Like kids swarming into the proverbial candy store, technology developers, trainers, consumers, and all-round aficionados (not to mention magazine editors and staff) come each spring to the conference on Technology and Persons with Disabilities, hosted by California State University at Northridge, in anticipation of discovering the fastest, smartest, and snazziest gadget or technique to be introduced in that year in the assistive technology arena. Besides hundreds of sessions and exhibits presenting new products and concepts in assistive technology, the CSUN conference, as it is called, has earned a reputation for its environment of inclusion. Conversations in Japanese, German, English, and sign language can be observed. Dog guides, wheelchairs, and communications devices are expected elements of the overall fabric of the event, and the registration area always features an "Accessibility" table, staffed by individuals who focus on meeting the accessibility needs of the various disability groups.
The conference is held each March in two large hotels, the Los Angeles Airport Marriott and the Los Angeles Airport Hilton, both of which teem with exhibit areas, breakout sessions, and vendor demonstrations in private suites throughout the four-day event. That being said, excitement heated up a bit more slowly than usual at the 21st annual CSUN conference for those of us who are interested primarily in assistive technology for people who are blind or have low vision. With a bit of persistent pursuit, however, we found a plethora of stimulating new products and ideas for AccessWorld readers to look forward to reading more about in the months ahead. For now, we will do our best to give you the highlights of the conference and at least a glimpse of some of the most exciting new wares.
They say that a picture is worth a thousand words, but sometimes, words are just not enough. For a blind student who is studying biology, calculus, or astronomy, getting hands-on experience with some semblance of the images that sighted students assimilate visually is essential to learning. For maps, graphs, flow charts, and images representing objects that are too large or too distant to touch (say, the sun or the Eiffel Tower), an image that can be touched can make all the difference in comprehension.
A number of companies focused on tactile graphics at CSUN this year, representing a huge range in both price and purpose. At one end of the spectrum was Click&Go, a sole-proprietor company that is devoted to making stationary tactile maps with high-contrast color and texture for visualizing a single location that can stand up to examination by hundreds or thousands of hands. A school for students who are blind, a downtown area, or an office complex where people who are blind or deaf-blind need to move independently are likely targets for this company. The map on display at this exhibit, which represented the campus of the California School for the Blind, provided excellent topographical detail both tactilely and visually.
Another product for schools and training centers was the Dot View from Japan, distributed in the United States by KGS America. On a platform about 5 inches square is an array of pins similar to those found in refreshable braille displays. As images are sent from the computer, the pins rearrange to form tactile representations of a graph, an object, or the map of a given area. While this unit may be particularly useful in providing new computer users who are blind with more tangible representations of a PC screen, for example, its small size (and $15,000 price tag) would not lend itself well to large images. Controls on the unit allow for shrinking and expanding an image, so that in viewing a map of the United States, for example, three or four states may first be on the display, and then a single state may be enlarged to fill the display and provide more detail.
Probably the most versatile tactile graphics product on display (and definitely the most affordable for individual consumers) was the Talking Tactile Tablet from Touch Graphics. This device is about 11 inches square, holds a raised-line image on paper, and is connected via a USB port to a computer for additional audio feedback on points that are touched on the graphic. Breakout sessions featuring the product demonstrated its use in such contexts as digital talking books, statistical information, navigating maps, and braille literacy instruction. Although each of these applications is unique, the basic principle is that a person touches various points on the tactile image, graph, map, or braille code lesson and can then hear additional information on that point spoken by the computer. In the case of maps, for instance, streets can be identified, routes can be planned, and distances can be calculated by the tactile-audio combination. (This product will be reviewed in AccessWorld later this year.)
Calling Blind Musicians
We are not talking about the two surprise visits from Stevie Wonder--first, when he dropped by to cruise the HumanWare party, and second, when he came by to canvas the exhibit area for new technology--but rather, an enlightening session led by Richard Taesch, of the Southern California Conservatory of Music, on the use of braille music and the expectations that are placed on college students who are blind in pursuing careers in music. Braille music has gotten a bad rap, so to speak, according to Taesch and other panelists. Students are not learning it because teachers are not teaching it, and teachers are not learning it largely because they are intimidated by it. To demonstrate that "anyone" can learn to read braille music, a minilesson in the code was incorporated into the class.
