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UMass Boston, IBM working on tech center for disabled

Partnering to bring advancements, help create new policies

The University of Massachusetts Boston and computer giant IBM Corp. are teaming up to devise new ways for people with disabilities and the elderly to benefit from technological advancements.

Through a partnership that will be announced Tuesday, the two will open the nonprofit Collaborative Innovation Center that will build on the research that both UMass and IBM have been doing for decades to increase accessibility in the workplace and on campus for people who have vision, hearing, and other impairments.

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Much of the center’s focus will be on developing new technology, but it will also work to create new policies for government agencies, schools, and businesses in order to reduce the barriers to using computer technology.

“Access to the Web has become pretty central,” said William Kiernan, dean and research professor of the newly formed UMass School of Global Inclusion and Social Development. “All we are trying to do is level the playing field for people who want to participate in the community.”

Kiernan is one of the country’s leading researchers on workforce issues facing people with disabilities, and the collaboration with IBM builds on work he has been doing since the 1970s.

Since then, he has advised scores of government agencies, schools, and businesses on ways to increase accessibility for the disabled and seniors. What’s more, UMass was also one of the first schools in the country to provide services to disabled students.

The collaboration with IBM should help accelerate UMass’s research by tapping into the company’s trove of scientists and technologies.

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“The private sector tends to move faster than universities,” Kiernan said.

The joint effort is for now a research collaboration only. IBM would not comment on whether it stands to benefit commercially from any products developed by the center.

Many disabled people cannot experience the fullness of the World Wide Web. People with hearing loss, for example, are shut out of the millions of videos posted on the Web. While the Federal Communications Commission says videos shown on TV with captions must also have those captions when aired online, that doesn’t apply to the vast majority of videos posted by individuals on services such as YouTube.

Also, the American Association of People with Disabilities reports that 54 percent of disabled adults use the Internet compared with 81 percent of those without a disability.

The Collaborative Innovation Center will borrow from experts across disciplines at IBM as well as faculty and students at UMass to staff the center and work on various projects. Its work will be conducted both at the UMass campus in Boston and at IBM's Innovation Center in Cambridge. UMass will fund much of the work through grants.

While IBM and UMass will focus on building many new technologies from scratch — especially for mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets — some of the work will be honing existing projects already underway at IBM. One of its first endeavors, for instance, will be to further develop a prototype app for students with disabilities to find their way around campus by locating ramps and buildings with elevators, or where a blind student might find audio guides and other services.

“We hope that we can develop very practical applications that can be deployed on campus and then to cities,” said Frances West, director of IBM's Human Ability and Accessibility Center.

In addition to the long history of support and advocacy for people with disabilities at UMass, IBM has also been at the cutting edge of developing technologies for people with hearing and sight loss. For instance, in the 1980s, IBM created a talking typewriter and soon thereafter developed one of the first computer screen readers.

“We’ve had to innovate and develop technologies to help our own employees, so we have accumulated many best practices,” said West.

Another goal for the center is to raise awareness about the need for app developers and other technology companies to include accessibility features into all software from the get-go, said West. That way, she said, “it isn’t an afterthought.”

Michael B. Farrell can be reached at michael.farrell@globe.com.

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