Something Magical Happened on the Way to Developer Day

Hi Everyone,

It’s been awhile since  I posted. I have taken on a new role as an Early Professional Development Manager for the IBM Developer JumpStart program. I am happy to say that I am able  to share my passion for accessibility with this new class of early professionals. Here’s one such story.

Developer Day is the second day of on boarding for our early professional developers and the start of a two-year learning journey as part of the IBM Developer JumpStart program. April 2017, I attended my first Developer Day at the IBM MassLab in Littleton, MA. I wanted to see what all the excitement was about so I asked the facilitator and master of ceremonies, George Champlin-Scharff-Scarff​, if I could shadow his class and learn a bit more.

The day started with a Code Retreat which introduced the developers to the best practices of test-driven development, pair programming and Agile. In the afternoon, the developers were introduced to IBM Design Thinking. They were taken through a set of exercises to build empathy for their end user and develop a minimal viable product (MVP) for a defined business problem: A user is going to the movies and would like to purchase snacks for the movie when ordering tickets online.

The developers were given a persona, for example, a teenager, a parent with two kids, a retiree, etc. They were taught how to build empathy for the user by generating an empathy map to capture what the user says, does, feels and thinks.

Wait a minute! Something was missing. I approached George and asked him if we ever introduced the developers to accessibility and persons with disabilities. Having spent a 7-year tenure on the IBM Accessibility team, it remains a passion of mine to spread the understanding of what accessibility and inclusive design really means.

“Hmm.” George thought this was a great idea. George immediately walked around the room and added a disability to each and every persona. The retiree, he is hard of hearing. The single parent, she has multiple sclerosis. The teenager, he’s blind. “What? How would a blind person enjoy a movie?”, one of the developers asked. We explained that there are many ways someone who cannot see can enjoy a movie. They can hear the dialog. They can feel the sound. They can share the excitement of the audience and audio description devices readily available at many theaters can describe what actions are happening on the big screen.

Developers create an empathy map of an Early Onset Alzheimer's patient.
Developers create an empathy map of an Early Onset Alzheimer’s patient

The developers went to work defining their MVPs knowing their users were faced with these physical challenges. George took them through an exercise of how to generate an MVP. The developers created a grid with four quadrants and, using design thinking, generated ideas for solutions and placed them in each of the four quadrants, ranging from low value and difficult implementation to high value and easy implementation. The goal was to find the MVP of the highest value to the user that was easiest to implement.

Something magical happened. Across several groups of developers, every group came up with the same exact solution! They all proposed solutions that would allow users to order tickets and snacks at home, and the snacks would be waiting at an assigned seat when they arrived at the theater. Wow! George repeated this activity at several more developer days across several IBM sites. At each developer day, 85-90% of the developers came up with the same MVP.

Now, as a program manager for the IBM Developer JumpStart program, I get to attend developer days more often and enjoy them just the same as the first. At a developer day last July, the same thing happened. Seven out of eight teams reached the same MVP. The 8th team had a slight variation with the MVP of having snacks available at the seat in their top quadrant.

This activity really demonstrates how when you empathize with your user and include disabilities into personas, you can develop a universal design solution that works for everyone!


Boston Accessibility – the next generation

On Saturday, October 1, 2016, I joined over 100 members of the Boston accessibility community as we descended on the IBM Innovation Center in Cambridge, MA for the 7th annual Boston Accessibility Conference. Participants included some veteran faces and many new ones. Invited by their professor, Dr. Soussan Djamasbi, 40 students from Worcester Polytechnic Institute enjoyed an immersion into the world of accessibility that included panels, workshops and discussions on how to include persons with disabilities into the areas of Information Communication Technology (ICT).

The day started off with breakfast and networking followed by a keynote address by Brian MacDonald, President of the National Braille Press. Brian encouraged our continued support and investment in braille literacy, technologies and content while braille has proven to boost the academic achievement and employment rates for blind and low vision (BVI) persons. Of the 26 percent of blind persons who are employed, almost all can read braille.  “The correlation is clear – braille is an extremely important tool for blind people to become literate, and it is a critical component that supports educational advancement and increases employment prospects.”  – The Need for Braille – National Braille Press.

Brian MacDonald, President, National Braille Press delivers keynote address to the Boston Accessibility Conference.
Brian MacDonald, President, National Braille Press delivers keynote address to the Boston Accessibility Conference.

Following the keynote address, Sarah Bourne, State of Massachusetts, John Rochford, UMASS Medical School, Jennison Asuncion, LinkedIn and co-founder of Global Accessibility Awareness Day, and John Croston III, founder of Web Accessibility Camps in D.C., led a panel discussion on accessibility. The intent was to provide the newcomers an introduction to accessibility and was attended by the newbies, WPI students. As the panel was taking place, I snuck away to set up for an Inclusive Design Thinking workshop. This left plenty of time for networking at lunch while enjoying a veggie wrap and some of Char James-Tanny’s infamous Vegan Chili. Very spicy!

After lunch, my colleague, Erich Manser, and I led the Inclusive Design Thinking workshop. We had 38 participants, a majority of whom were students, new to accessibility. In the workshop, we took the audience through a set of empathy building exercises. We started by asking everyone to design an alarm clock. After 2 minutes, we shared designs and had some pretty interesting ones. One student said they envisioned a ball that would roll off the bureau onto the floor while the alarm went off. This would force him to get up and turn it off.