Particularly refreshing in this session, however, was the strong point of view that was expressed that allowing students who are blind to waive course requirements is more a curse than a blessing. One student who was invited by the panel to address the audience spoke passionately about his gratitude that California State had not excused him from such requirements as sight singing or other music courses because of his blindness, professing that he believes that he is getting a richer education as a result. (Those of us who attended college before the waiver of requirements for college students who are blind was in vogue must silently applaud.)
Steve Bennett, of Dolphin Computer Access, demonstrated Pocket Hal, the company's Windows CE-based screen reader. Pocket Hal was installed with a Dell PDA (personal digital assistant) connected in a cradle to a computer. Keys on the PDA can be configured to perform frequently used keystrokes, such as OK, Tab, and Enter. Pocket Hal works with a variety of PDAs and applications.
Aaron Leventhal of IBM, Glen Gordon of Freedom Scientific, and Michael Betizner of Mozilla Foundation showed JAWS for Windows working with the Firefox web browser. Many standard JAWS commands work with Firefox, but Flash currently does not.
Lou Nell Gerard, of Microsoft, presented a preview of the next version of Microsoft Office. The new user interface includes a "ribbon" to replace menus and tool bars. The items on the ribbon are grouped and relate to the context of what you are doing. Formatting can be chosen through the "gallery," which includes a live preview, so you can see choices without having to do and undo them. Graphic design tools have been simplified and are more accessible.
David Andrews, of Minnesota State Services for the Blind, discussed a test that his agency has developed to certify assistive technology trainers for its rehabilitation program. The trainers were given one year to take a course on adult education and to pass certification tests for various hardware and software. This system could be replicated both by other states and nationally.
Cathy Gettel, of Ai Squared, demonstrated the ZoomText Large-Print Keyboard, featuring easy-to-read keycaps and special buttons that are dedicated to commonly used ZoomText features. With the ZoomText Keyboard, users can press a single button to launch ZoomText, change magnification levels, and start AppReader and many other important functions.
Cell phones were extremely popular at the conference, as were other handheld devices of various kinds. The Owasys 22C screenless cell phone is now available for $199 plus shipping and handling with a one-year service contract. It is currently available only for GSM networks, such as Cingular and T-Mobile, in the United States. If you already have service from Cingular or T-Mobile, you can move the SIM card from your existing cell phone to the 22C and start using it. For more information, contact Capital Accessibility: phone: 240-715-1272; web site: <www.screenlessphone.com>.
An MP3 player from Switzerland, designed exclusively for users who are blind or have low vision, was introduced by Independent Living Aids. Called the Milestone 311, the device has a built-in speaker, as well as a headset jack and extremely user-friendly controls; plays MP3 files; and is slated to play DAISY files later this spring.
HumanWare and Freedom Scientific introduced upgrades to their popular PDAs, and GW Micro introduced a new handheld device, the Small-Talk Ultra, which is a full-featured small Windows XP computer. The Small-Talk Ultra offers a 1-gigabyte processor; a 30-gigabyte hard drive; 512 megabytes of RAM; a built-in 57-key keyboard; a color transflective display; a Firewire port; and built-in Bluetooth, USB, and wireless. A full copy of Window-Eyes, a custom carrying case, a USB 88-key keyboard, and a USB external CD-ROM are also included. The cost is $2,795 with a full copy of Window-Eyes and $2,495 if you already own the latest version of Window-Eyes.
New to the BrailleNote and mPower products from HumanWare is an upgrade that includes KeyBase, a new database manager that permits you to create your own databases easily. KeyBase ships with many useful databases already created. Other new additions include interactive fiction games, braille input for JAWS for Windows, Bluetooth synthesizer and braille display connections with your computer, and Eloquence speech and an FM radio for the BrailleNote and VoiceNote mPower.
