Dr. John Kelly, senior vice president and director of research at IBM, spoke at the U.S. Business Leadership Network’s 2009 conference, and offered a look at some amazing IBM programs for people with disabilities.
Dr. Kelly presented a visionary look at the future of the world at large through the prism of technology. He says that disability is just one of five emerging trends in the U.S., the other four being aging, families for whom English is a foreign language, low literacy rates, and non-technology users.
One in five Americans have a disability. By 2025, 20 percent of the U.S. population will be 65 years and older in age. More than 47 million people don’t speak English at home. “This is not a niche market, this is an incredibly opportunity,” Kelly says.
The disability landscape has evolved from being a philanthropic issue, to a legislative movement, to today’s market-driven environment, which has created an opportunity for new technologies that will help businesses and consumers, he says. To that end, IBM is in the thick of research around several technology platforms that could change the way people with disabilities work and interact with each other.
One study is around hiring the disabled in corporate America, and what needs to be done. Transportation is an issue (one USBLN attendee had to get an accessible van to take him back to his hotel each night at a cost of over $100). Technology that allows for virtual work environments — at IBM around 40 percent of its workforce is virtual — would be a boon for workers with physical disabilities. The still-debated concept of not requiring ‘face time’ in the office is one drawback, along with the myriad of other issues that companies deal with around disability hiring, such as making offices accessible and fear of lawsuits. Still, “modern technology is closing the gap,” Kelly says.
As the web changes from a static to a more active platform, IBM is taking the idea of social networking and crowd sourcing to help people with visual impairments. The Social Accessibility Project is an experimental project to improve Web accessibility by using the power of community. It’s a utility that gathers information about accessibility problems directly from visually impaired users. Members of the open community can then use an IBM tool that allows them to externally modify Web pages, making the pages accessible while leaving all original content untouched.
And in Taiwan, IBM developed a mobile service for the Deaflympics that allows deaf people to communicate. The service provides real time online sign language interpretation through video and audio instant messaging, using IBM’s Lotus Sametime instant messaging solution and WiMax wireless broadband technology.