IBM has been a leader in the accessible technology arena for more than 100 years, and in July 2014, it appointed Frances West as the company's first chief accessibility officer. PEAT recently talked with West about her new role and IBM's approach to accessibility.

IBM is a global technology and consulting company headquartered in Armonk, New York. With operations in more than 170 countries, the company develops and sells software and systems hardware and a broad range of infrastructure, cloud, and consulting services.

IBM has also been a leader in the accessible technology arena for more than 100 years, and in July 2014, it appointed Frances West as the company's first chief accessibility officer. PEAT recently talked with West about her new role and IBM's approach to accessibility.

PEAT: Congratulations on your appointment as chief accessibility officer. Can you tell us a bit about your role and what drove IBM to create your position? 

West: Of course. Officially, my role is to guide IBM’s accessibility policies and practices and lead its collaboration with business, government, and academia to advance accessibility standards and research. It's actually work that I've been doing in one way or another for more than 10 years, but IBM's executive team had the vision to recognize how our accessibility work has been evolving and decided it was time to raise the bar even more in this arena. They realized that accessibility is not a topic that should be managed at the operational level, but rather at the highest level. So we now have a C-level position to match our view that accessibility is a business imperative.

PEAT: How has your role changed since your appointment, and what has the response been?

West: It's changed in a very big way. The level of interest in accessibility that's been generated globally has increased since the announcement. More IBM teams and customers, both domestically and abroad, have started to engage my team. They're starting to buy into our perspective that accessibility has "grown up," because today, it's all about personalization. And more and more organizations are recognizing the power that technology can play in personalizing the user experience, for users with disabilities and all users. 

PEAT: Where does your team fit into IBM as an organization?

West: Physically my organization is part of IBM Research, since that gives us the closest access to innovation. But functionally, my responsibilities extend across all divisions, from software, to hardware, to services, to the corporate function, which includes human resources (HR) and the chief information officer's (CIO) office. I manage several functional teams that cover accessibility standards and policy consulting; market and partner outreach; advanced technology deployment and exploration; and business development. And my team members and I take our knowledge of accessibility and apply it to customers in the public and private sectors. We strive to be a hub of competency and subject matter expertise in every aspect of accessibility, and we work to embed accessibility into every IBM business line.  

PEAT: Does IBM have a formal business case for creating accessible technology products?  

West: Early on we focused on a tangible business case, but since we've been a leader in this area for more than 100 years, our accessibility mindset is now ingrained in the IBM culture. As one of our senior executives recently put it, the decision has already been made to focus on accessibility, so there's no debate over it at IBM. Now the challenge is canvassing the grassroots level with our messages—and motivating every IBM programmer to make accessibility a priority in every code decision and to engage in accessibility proactively.

PEAT: Tell us more about that. How do you work with developers, and how does accessibility factor into IBM’s product development process? 

West: Our goal is to have accessibility buy-in from all corners of the company, and one way we're fostering that is by embedding it into our product design principles, which involve providing platform-specific guidance to developers on creating accessible products. Basically, my team has come up with tooling processes that a developer can deploy at the point of design. This makes sense because every IT company is looking to design technology that's easy to use, and we are no exception. So we're re-energizing our design focus with an eye toward usability, and accessibility is just a natural part of that as we aim to weave it into the early stages of product development. So by equating accessibility with design, we've turned a previously mysterious concept into something very real and relatable.   

Our focus the past couple of years has been on mobile and cloud computing. And what's so interesting about mobile, of course, is its short development cycle. There's simply less time to create mobile apps, so accessibility has to be considered and built in immediately. That can be a challenge, since developers and customers want to move quickly on mobile, but we're there to remind them that they can wait. It is worth it to make accessibility, usability, and scalability early considerations, even in an agile development environment.    

PEAT: How does IBM communicate its commitment to accessibility?

West: We take a multi-channel internal and external approach.  Externally, we leverage public relations, social media, and speaking engagements to name a few. Internally, we do a lot to keep all lines of business updated and educated on accessibility. For instance, we have a corporate intranet, numerous employee newsletters, and internal blogs. And one of our most powerful internal communications channels is our employee social network platform, IBM Connections. All of these are prime vehicles for spreading our team's message across our organization and educating our teams on accessibility's importance.  

PEAT: We've been talking a lot about IBM as a technology provider, but you're also an employer. Does your team play a role internally, as well? 

West: Absolutely. I'm mainly responsible for the technology development side of the equation, but my team also works closely with IBM's own internal HR function to assist with any challenges they might be facing in terms of workplace supports for our own employees with disabilities. One of the solutions we helped develop is an online tool called Accessible Workplace Connection. It's a web-based, global workplace accommodation management solution that provides employees and their managers with a streamlined process of requesting reasonable accommodations to enable them to be optimally productive in their jobs. This one-stop resource for employees with permanent or temporary disabilities or medical conditions is designed so accommodations can be requested, delivered, changed, supported and maintained effectively and efficiently.

We've made it really simple for employees to navigate the world of productivity enhancements.  

PEAT: In your opinion, what is the greatest challenge facing the accessible workplace technology movement?

West: I really feel that innovation around accessibility doesn't receive enough respect in the public or private sector. It's often criticized for not being strategic enough, and as a result, it’s categorized within the field of traditional research. But accessible technology should not be isolated. Instead, I feel we need more public/private sector partnerships, as well as research models that honor the importance of accessible technology. These solutions need to be used, scaled, industrialized, and commercialized for the benefit of everyone—not limited to an “ivory tower” of academic research and policymaking. Hopefully PEAT and similar industry efforts can help spur more advancement in this area. For example, we recently announced a new collaborative research initiative with the University of Massachusetts Boston to advance the development of accessible policy, education, and technology solutions in industries such as healthcare. 

PEAT: As with most programs and initiatives, it's important to prove that your activities are having a positive effect by measuring what you are achieving. Does IBM measure its accessibility efforts?  

West: Measurement is a common practice across all areas of IBM, and accessibility is no exception. We manage it just like any other business process, which means my team is subject to the same rigors as every other unit. We get no special treatment and have to operate accordingly. And basically that means quantifying success in regular management reports through a variety of business metrics. We consistently track and monitor the overall accessibility of IBM’s own software and hardware solutions,  and provide an overall risk assessment for any acquisitions during the due diligence process.

PEAT: How do you evaluate your products for accessibility? What standards do you follow and who actually does the testing?

West: We're a global company, so we follow all of the accepted, worldwide accessibility standards, from Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) to ePUB, an open standard format for digital publications. My team gathers up all the standards and requirements, and we create checklists and user testing scripts to guide the product evaluation process. The actual testing, however, occurs by the individual product divisions. They employ a combination of automated and manual testing, and they often bring in outside consultants and beta testers to assist. All of that said, my team frequently advises the product teams on the standards they should be designing to, and on the accessibility testing process.   

PEAT: What advice would you offer other technology providers who are interested in developing or expanding an accessibility initiative?  

West: I would tell them that you must ensure that your accessibility initiative is genuine and supported from the top. It's not something you do as a side project. It's a long haul, and you need to stay with it. And you need to involve every part of your organization. You also need a persistent commitment from the top so that it's not seen as ad hoc or scattered. It's not a "compliance only" play—it must be viewed as the business imperative it is, one that serves not only people with disabilities, but all users. 

And let me tell you, once you achieve some success around accessibility, your customers will start to pay attention, too. At IBM, we're often approached by customers who want to replicate our lessons learned in their own organizations, so it's not just about us anymore. More and more businesses are seeing the business advantages of creating and implementing accessible technology.