Next, we threw a constraint into the design; the user of the alarm clock is deaf. While most initial designs included audio, this new constraint required creativity and lateral thinking. Many designs involved some sort of touch, vibration and/or light. One participant recommended that the lights would gradually turn on as if the sun were rising. Personally, I always wake up to the smell of coffee.

We next passed out a set of low vision simulator goggles and challenged each attendee to take a photo with their phone while wearing the goggles and tweeting it. We had many successful tweets, even one from retired IBM Chief Accessibility Officer, Frances West.

Frances West tries on a pair of low vision simulator goggles during an empathy building exercise. (Photo courtesy of Marcus Yee)
Frances West tries on a pair of low vision simulator goggles during an empathy building exercise. (Photo courtesy of Marcus Yee)

We wrapped up the workshop by asking folks to work in groups of 3-4 to create empathy maps that included a persona of a user challenged by a disability and to identify what the person says, thinks, feels and does. The class shared their empathy maps and a common theme arose. Most folks associated frustration with their persona when relating to their challenge while also highlighting their desire to be productive, independent and the best that they can be.

WPI students presenting their empathy map to the class.
WPI students presenting their empathy map to the class.

Later that afternoon, John Rochford, Cheryl Cumings, Work Without Limits, Erich Manser and I led a panel discussion on how to include more blind persons in hackathons and coding employment. Cheryl launched a pilot program this summer to teach blind and low vision students how to write code. The challenge she faced was providing a development environment that was accessible to blind and low vision students. Cheryl settled on Notepad and a browser. But how do you take the student from the classroom to a hackathon to employment? We need development tools that are accessible in the workplace. (See Notes for Blind Coders Roundtable Discussion for our notes.)

We wrapped up the day with some really cool demos on a joint project between UMASS Medical, UMASS Boston, WPI and IBM to simplify content to improve comprehension by persons challenged with cognitive and learning disabilities, aging persons and just about everyone. Peter Fay, IBM, and Fei Wu, UMASS Boston, demoed how IBM Watson™ language and AlchemyAPI® can be leveraged to create a content clarifier that simplifies text to a 5th or 6th grade reading level. Dr. Soussan Djamasbi showed how her students are conducting eye tracking studies to confirm the improved comprehension when reading the simplified text. This is really cool stuff and Dr. Djamasbi vowed to continue to include accessibility and assistive technology in her curriculum.

In closing remarks, Frances West asked the students of WPI what they thought of the future of technology including personalization, aging, speech, text simplification and augmented reality. Frances plans to bring share their feedback at the World Congress on Technology this week in Brazil.


I arrived home late Saturday evening exhausted but with much delight. This is one of my favorite events of the year. I get to network with some of the brightest stars in accessibility and share my thoughts and ideas, especially with the next generation of technologists and innovators, on how we can make the world more inclusive to all.



Peter Fay introduces Brian MacDonald.
Peter Fay introduces Brian MacDonald.
John Croston III applauds Braille is Literacy
John Croston III applauds Braille is Literacy.
WPI students try on low vision goggles while planning their empathy map.
WPI students try on low vision goggles while planning their empathy map.
Sarah Bourne takes the low vision challenge.
Sarah Bourne takes the low vision challenge.
Samuel Cano, WPI 2016, tries to read his phone wearing low vision goggles.
Samuel Cano, WPI 2016, tries to read his phone wearing low vision goggles.
Participant in the Inclusive Design Thinking workshop trying on the low vision goggles.
Participant in the Inclusive Design Thinking workshop trying on the low vision goggles.

Char James Tanny – talks about interacting with assistance dogs


Thank you Frances West!

Lowell Spinners Inspiration Night 2015 - Frances West with Erich Manser, Moe Kraft and Erich's daughter Grace.
Lowell Spinners Inspiration Night 2015 – Frances West with Erich Manser, Moe Kraft and Erich’s daughter Grace.

Today we say good bye to one of IBM’s finest. After 37 years, Frances West, IBM’s Chief Accessibility Officer, is retiring. We all thank Frances for her passionate work over the last 12+ years to bring accessibility from compliance to human experience and hyper-personalization that includes everyone; persons with disabilities, the aging demographic, foreign language speakers, those who think and learn differently and mobile workers. Yes, that’s just about all of us.

Personally I would like to thank Frances for teaching me to THINK differently. Every time you meet with Frances, your good work is rewarded with more work. Frances pushes you to deliver only your best. She asks, Why are we doing this? Who can we work with? What are they looking for? What is our message?

She has taught me that IBM is not a company that just sells products but a company of ideas. Worldwide IBM’s thought leadership and technical eminence are highly regarded by our customers, business partners, academia and greater technical community. We strive to deliver innovation that changes the world.

Enjoying layered cake from Flour Bakery in honor of Frances’ retirement.

Today we say good bye but I know it is only the beginning of Frances’ next chapter. With her energy, passion and perseverance, you cannot keep Frances down. I am excited to see what she does next. Ralph Waldo Emerson once said “… to know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded.” Frances has changed many lives and made this world a better place for all. Thank you!

Congratulations on your retirement from IBM!