A Case of Individual Adaptation for Universal Accessibility

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Article ImageORGANIZATION: California State University, Long Beach
Founded in 1949, CSULB is part of the 23-campus California State University system. Its 35,000 students are served by nearly 2,000 faculty members within eight colleges, which offer 81 bachelor's and 66 master's degrees, as well as two joint doctoral degrees. A frequent entry on annual college rankings published by U.S. News and World Report and The Princeton Review, CSULB regularly attracts older working students, as well as adults retraining for new careers and senior students pursuing degrees or academic interests after retirement.

Given CSULB's diverse population, university administrators work hard to maintain an equal-opportunity program that promotes full inclusion for every member of the campus community, including students, faculty, and staff with disabilities or age-related vision or hearing loss. Dr. Wayne Dick, chair of the computer engineering and computer science department, says CSULB's commitment to diversity and universal accommodation is obvious, both in word and in deed. "One thing that impressed me," he says of his first visit, "was that there were ramps all over campus. It impressed me that they took accessibility so seriously, and it felt like a place where I'd like to work." Dick, who's partially sighted, joined the faculty in 1981. He's worked since then to improve the learning experience for students battling obstacles similar to those he encountered as a student. In 2004, while researching ways to improve access to web-based information and applications, Dick discovered a paper co-written by Dr. Vicki L. Hanson, manager of accessibility research for the IBM T.J. Watson Research Center in New York state, and Dr. John T. Richards, also of IBM's research division. The article described a new tool IBM had developed to help people with various disabilities customize the way they browse the web. Dick felt he'd found his answer.

VENDOR OF CHOICE: IBM Human Ability and And Accessibility Center
Formed in 2000 as an outgrowth of IBM's Special Needs Systems group, the HA&AC strives to improve technology access and usability for all people. In addition to developing screen-reading and web-adaptation technologies, voice recognition software, and other features for users with visual, cognitive, and dexterity impairments, the HA&AC has worked with several global organizations to facilitate the creation, adoption, and improvement of key accessibility standards and guidelines. HA&AC offices in the United States, Japan, Europe, Australia, China, and Brazil support customers as diverse as CSULB and San Francisco State University; the Italian Senate; Deutsche Bahn, an international transport and logistics services provider headquartered in Germany; and Mitsukoshi, a Japanese department store chain.

Over the years, CSULB administrators have instituted a number of policies to supplement and expand the university's equal-opportunity program. In addition to making both structural and policy changes to meet Americans with Disabilities Act requirements, the campus has adopted World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) guidelines to give people with disabilities equal access to the internet. It also complies with California legislation that gives students and faculty online access to textbooks. Although Dick greatly admired the efforts CSULB leaders have made to accommodate all students, he thought more could be done to improve content accessibility.

Dick has long been an advocate for people with physical disabilities, because he understands their struggles all too well. Born with toxoplasmosis—a parasitic disease that destroyed his retinas and severely limited his vision—Dick spent his school years relying on friends, family, and other volunteers to read his textbooks to him because he couldn't see or read the standard-size print. He also used some of the first "talking books" recorded by the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped, but the technology was so rudimentary—both in the scope of the books available and in the size of the special reading machine required to play the recordings—that he often struggled to keep up with his studies. Despite such obstacles, Dick ultimately graduated with a Ph.D. in mathematics. His experience shed light on an obvious "hole in the accommodation framework," as he calls it, that he hoped he'd one day be able to address. The dawn of the web as an essential research tool only exacerbated the problems he'd already identified.

"For most of my career, I've wanted to do something about disabilities, particularly for people with vision limitations like mine," he explains. "Blind people get a certain kind of [accommodation], but partial sight is an afterthought. The problem was in the technology—there wasn't anything that could present print in a variable enough format that partially sighted people could use it. What works for me might not work for others. For people with perceptual interferences, little things like color, and how lines and letters are spaced, affect whether or not they can read."

About five years ago Dick began developing his own style sheets that permitted him to alter the size, color, and positioning of content on a webpage for "general-purpose reading." He soon was using those style sheets to research the accessibility movement online. "Once I became a reader, I read everything," including specs from the W3C, he explains. "I now consider myself a researcher in this area, and my role is to administer the accessibility program at CSULB." His pursuit of that mission ultimately led him to the aforementioned paper, which had been prepared for a web accessibility session at the Association for Computing Machinery's 2004 SIGACCESS Conference on Assistive Technologies—and to IBM.

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