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.
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.
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.
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.
Char James Tanny – talks about interacting with assistance dogs