HireDS Logo Bottom

Happy Birthday Helen Keller and IBM!

Wednesday, June 29th, 2011

A profile of Helen KellerHelen Keller, who was born on June 27, 1880, would have celebrated her birthday this month. When she was less than 2 years old, Keller was struck with a major illness that left her deaf and blind. Her family hired Anne Sullivan to try to teach her, and she learned sign language and how to read and write. The story of how Sullivan broke through Keller’s isolation sparked the book, stage play, and movie “The Miracle Worker.” Keller went on to graduate from college, read five languages, and travel the world, speaking for progressive causes including making the world more accessible for people with disabilities.

This year, IBM also marks its 100th anniversary. From its earliest days, the information services giant has been designing products, including Braille printers and typewriters, aimed at helping people with disabilities fulfill their potential. IBM hired its first disabled person in 1914, and in 1942, it hired blind psychologist Michael Supa to create a program for hiring and training people with disabilities.

Fittingly then, that Helen Keller wrote a letter to IBM’s founder Thomas J. Watson in 1952 to praise the company’s work and express gratitude for Watson having encouraged his engineers to devise “mechanical and electric aids for the blind.” She wrote: “The more openings you make for them in the wall of darkness through invention, the greater will their contribution be to public service, both as productive workers and responsible members of society.”

Two years later, Keller presented the Migel Medal, the American Foundation for the Blind’s highest honor, to Watson for IBM’s “dedication and achievement in significantly improving the lives of people who are blind or visually impaired.”

To mark its 100th anniversary, IBM created a website to promote its initiatives for people with disabilities, which continue in full force today as the Internet brings about new opportunities for technology product and service innovations.

One IBM employee who is blind, Chieko Asakawa, opened the web for non-visual access in 1998 with her IBM Home Page Reader, which converts text to speech and helps blind people navigate the web. She is also helping to improve IBM’s Spoken Web technologies, which make it easier for blind, elderly and illiterate people to learn and do business on the web.

Another innovative product that has had far-reaching impact is the Social Accessibility Project. It’s an open social community that lets blind and visually impaired web users send an online report about a website’s missing accessibility features. Sighted volunteers can then add accessible features — such as alternative text for images — without changing the original content of the page. The features are then stored in a file and automatically loaded when the user or subsequent users visit the page.

Helen Keller would be pleased with these accomplishments by IBM, and by dozens of other technology companies that are helping to make information and communications more accessible to people with disabilities.