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Frances West, Chief Accessibility Officer, IBM

Frances West, Chief Accessibility Officer, IBM

By Frances West

Accessibility that is grounded in a company’s values can bridge individual differences, better connect with customers, enable a diverse pool of talent in the workplace, and improve the standard of living for all members of society.

It also creates context-driven systems that understand everyone’s information consumption patterns so people of all abilities have a personalized user experience on any device, as well as increased access to timely, logically relevant and useful information to make routines, interactions, and decisions easier and more intuitive.

This is why accessibility has become so critical for commercial and government organizations around the world. With more than 1 billion people with disabilities worldwide, including the rapidly growing aging population, demand for accessibility continues to increase, making it a mainstream requirement to optimize communications, differentiate service offerings and personalize interactions.

In fact, Gartner believes that by 2015, 50 percent of organizations will have technology projects underway that support the enablement of disabled people in the workplace to address compliance, and help develop more productive endpoint solutions.

Business and IT leaders need to understand that poorly designed customer-facing business processes, services and applications can create barriers for people with disabilities and realize that – on the other hand — accessibility delivers more usability and productivity to improve the overall user experience for the mass market.

One study found that 94 percent of people cite website design as a reason they do not trust an organization, while another study says that 42 percent of consumers abandon their transactions when they experience online road blocks or simply switch to a competitor – equating to billions, if not trillions, in lost revenue per year.

Placing accessibility at the forefront of the design and development process ensures that all customer segments have more personal and adaptive experiences. For these reasons IBM has made accessibility an integral function of its design thinking, helping designers develop a real empathy for users and a deeper understanding of how physical, cognitive and situational disabilities affect the use of a product.

Not only is accessibility one of the key ingredients to any good product design, but it accelerates deployment, reduces expenses and creates a more intimate relationship with how customers interact with a product or service. Therefore, accessibility and usability are one in the same.

By prioritizing technology access for people with disabilities, organizations have a better understanding of the full spectrum of human needs to deliver personalized experiences through any customer contact point – on a website, mobile device or with customer service agents. But even more importantly, accessibility helps organizations understand all customers in context – preferences, habits, social interactions, abilities and environment – to help deliver personally relevant and rewarding experiences for the masses. Accessibility not only makes lives easier for the most challenged individuals, but it creates a more pleasant experience for everyone.

Think about someone navigating a city using a mobile device. By intimately knowing the user, an application can be tailored to help people better understand their surroundings and provide appropriate routes and points of interest based on physical abilities and accommodations. It can also suggest activities people might like to do based on their individual hobbies or social interests.

Therefore, as the widespread creation, availability and use of accessible technology increases, we have a unique opportunity to transform not only the way we do business, but our society as a whole.

Learn more about the IBM Human Ability and Accessibility Center, which works to establish IT accessibility standards, shape government policies, and develop human-centric technology and industry solutions so that all people reach their highest potential in work and life.

Join our conversations on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and Google+.

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August 27, 2015
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Great insight, Frances. I do agree that especially in the age of ubiquitous technology and wearables nowadays, there is increasing accesibility for anyone to be much closer to computing device, even in its simple form such as smart wristband that record the body movement.

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May 8, 2015
12:07 am

Frances, Weldone this is a great post.
Accessibility in the work place is all about creating great and hostile free environments. The workplace should not be so ‘officiated’ that colleagues wont have room to even crack a joke and ease the tension (if any at the time). Work should be fun and interesting- if this is enabled, meeting corporate goals would only be a natural thing. Keep up the good work.

Posted by: Sylva
March 25, 2015
3:40 am

Hi Frances,

I’d like to ask if you know about the poor accessibility of the TRUSTe-pop-up opening onload.

Some of the issues: It doesn’t get focus on opening. It is only keyboard accessible using [Shift+Tab]. It is not possible to set the preferences by keyboard.

I already contacted TRUSTe, but they don’t seem to take me seriously and don’t answer. In my opinion IBM has a very good attitude concerning accessibility, so I hope you – as the CAO of a really big customer – may intervene.

Besides, the pop-up is also used on other big sites as e.g. Oracle and SourceForge, so changing it would stop leaving some users behind on many occasions.

Thank you in advance for taking action and keeping me up to date

Posted by: Frank Berker
November 19, 2014
8:46 pm

thanks for reminding :)

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November 5, 2014
6:48 pm

I still believe having a good and functional website is part of being accessible.

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July 30, 2014
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IBM shows best progress and an example for other companies.
But if i see Infographic “IBM has been at the forefront of accessibility innovation for 100 years” with minimal contrast white letters on light blue background. Visual Accessibility is not given.
But the ability of IBM to look into the near future, like 5 senses in 5 years, should help organizations of impaired people to address their needs in public and towards companies.

Posted by: Mehrlich Heinz
July 29, 2014
6:27 pm

This is a great post, Frances. It’s amazing to me how naïve most of us are when considering our audience segments for user experience design. We often spend time thinking about the capabilities of the device (mobile phone or tablet versus computer) or the software (operating system or browser) – but we don’t tend to think about the capabilities of the user. If we consider the fact that a considerable percentage of users would benefit from accessible design, we might make the modest investments required to service them more effectively.

I think it is very important that you make the business case for this type of investment. I’d like to believe that we would all do the right thing simply because it is the right thing to do – but the reality is that we need to show people the money. This is a good start.

Posted by: Peter Mahoney
July 28, 2014
5:28 am

Thank you. Very interesting insight, I experienced myself how much accessibility influences my choices of web services..too many bad designs exist which do not care how the user thinks and what she wants…

Posted by: Imre Bartfai
July 25, 2014
12:53 am

Congratulations Frances. Thank you for your continued focus on Accessibility and for making it a top priority.

Posted by: Carol Wells
July 24, 2014
6:07 pm

Great post and thanks for your insight Frances; this is a level of the customer experience that in one way or another we all will benefit from.

Posted by: Michelle Henry
July 24, 2014
2:55 pm

Frances, thank you for your Leadership in this meaningful area.

Posted by: Craig Paeprer
July 24, 2014
12:52 pm


Thank you for a great article and for reminding us that accessibility needs to be part of our business processes.

Posted by: Karl Duvalsaint
July 24, 2014
12:47 pm

Great insights, Frances — all the best to you and your team on the important work you’re doing!

Posted by: Brad Short
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September 25, 2014
5:15 am

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