One of the limitations in selecting assistive technology products for people who are visually impaired has long been the difficulty in examining products. You cannot go to a local computer superstore and look at screen- magnification products, screen readers, or refreshable braille displays. Of course, that's why you read AccessWorld. But there's no substitute for actually seeing, hearing, or touching a product before you buy it.
For people who are visually impaired—or anyone who works in the field of assistive technology for visually impaired people—the most efficient way to encounter lots of new products in a short time is to attend a technology conference. The annual Technology and Persons with Disabilities conference, hosted by the California State University at Northridge Center on Disability, has become a pinnacle opportunity to see the newest and most innovative hardware and software available and to learn from others how to mix and match products and applications for the best solutions. From March 18 to March 23, over 4,000 people attended the 17th annual conference, now known throughout the industry simply as CSUN (pronounced C-SUN). Held at the Los Angeles Airport Marriott and Los Angeles Airport Hilton hotels, the conference included over 350 speakers, more than 150 product exhibits, and participants representing every state in the United States and its territories, as well as 37 other countries.
Products large and small, hardware and software, offered sometimes remarkable solutions to barriers presented by specific physical or mental disabilities. Product demonstrations featured a reading "pen" that scans and announces written words for people with learning disabilities, an on-screen sign language-translation program to boost literacy among deaf children, an environmental control system that enables a quadriplegic to control everything from the telephone or VCR to light switches and food preparation with as little as the intake of breath. There were exhibits of toys for children with limited physical movement that can be operated by a variety of simple switches, word processing programs that speak and highlight text for students with learning disabilities, and a wide array of "augmentative communications" devices— electronic boxes with speech output for children and adults who are unable to speak for themselves.
The number of products, demonstrations, and breakout sessions relevant to visual impairment was so great that the AccessWorld staff literally had to scramble to take in as much as possible. Some of the new products represented were a cell phone from the Netherlands that has a small PDA keyboard and speech output for all data that are stored, text messages received, and more; a Linux-based braille note taker from Papenmeier in Germany with web browsing and MP3 capabilities; and some exciting new looks for tactile graphics. Upgrades to the Freedom Scientific and Pulse Data/HumanWare note takers were demonstrated, as were a wide array of video magnifiers, including one that was shown on prime-time television when a grandfather was able to see his grandson win a gold medal at the Olympics in Salt Lake City. Sessions ranged from beginner to advanced levels and offered demonstrations, training, and techniques.
CSUN organizers have done a remarkable job of covering all the bases in terms of accessibility. There are interpreters, listening devices, and captioning for people who are deaf or hard of hearing; accessibility for mobility impaired participants in both hotels; and wheelchair- equipped, lift-equipped shuttles running between hotels. For people who are visually impaired, all the program materials are provided in the media of choice. The braille was particularly impressive. Each day of the program schedule is provided in a separately bound volume, and considerable care has been taken to use headings, page breaks, and other formatting considerations in ways that facilitate the rapid location of needed information. Braille readers were also provided with a booklet of tactile maps, including one of each hotel and of all the major meeting areas within each hotel.
The CSUN conference began in 1985. In the beginning, it was held on the Northridge campus and drew only a few hundred people, according to Jodi Johnson, associate director of the conference at the California State University Northridge's Center on Disabilities. Today, the event is planned by a full-time staff of 4 and a part-time staff of 29 and involves a 16-month planning cycle. Although Johnson and other conference organizers feared that attendance might be down this year with more apprehension regarding travel, attendance was higher than ever, and there was a waiting list of exhibitors and presenters.
Space for exhibits and sessions was added this year, as were new approaches to sharing information. The most exciting change in 17 years, Johnson says, is probably the nature of sponsorship. "In the beginning," she says, "our sponsors were vendors in the assistive technology field." Today, sponsors are mainstream technology leaders—Hewlett-Packard, Compaq, Microsoft, and many others. "Looking at our sponsors," Johnson says, "it's clear that this issue is now recognized as part of the mainstream, considered by all companies as an important part of the overall picture."
