More than 400 people from 25 countries flocked to the Royal National Institute of Blind People's (RNIB) seventh Techshare Conference at the Hammersmith Novotel in London on October 4 and 5, 2007. RNIB worked in partnership with seven other disability organizations--AbilityNet, Action for Blind People, Age Concern, British Computer Association of the Blind, Dyslexia Action, Royal National Institute for Deaf People, and Sense--to make this the biggest Techshare yet. The conference was opened by Kevin Carey, vice chair of RNIB, with keynote addresses by Axel Leblois, director of the Global Initiative for Inclusive Information and Communication Technologies, and Rob Sinclair, director of accessibility at Microsoft.
Caption: From left to right: Rob Sinclair, Axel Leblois and Kevin Carey.
The actual conference was on Thursday and Friday, but on Wednesday, October 3, there were a number of preconference workshops. Delegates could register to attend all the workshops and the two days, either or both of the seminar days, or just one or two workshops. On Thursday and Friday, there was a commercial display, Techshare Expo, with booths from numerous producers of assistive technology. Techshare Expo was, at times, open to the general public, as well as to Techshare delegates.
I signed up for one afternoon workshop held on Wednesday and for the conference on Friday. The RNIB web site listed all the sessions for each day, so it was fairly simple to decide which days would be most rewarding. The only problem was booking the workshop, since the details of when the workshops started were provided only in the confirmation e-mail message.
One workshop lasted the entire day, and the other three were half-day events. One workshop was so popular that it was run twice, morning and afternoon.
On the day, registration was easy enough, just a matter of turning up and remembering my name. I received the standard pack--a bag, a full program (available in standard print, large print, contracted or uncontracted braille, and DAISY on CD), a small can of mints, a tactile, twistable stress toy (hard plastic, though, so it was not really squeezable), a decent-sized notepad, and a chunky pen. The pen was a great hit with everyone, it seems, because the end twisted to reveal a hidden compartment, like something from a James Bond movie, except that the secret cache contained sticky bookmarks, rather than a hidden weapon. Still, there were more bits of paper with sticky bookmarks around than one would expect at most conferences.
The workshop I attended covered the differences between WCAG (web content accessibility guidelines) 1.0 and WCAG 2.0 and was fairly intensive, a lot more interesting and interactive than being lectured to for an afternoon, and useful.
The conference was held on the entrance-level floor of the Hammersmith Novotel, with four, five, or six sessions being held at any given time. Each session lasted 50 minutes--usually 30 to 40 minutes of presentation, followed by a question-and-answer session--with a 10-minute break between each session to allow for overrun. The sessions ran from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., with a break for a buffet lunch in the basement, next to the Techshare Expo. With more than 60 sessions held during the two days, there was plenty to choose from.
Techshare also included the DAISY Consortium conference and featured keynote speeches by George Kerscher, secretary general of the DAISY Consortium, who talked about DAISY strategic directions, activities, and developments, and Jim Fruchterman, CEO of Benetech and founder of Bookshare.org, who announced that Bookshare is now available internationally. For a DAISY report on Techshare and more information about Bookshare, go to the web site on the DAISY Planet: DAISY Consortium Newsletter October 2007, <www.daisy.org/news/newsletters/planet-2007-10.shtml>.
My favorite presentation at the conference was by Abilitynet's Kath Moonan. Moonan talked about the accessibility problems of Web 2.0 applications and helped to get the message across by using captioned video recordings of interviews with users of assistive technology.
The panels took place in a series of lecture rooms off a central hall. The rooms had decent audiovisual equipment, and an RNIB person to run around with a microphone during the question-and-answer session. Apparently, there had been some technical difficulties on day one, but I did not experience any on day two. Real-time transcription of presentations was available, with the text displayed on a screen alongside the main presentation screen, although in one session, technical problems meant that the predictive text had not been set up properly, and a lot of the technical jargon was lost in translation, so to speak. For instance, at one point "Adobe" was rendered as "A dough bee." Despite the technical hitches, it was obvious that a lot of consideration had gone into making the conference as accessible to as many people as possible.
Throughout the event, RNIB staff members and volunteers were always on hand, clearly identified by their turquoise sashes (which, it must be said, did not really suit the men) and their willingness to aid anyone who looked lost or bewildered. The tactile floor plan was also available, and I found the quick-reference timetable particularly useful.
I was slightly underwhelmed by the Techshare Expo, although I may have been so because I had spent a day at the Sight Village conference in Birmingham a few weeks earlier and seen most of the exhibitors there. The two rows of booths seemed uncomfortably close to me, yet I was able to walk from one end to the other without being offered any demonstrations or free things. I think that the exhibition space suffered from being two escalators down from the main conference, so there was not much opportunity to pop in for a quick look between sessions.
Overall, this was an excellent conference. The workshop was more than just a lecture in a small room, and the main sessions were interesting and informative. The venue was fairly spacious, and the staff, both of the hotel and the RNIB, were helpful.
Richard Orme, Head of Accessibility at RNIB
Our original intention for Techshare was to bring together people who are working with technology to share what they know about how it can help people who are blind or have low vision. We also hoped that we could persuade some technology companies to tell us about their plans and understand how people are using their products. Well, several years later, we have experts coming from the other side of the world, not only to tell us what they know, but to learn how things are done in the United Kingdom. Some of our universities, charities, and commercial companies are engaged in groundbreaking work to push the boundaries of how technology can help and in making it easier and more affordable.
We are now reading through the feedback our delegates gave us and starting to plan for the next Techshare. There are two things that I hope will not change, though. First, this event will continue to be organized by disability organizations that are in touch with their members, so the agenda is set in line with the issues that are out there. Second, our aim is to provide people with usable new skills and information, so they can do their jobs or volunteer work better. I know I learned a lot at Techshare this year, and perhaps I will see you there next time.
For further information on Techshare, visit the following web sites: <www.rnib.org.uk/techshare>, RNIB: <www.rnib.org.uk>, and DAISY <www.daisy.org>.
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