaces to communicate with assistive technologies.

IAccessible2 complements a proprietary application program interface, called Microsoft Active Accessibility (MSAA), and therefore lets companies continue to benefit from their Windows investments. IAccessible2 is based on open technology that IBM originally developed with Sun to make Java and Linux accessible to those with disabilities. Once implemented on Windows, it will be easier to adapt individual applications for accessibility on other operating systems, potentially creating business opportunities for multi-platform application developers.

This effort was accelerated by the need to produce accessible productivity software based on the OpenDocument Format (ODF) to meet the needs of municipalities such as the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, which has mandated the use of open standards such as ODF. The technology makes browsers such as Firefox, and formats such as ODF -- used in open source productivity suites like or commercial messaging environments such as IBM Workplace -- relate more automatically and more fully to assistive technologies such as JAWS, MAGic or Windows Eyes.

This work was performed by IBM engineers across two continents involving IBM Lotus engineers in Beijing and Boston, as well as accessibility experts in IBM's Emerging Technologies group and in IBM Research, many of whom have developed assistive technologies and performed work to make Java, Linux, Firefox, and Rich Internet Applications more accessible. The work was validated by Freedom Scientific and GW Micro, both of which worked closely with IBM developers. Both Freedom Scientific and GW Micro will support IAccessible in products designed for blind and low-vision users.

Between 750 million and 1 billion of the world's six billion people have a speech, vision, mobility, hearing or cognitive disability, according to the World Health Organization.

American Association of People with Disabilities

"The American Association of People with Disabilities (AAPD) recognizes IBM for its development of IAccessible, a new collection of Application Program Interfaces (APIs) that were designed to provide a richer user experience for technology users with a broad range of disabilities, and its donation to the Free Standards Group. We were also pleased to see IBM's involvement of assistive technology vendors in IAccessible2's design and implementation in Lotus' Productivity Tools that support ODF, and applaud IBM's collaboration with the Free Standards Group to allow for inclusive innovation on accessibility through an open standard. IBM continues to show its industry leadership to enrich the lives of all persons with disabilities and to aid developers in making it a reality."

- Andrew J. Imparato, AAPD President and CEO, AAPD


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