Many of those mainstream corporate entities specifically targeted visually impaired consumers as customers. SAP, for instance, provided the backpacks given to all braille-reading participants to contain the braille materials; not only were these sturdy backpacks emblazoned with SAP's company logo, but embossed braille characters reading "CSUN 2002" had been added to the back pockets. In other words, the business of potential customers who are visually impaired is being taken more seriously as real business by entities beyond the assistive technology industry.
Gregg C. Vanderheiden, founder and director of the Trace Research and Development Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, was this year's keynote speaker. Vanderheiden is a professor in the Industrial Engineering Department (Human Factors Program) and Biomedical Engineering Department. He is also the principal investigator of the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research Center on Information Technology Access and a coprincipal investigator for the center on telecommunications access. In addition, he is the lead investigator for the National Computational Science Alliance's efforts focused on universal design of computation science and web infrastructure technologies.
The theme of Vanderheiden's address was that we must think beyond what is possible technologically today. Vanderheiden listed ongoing research projects and the possible products they could produce, including a $10 text-to-speech chip from Windbond; a jacket with a built-in cell phone from Philips; a robot from Honda that walks stairs, which someday could become a personal aide; and web servers the size of a pea, which in the future, when they are attached to everything in your house, may allow you to search for your lost socks on the web. Vanderheiden closed by challenging attendees to "think about things in different ways; don't just re-create what was. Why stop with human abilities when we can make new ones?"
Bob Regan, product manager for accessibility at Macromedia, described the company's efforts to make Flash accessible. Flash is an application that allows you to view animation and interactive multimedia presentations with your browser. Macromedia's web site claims that "Independent surveys show that over 98.3% of web users already have Macromedia Flash Player installed." Flash has previously been totally inaccessible. Macromedia has used Microsoft Active Accessibility to make information about text buttons and movie clips available to GW Micro's screen reader Window-Eyes. As a result, it is possible, using one screen reader, to tab through a Flash presentation and identify and select buttons to hear information about the presentation. A lot more work is needed before all screen-reader users will be able to get anywhere near as much information from a Flash animation as a sighted person gets, though.
SAP is a large, Germany-based company that produces business applications used by corporations, including IBM and Coca-Cola, for such functions as payroll and bookkeeping. Dena Shumila and Audrey Weinland, of SAP Labs' Accessibility Competence Center, based in Palo Alto, California, described their company's efforts to comply with Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act, which requires software purchased by the U.S. government to be accessible. SAP staff used IBM's Home Page Reader to test their HTML-based software. They chose to focus on web-based applications first, rather than on SAP software written in Java or Windows, since, like other companies, SAP is migrating its software to the web. Accessibility testing is conducted inside SAP and with customers. Staff of the Accessibility Competence Center also spread the word about accessible software design to developers throughout the company.
Blackboard, Inc., is a Washington, DC-based manufacturer of software that is used by many universities as a platform for online course materials. Instructors use the tools provided to create web sites for their courses for managing collaboration and communication, file sharing, and discussion boards. Greg Ritter of Blackboard discussed his company's accessibility efforts. Blackboard software contains nonstandard Windows controls, such as buttons. Designers were trained in the Web Accessibility Initiative guidelines. The current version 5.5 was audited for accessibility, and the next release will include appropriate Alt tags for images and meaningful titles for frames.
Rick Ely, project manager at the National Center for Accessible Media, reported on his evaluation of a new audio description method that will give blind children additional description to enhance their understanding of visual information. Typically, an educational documentary affords little time to insert audio description. With E Description, the pauses in multimedia material can be extended to allow sufficient time to insert audio description. The extended pauses allow for rich, informative text to be placed in videos.
CSUN 2003 will take place in the same venues, the Los Angeles Airport Marriott and Hilton hotels, on March 17–22. If your budget and schedule allow you to go to only one technology-related event per year, this would be the one to try.
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