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Mainframes Have a Long History of Accessibility

By Destination Z posted Mon December 23, 2019 03:27 PM


Occasionally when I lift my 0.94 pound 64 GB memory dual-camera Internet-connected iPad Air 2, I think about various room-size mainframe computers I've used (and mostly loved) during my career. And I think about technology challenges typically faced for decades by less than fully able people using, say, a keypunch, card reader or even simple line printer output.

I sometimes contrast today's common personal technology with the platform on which my installation installed then-breakthrough timesharing computing: VM/370 Release 1 on a half-megabyte 370/145. Its virtual machines were the first widely used personal computers. Illustrating how far price and performance have come, I sometimes describe a competitive procurement to add¬—for about $30,000—a quarter MB of memory to that first VM server (which quite capably supported 30 simultaneous users). Spectacular illustrations show where cars and airplanes would be today if they'd followed the same Moore's Law progress. Sadly, they haven't.

Fortunately, a technology area which has dramatically improved through the years is accessibility, allowing individuals with various physical limitations to fully participate in flexible roles in the IT industry as well as broader industry and commerce. In fact, accessibility tools are now more general and inclusive, so specific roles played and tasks performed matter less than they may have previously.

Why Accessibility?

For workplaces to accommodate various potential human limitations in areas such as vision/motor/auditory/speech/etc. isn't just a moral/ethical/societal/corporate/economic necessity, it's the law. The Section 508 Amendment to the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 aims to provide technology/career access to as many people as possible.

It's noted on Wikipedia that “in 1998 the U.S. Congress amended the Rehabilitation Act to require Federal agencies to make their electronic and information technology accessible to people with disabilities. Section 508 was enacted to eliminate barriers in information technology, make available new opportunities for people with disabilities and encourage development of technologies that will help achieve these goals.”

Accessibility Through IBM and IT Evolution

IBM's Hursley Lab has innovated in many areas. Its Web page highlights a long-standing commitment to people with disabilities, beginning in 1914 when IBM hired its first disabled employee, 76 years before the Americans with Disabilities Act. IBM brought technology to people with disabilities in 1975 with the Model 1403 Braille printer and, in 1980, with a talking typewriter for people who were blind. This was followed by a talking display terminal bringing speech to computing and letting blind programmers directly access data on a computer screen. The 1403 mechanism has been described to me as fitting a piece of elastic on the hammer side of the paper so that periods were punched through, with software converting characters to arrays of dots.

The long tradition of computing and working with people with disabilities includes various Braille readers, such as the Kurzweil Reading Machine, circa 1975. Other examples include people without fingers tapping their forehead against a headband to scroll a document via reader or screen navigation system instead of mouse wheel or arrow keys, and monitors that change color and font size for people with low vision.

In 2014, IBM appointed its first Chief Accessibility Officer to guide IBM accessibility policies and practices and lead collaboration with business, government and academia to advance accessibility standards and policy. The Accessible Workforce highlights how technical developments transform government and corporations, culture and individual lives.

A 2004 AccessWorld article "On-the-Job Profile: A History of Accessibility at IBM" notes that "Screen Reader" was once a proprietary IBM product, rather than a generic term for the way people who are blind or have low vision access computer screens. It describes the work of sighted IBM mathematician Jim Thatcher on screen readers and his personal connection to the disabled community through his blind Ph.D. thesis adviser.

Roll Your Own Vs. Commercial Off-the-Shelf

A popular screen reader, Job Access With Speech (JAWS), provides speech and Braille output for the most popular computer applications on a PC. Specialized technologies (i.e., hardware and software) are mostly giving way to more general and affordable standards-based tools. E.g., the U.S. Social Security Administration mentions their JUDGE utility (JAWS Using a Data Generated Environment) making CICS screens compatible with the JAWS screen reader, used by visually impaired staff. This provides an alternative to expensive screen redesign and application changes.

AccessWorld described IBM as being on the cutting edge of access technology, helping formulate guidelines for the World Wide Web Consortium Web Accessibility Initiative. In 2003, the company was among five corporations, four nonprofit organizations and one individual receiving the New Freedom Initiative from the U.S. Department of Labor for "exemplary public and private partnerships" that further objectives "toward employment of people with disabilities."

Universal Browser Access

What matters today is how someone with vision, motor, auditory or other impairments accesses and uses a mainframe system—i.e., performs a role of system programmer/administrator, DBA, security officer, mainframe developer/tester, operator or user. In some ways, this ubiquity results from most functions now being available through a Web browser and (perhaps) screen reader rather than traditional 3270 device screens. That insight helps planning/implementing employee technology to bridge abilities gaps for all users across products/tools/options/services/etc. Along these lines, IBM documents product use and application development to comply with accessibility guidelines, e.g., for developing accessible WebSphere Portal applications and for Worklight applications. Specialized offerings tailor assistive programs and technologies such as for military/government agencies and the private sector.

A well-regarded free screen reader is available and JAWS is sold by the same company providing multiple Braille input and output devices.

While screen scraping—reading fields and text—provides access, its usability depends on intuitive application design and layout; it's sometimes helpful for a sighted person to initially describe navigating 3270 menus presented and help with logic. In addition, the underlying terminal emulator affects "listenability," with IBM's PCOM and Attachmate's Extra! favored.

For the hearing impaired, IBM's AbilityLab Media Captioner and Editor uses advanced automatic speech recognition technology to analyze and translate spoken content to a text transcript.

Access Goes Mobile

A new IBM tool for iOS and Android mobile applications will benefit more than a billion people with disabilities worldwide, including those who are vision- and hearing-impaired, as well as the elderly. The Mobile Accessibility Checker is an automated test to help strengthen mobile applications accessibility features.

IBM just completed a pilot accessibility study in New York designed to help better define requirements for more inclusive Smarter Cities. Access My N.Y.C. brought together geo-location and mapping technologies, transportation data and publicly available accessibility information to help residents and visitors.

Real-World Technology Technologies

The AccessWorld article mentions IBM's Accessibility center, part of IBM Research. It's a focal point for efforts in this area.

Leland Lucius describes to me helping an Ecolab Inc. colleague set up JAWS and a Braille display for work in customer service "using [Integrated Database Management System] and CICS while taking orders from customers (hotels, restaurants, etc.), handling complaints, sending out folks to repair broken equipment and much more." He also mentioned mobile devices, noting that "Apple has included a very good screen reader in OS X and iOS" which his wife used in iPhone for a while.

IBM integrates accessibility into product development, listing examples of the compliant product portfolio, which can satisfy applicable requirements of Section 508.

Fulfilling the accessibility mandate beyond development, IBM accepted an APAR for z/OS V2.1 (OA42253) correcting a deficiency in how well z/OS Infoprint Server worked with assistive technologies.

In a Web community posting, user Jared describes how he's applied various assistive technologies, including z/OS programming using an rlogin session through Cygwin, to access the mainframe's USS subsystem and the C3270 3270 emulator to access ISPF.

Usable for All

Wikipedia notes that universal design requires products and the built environment to be aesthetic and usable to the greatest extent possible by everyone, regardless of their age, ability or status in life. Similarly, continuing to apply accessibility insights and standards to technology—and specifically to z Systems hardware/software and tools/apps used to access them—will improve mainframe usability for all.

Gabe Goldberg has developed, worked with and written about technology for decades. Email him at