Program Aims to Make Technology More Accessible

A new program hopes to train developers early to craft software better adapted to the special needs of the elderly as well as disabled.

According to the World Health Organization, between 750 million and 1 billion of the worlds 6 billion people have a speech, vision, mobility, hearing or cognitive disability which can preclude them from using one or many aspects of a traditional computer setup.

Yet its not only the disabled who have difficulty navigating software and technology; the U.S. Census Bureau estimates that one-quarter of the U.S. population will reach 55 by 2008, and about half will experience a disability after age 65, all of which is expected to create a surge in the modified, accessible-technology market.

Despite these statistics, accessibility concepts are not often taught in the majority of computer science programs, which in turn fail to graduate developers who are ready to accommodate specific needs. A recent survey commissioned by IBM of more than 200, two- and four-year U.S. universities found that the majority of faculty respondents do not teach accessibility in the classroom due to a lack of familiarity with the topic and a shortage of learning materials to incorporate into existing classes.

/zimages/3/28571.gifRead more here about the impact of an aging work force.

In an effort to address this, six universities—University of Illinois, California State University at Long Beach, Georgia Tech, University of Toronto and the Rochester Institute of Technology—announced March 23 that they are partnering with IBM to influence college students to learn accessibility concepts early.

"To create a truly inclusive society, all forms of information technology need to be more accessible," said Bonnie Jones of the U.S. Department of Education.

"If we cant do this, people with disabilities land on the wrong side of the digital divide. We have to capture the intelligence and imagination of our next generation of IT developers now."

Professors at these universities plan to develop and share coursework intended to give students the skills to design software to accommodate special needs. The goal is to create a repository of repeatable learning materials that can be incorporated in everyday, computer-programming classes.

"This repository will be an invaluable aid to professors in any institution of higher education teaching technology accessibility. And success of this worldwide repository is dependent on collaboration and participation of professors around the world," said Jon Gunderson, director of Information Technology Accessibility at the University of Illinois at Urbana/Champaign.

As a precursor to this initiative, IBM posted material for computer science classes this past fall and launched a contest where students competed to provide software code that would make documents more accessible. Nearly 400 students from 111 universities in Canada, China, Japan and the United States participated.

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