Freedom Scientific's most notable addition to the PAC Mate is the addition of a bar code scanner, replete with a database of 1 million foods, pharmaceuticals, CDs, and other products that, with the PAC Mate and attached scanner, can be readily identified in stores by shoppers who are blind. New features of version 4.0 of the software for the PAC Mate also include the ability to open 2 FSEdit word-processor files at once, easier-to-access help, foreign language braille tables, and an improved Braille Study mode.
Perhaps the most intriguing of the new handheld products was the Icon from Level Star, a Linux-based PDA that was built specifically for users who are blind. The device incorporates such popular features as an address book, a calendar, a media player, a DAISY book player, and a calculator, with a cell phone and GPS (global positioning system) scheduled to be included in the next several months. Slide the unit into its QWERTY or braille-style keyboard "docking station," and it becomes a full-fledged word processor. This product is still in the prototype stage and is scheduled to be released at the summer conventions.
Of a number of access solutions that were exhibited by IBM, Easy Web Browsing was the most interesting for people who are visually impaired. This utility provides a user-friendly web interface, including character enlarging, reading text aloud, and changing font sizes and background colors according to users' preferences. It also reads text aloud with adjustable speed and volume controls. Easy Web Browsing must be downloaded by each web site. The user then downloads it to his or her computer.
Index Braille AB and Sighted Electronics announced iBraille, a braille editor for Macintosh computers running OS X. An Index printer is required. IBraille makes it possible to format braille documents and to do full-scale braille production on Mac OS X. The program will work with Power PC- and Intel-based Macintoshes.
Rating the Conference
As the CSUN conference has evolved, its attention to detail in providing all facets of accessibility has been stellar. For people who are blind or have low vision--often the stepchildren of the accessibility provisions at cross-disability conferences--success in that area has generally been extremely commendable.
One area, in particular, in which the organizers fell down several notches this year was the provision of braille materials. For such a large and detailed conference, braille materials are somewhat voluminous. In past years, to make bulk more manageable (and usable), the program materials for the entire week were divided into several smaller booklets--one booklet for each day, for example, rather than the entire list of sessions in one continuous volume (which is actually not possible), as well as a separate volume for exhibitors, speakers, the conference overview, and so on. The quality of the contracted literary braille in past years was also extremely good.
This year's program, however, had a few breakout booklets, but the majority of the conference information was in three enormous braille volumes, which were awkward to leaf through for any kind of quick reference and even more awkward to lug around from session to session. The few breakout booklets that did exist were extremely useful--an overview of the schedule, a guide to exhibitors, and a booklet of tactile maps depicting floor plans of the two hotels. The quality of the braille, itself, however, fell far below CSUN's previous standards. Braille translation errors, formatting errors, and frequently skipped characters in embossing were in abundance and added up to a product that was unworthy of the conference's track record. The advertisements that were paid for by conference exhibitors were omitted from the braille materials and thus excluded braille-reading participants from learning about special offers, upgrades, or other announcements that the exhibitors paid for them to know.
Similarly, although menus in the hotel restaurants were provided in braille, they were either abbreviated versions of the printed menus or presented offerings that were no longer available. Another access problem was that the evaluation forms that were filled out at the end of conference sessions were available only in print, with no provisions for alternate formats.
The CSUN conference provides a wealth of information for anyone who is interested in assistive technology, and while we recognize the tremendous challenge involved in scheduling, we also noted that sessions of similar but competing interests were often scheduled concurrently. If, for example, there are competing magnifiers, braille notetakers, or software adaptations for a given task, it would be useful to offer them at different points in the schedule to afford interested participants the chance to learn about various options in a given category.
The CSUN conference remains one of the best international conferences on assistive technology--providing a comprehensive sweep of information in comfortable venues. We are looking forward to the 22nd annual conference, and if some improvements can be made with regard to accessibility for attendees who are blind or have low vision, so much the better.
Kelly Bleach, Darren Burton, and Ike Presley contributed to this article.
CSUN 2005 by Deborah Kendrick and Jay Leventhal
ATIA 2006 by Jay Leventhal
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