For those of us with long histories in the assistive technology field, it is hard to believe that it is already more than a decade since a group of industry leaders gathered to talk about a new international organization and conference, acting as the collective voice of the industry. This year's ATIA (Assistive Technology Industry Association) conference, however, held January 28-31, 2009, in Orlando, Florida, was a celebration of the organization's 10th anniversary, and the event was a fitting success.
There were more than 125 exhibitors and more than 2,200 participants in attendance at the conference this year, held as it has been for the past few years at the Caribe Royale All-Suites and Convention Center. International speakers and attendees came from places as far away as Australia, Canada, China, Ecuador, Europe, Japan, New Zealand, Thailand, and Vanuatu. Scanning either the collected participants or exhibited products, it was clear that ATIA strives to represent all types of disabilities. Attendees used wheelchairs, augmentative communications devices, guide dogs, white canes, and a variety of technological tools for listening, communicating, and notetaking. Touring the exhibit hall on the opening evening, it seemed challenging at first to find anything of particular interest to AccessWorld readers. There were a variety of communications devices (electronic boxes with text-to-speech systems that enable users with speech disabilities to point to a picture to communicate with others), as well as software to boost the reading and writing proficiency of individuals with learning disabilities, and switches and software of all kinds for children with disabilities to operate toys or for adults with mobility-related disabilities to operate computers or consumer electronics with minimal physical intervention. But the companies of interest to AccessWorld readers were indeed present, announcing a plethora of new products, upgrades, and concepts.
Some Product Highlights
Serotek Corp. hosted one of the liveliest booths, largely because of its ongoing demonstration of the newly accessible iTunes (in conjunction with System Access in this company's case) and the fourth-generation talking Nano iPod. The booth also drew attention with its launch of SAMNet radio, conducting interviews--and thus offering free airtime--to any vendors who were interested in participating. Willing interviewees included David Dikter, ATIA executive director, and a variety of CEOs or representatives of such well-known companies as GW Micro, Freedom Scientific, the American Printing House for the Blind (APH), LevelStar, and Benetech.
Although we did not find any products that represented dazzling new concepts or breakthroughs for users who are blind or have low vision, there were definitely some new spins on existing technology.
Now that the Victor Reader Stream has enjoyed immense popularity over the past year and a half as an MP3 player/book player/voice recorder that is designed specifically for users who are blind, at least two new competitors in this area have emerged. Japanese-based Plextor introduced the PlexTalk Pocket, and GW Micro was showing a prototype of a similar handheld product.
At least two new braille displays were available at ATIA, both from companies that have not previously participated in the braille display market. APH demonstrated a small display, sporting 12 refreshable cells and a Perkins-style keyboard, that is designed to operate in conjunction with LevelStar's Icon Mobile Manager and the APH adaptation of that product, the Braille+. (Icon and Braille+ are handheld devices with myriad capabilities, including the ability to play digital books from such sources as the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped, Bookshare.org and Audible.com, to connect wirelessly for Internet access and e-mail, and a host of other functions. Prior to the launch of the new display, these two products did not support braille access.)
The other newcomer to the braille display marketplace was one of the oldest institutions in the field of blindness. The Perkins School for the Blind, primarily known as a venerable educational institution and information source, exhibited two products of its own. The Seika braille display, a simple 40-cell refreshable braille unit, boasts perhaps the lowest price ever seen in the industry for a display of this size, $2,495. Alongside the new display was Perkins's other new product release, its updated Perkins Brailler, designed in collaboration with APH and offering a slightly smaller, lighter-weight, and more brightly colored version of the 1950s classic braille-writing machine.
Optelec introduced the FarView video magnifier, which has a 4.3-inch screen and weighs 10.2 ounces. The FarView offers both distance and close-up viewing, can save 100 images for later viewing, and can connect to a VGA monitor or a PC via USB. The FarView sells for $1,495. Optelec also premiered the ClearView+ Generation 2 video magnifiers, which feature quieter, smoother images, one-button control, an ultra-flexible arm, and adjustable viewing arm and brightness. The ClearView+ models range in price from $2,095 to $3,695.
Ai Squared announced ZoomText version 9.18, which will work with 64-bit versions of Windows Vista. The company will also integrate scripting into the regular version of ZoomText and discontinue ZoomText Scripting Edition.
Of course, as is always the case, there were numerous workshops and training sessions demonstrating the technology and techniques that were visible in the exhibit hall. For users of assistive technology who are blind or have low vision, the AccessWorld staff found the offerings to be paler than might have been desired and targeted mainly to beginning users. The lunches on January 29 and 30, sponsored by Intel and Microsoft, respectively, featured speakers who would have been more favorably appreciated in quieter venues. The Microsoft presentation, in particular, featuring George Kerscher's demonstration of the use of Microsoft Word to create DAISY files, was barely audible in the animated pavilion where the participants enjoyed box lunches.
Ike Presley, of the American Foundation for the Blind, presented a preconference session, called "Conducting an Assistive Technology Assessment of Students Who Are Blind or Visually Impaired." This session provided attendees with an overview of various types of technology tools that are available to assist individuals who are blind or have low vision in conducting an assistive technology assessment. Suggestions for acquiring the appropriate background information and preparing for the assessment were discussed. These subjects were followed by the presentation of and discussion of a checklist form that can be used as a guide in conducting the assessment. The presentation then provided examples and suggestions on how to write the report on the final assessment, with an emphasis on the rationale and justification for including the technologies that were recommended.
