A Case of Individual Adaptation for Universal Accessibility

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IBM hired its first disabled employee in 1914, but its accessibility efforts really took off in the 1970s through the special needs programs the company developed at its research facilities. Its investments in researching how people use technology have led to the development of several products for people with visual, mobility, and learning impairments, including WebAdapt2Me—the tool about which Hanson and Richards have written.

Soon after reading their paper, Dick contacted Hanson to learn more about the software. According to HA&AC manager John Evans, WebAdapt2Me's flexibility made it a compelling choice. With it, users with all types of special needs can view the web in the way that's most productive for them. "In just a few minutes, users can set their preferences for various features that improve the visibility of webpages," Evans explains. "They can magnify everything on a page, change the color of the text or background, turn off distracting animations, and sharpen images to improve readability. They can even have web text read aloud." The software also is programmed to sample the typing patterns of recovering stroke victims, people with arthritis or tremors, and other users who have trouble typing with accuracy. It then detects the most common errors (holding down keys too long or double-clicking letters, for example) and automatically adjusts keyboard sensitivity to accommodate their typing styles. It even saves all settings so that all future webpages are viewed with the exact same accessibility features.

Dick says he loved the "more complete control" WebAdapt2Me gives users, including its ability to reduce visual clutter by reducing several columns to one, but he also liked that it was server-based. "Up until just a couple of years ago, you couldn't get that," he explains. "You'd have to install on every PC on campus"—a veritable deal-breaker. "We have 500 computers in my department alone!" he laughs. "Plus, there's nothing as dangerous as a 21-year-old computer science major. They can do some serious damage if you don't have proper security controls in place."

Over the next few months, Dick researched competing products, but by late 2004, he was working with IBM's accessibility consulting services group to bring WebAdapt2Me to CSULB. IBM provided the university with 200 WebAdapt2Me licenses and server software that integrates it with the campus's existing web delivery environment. IBM also provided configuration, installation, maintenance, and support services. The system was up and running by fall 2005, though it took several months to work out the kinks. According to Evans, campus IT staff worked with IBM throughout that period to configure and refine the product. As part of that process, Dick recruited 10 students and professors, whom he dubbed "the adventurers," to put the software through its paces. "We tracked the difficulties they had and provided feedback to IBM," Dick explains. Adds Evans: "Their feedback was then incorporated to make the software easier to use and more effective in meeting their needs. The collaboration ultimately benefited both IBM and CSULB's users." (One outcome of that collaboration was the development of versions for both Mozilla Firefox and the Linux platform. Initially, WebAdapt2Me was only available on the Windows platform using Internet Explorer.)

News of the CSULB/IBM partnership was made public in April 2006, and in the ensuing months, Dick continued to work with IBM on a campuswide rollout of the software. "The goal is that any person who needs to use it will be able to from any computer on campus," he says of the recently completed launch, which he estimates cost the university about $66,000. "WebAdapt2Me will immediately transform the web environment for that person. It's a real tool they can use, and it's a niche for us."

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