IBM Looking Ahead at IT for Maturing Workers

Healthcare providers and insurance companies won't be the only ones facing challenges brought on by our aging population. Software developers are increasingly called upon to provide applications and systems that take into account age-related disabilities and other physical limitations.

Accessibility is a hot topic at IBM Research Labs, says Marc Goubert, manager of IBM’s alphaWorks group.

"IBM has been studying this area for some time," Goubert says. "We’ve got such a large population of our workforce maturing that it’s going to be more and more important for businesses to provide them with information technologies designed to keep them productive and happy in their work."

Accessibility is the latest research topic on IBM's alphaWorks Web site, the company's emerging technology showcase for software developers. A component of IBM’s developerWorks, alphaWorks is where Big Blue publishes early implementations of technologies and research prototypes, primarily for early adopters.

Earlier this year, the company began using the site to provide a kind of window on cutting-edge research underway in its research labs through what it calls research topics. Research topics provide a means of organizing downloads, demonstrations, articles and researcher profiles to help developers and academia learn about these new technologies and trends. So far, IBM has established three research topics: visualization, semantics, and now, accessibility.

IBM hopes accessibility will foster an ecosystem of developers, business partners and academics who will make applications more accessible to the maturing workforce, Goubert says.

"We feel that early adopters who grasp this material can also help to foster the real adoption and growth of the technology in a much more important way," he says. "The early adopters who are taking a serious look at accessibility will help to create a more accessible environment for the public."

IBM is showcasing four new technologies for the maturing workforce under the accessibility rubric. These include:

  • Keyboard Optimizer helps users adjust their keyboard accessibility settings to suit their typing style. For example, it adjusts settings for one- or two-handed typing, and for long or short key presses, characteristics that could be caused by a disability. It allows users to demonstrate how they type, determines what accessibility settings would be best, and sets them.
  • Web Adaptation Technology dynamically adapts Web pages to meet the needs of individuals with visual and motor limitations. The software can magnify the contents of a Web page and adjust font, image, and page layout to improve readability. It also features a text to speech feature for those with vision impairments and eases typing for people who have difficulty with a keyboard—users with tremors, arthritis or those recovering from a stroke—by detecting errors and automatically adjusting keyboard sensitivity to accommodate typing. This technology, which was developed with the input of seniors to be particularly easy to use, is the basis of WebAdapt2Me, which is now being sold to companies, organizations and educational institutions.
  • Mouse Smoothing Software enables people who suffer from hand tremors to eliminate excessive cursor movement, thereby allowing more normal use of PCs. Users can download the software, and it filters out the shaking movements of the hand—in a similar way to how the image stabilizing systems of some camera lenses work. The software, which is designed to work with any PC and operating system, can benefit users in homes and offices, as well as in public places like libraries and universities.
  • Reflexive User Interface Builder helps developers build applications that feature popular GUIs that are still accessible to people with disabilities and to mature workers. Powerful graphics pose a particular challenge to users whose eyesight is fading from age or other causes. The tool is of particular interest to developers that create and sell applications to government agencies and must comply with sophisticated accessibility regulations.

IBM recently contributed accessibility software to the Mozilla Foundation's Firefox Web browser. The company is also offering universities a free license to a disability simulator that helps Web designers ensure their Web pages are accessible and usable by the vision impaired.

IBM has impeccable timing: The new research topic hits the alphaWorks site in October, which Congress has designated as National Disability Employment Awareness Month. The legislators hope to increase the public's awareness of the contributions and skills of American workers with disabilities.

About the Author

John K. Waters is a freelance writer based in Silicon Valley. He can be reached at [email protected].