Melissa Ireland, a rehabilitation technology specialist with the Alabama Department of Rehabilitation Services, Vocational Rehabilitation Services, presented a session on choosing a video magnifier. She presented work that she and her colleagues in Alabama did on the various features and types of electronic pocket model video magnifiers. After looking at such topics as ghosting, physical casing (durability of construction materials), size, style, place of controls, glare, brightness, color quality, and control adjustments, they developed a comparison chart that provides information on various features of more than 15 devices. The chart provided space for adding additional information and impressions of the various devices that attendees could use when visiting vendors in the exhibit hall.
Debra Bauder and Thomas Simmons, of the University of Louisville, described a study they conducted on the use of electronic travel aids as secondary aids to the traveler's primary mobility system. The study looked at the Miniguide US, the UltraCane, and the K Sonar Device. The performance of the five participants was mixed. Some participants performed better on both devices while others performed better on neither. The results indicate that the electronic travel aids are useful for avoiding obstacles.
Ike Presley presented a discussion, entitled "Selecting a Video Magnifier," of the various types of video magnifiers: desktop models, flex-arm camera models, head-mounted display models, handheld camera models, electronic pocket models, and digital imaging system models. He emphasized the advantages and disadvantages of each type with regard to the specific task that a user needs to accomplish. Some models are better for continuous text reading, while others are more helpful with spot reading. At this time, there is no single model that meets both these needs. Consumers must evaluate their greatest need for magnification; determine if that need can be met by a standard magnifier; and, if not, evaluate the various video magnifiers to determine which model will best suit them. The newer digital imaging system models, such as the myReader 2, the ZoomTwix, and the MobileEyes, offer additional features that make this type of technology appealing to some consumers.
"Accessible GPS Overview and Comparison plus Methodologies for Teaching and Training," presented by Mike May of the Sendero Group and Jerry Kuns of the California School for the Blind, compared the various features of the current accessible GPS systems and implications for providing instruction in their use.
On January 29-30, 100 representatives of leading corporations, governmental agencies, and educational institutions participated in the 2009 ATIA Leadership Forum on Accessibility. During the opening general session, Dan Hubbell, technical evangelist for the Accessibility Business Unit at Microsoft, and program managers from the Microsoft Windows and Office teams presented "Accessibility and the Software Development Lifecycle." They were followed by Simon Cooper, program director for the IBM CIO Employee Client and Workplace, and Frances West, director of the IBM Human Ability and Accessibility Center, who discussed "Innovation, Inclusion, and Emerging Technologies" and how to respond to the challenges associated with integrating emerging technologies and providing workplace accommodation.
On Friday morning, attendees heard the keynote address presented by Tony Coelho, former U.S. congressman from California and author of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Coelho provided an inspiring look at how far we have come in regard to equal rights for persons with disabilities. He also talked about the work that still needs to be done.
Additional educational sessions throughout the two days provided excellent case studies from California State University, the Social Security Administration, New York Presbyterian Hospital, Permanent TSB, Hilton Hotels, and Hunter College. Each presenter discussed the accessibility integration strategies that are used in their organizations, the benefits they realized, and the lessons they learned.
ATIA continues to show progress in making all aspects of the conference accessible to participants with disabilities. A preconference training session for temporary staff was provided on disability awareness, with special emphasis on the sighted guide technique.
Accessible materials provided by conference organizers for the participants who were blind or had low vision were first-rate. A disk of conference materials in DAISY format was available, and the conference materials--the schedule, exhibitors' directory, overview, and tactile maps--were provided in four spiral-bound braille volumes, enabling braille-using participants to carry only those documents they required at a given time. We would like to see braille on the cover of each volume, in addition to the raised print letters provided. Handouts for individual sessions were not always available in accessible formats. The tactile maps, although esthetically pleasing both visually and tactilely, were far more decorative than useful. The facility--several buildings around a central outdoor area--is an orientation and mobility challenge for pedestrians who are blind. To the credit of the conference organizers, significant attempts were made to enhance the usability of that environment. Red carpet runners outdoors, for example, again marked the pathway to individual buildings. But the maps did little to clarify the overall picture of the environment for blind participants. The conference organizers would do well, in the future, to consult with map users who are blind before they contract for this particular piece of the project.
ATIA worked with vendors to provide accessible computers in the lobby of the conference center, where the participants could review detailed descriptions of sessions, check e-mail messages, or browse the Internet. Unfortunately, the fact that the computers contained screen-reading and screen-magnification software was not clearly evident to the attendees. This is an area that can easily be improved upon for next year.
ATIA has much to celebrate in its 10th year. The conference was well attended, represented all disabilities, and was extremely well organized. Two announcements of particular note for the future warrant mentioning here. First, ATIA is sponsoring a YouTube competition, inviting individuals and companies to submit videos to the popular YouTube site to demonstrate the power of assistive technology in the lives of people with disabilities. The other exciting announcement was the addition of a fall ATIA conference, to be held for the first time in Chicago, on October 28-31.
For more information on the YouTube contest, the upcoming Chicago conference, the 2010 ATIA Orlando conference, or past events, visit the web site, www.atia.org.
Ike Presley contributed to this article.
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ATIA 2007 by Jay Leventhal
ATIA 2008 by Jay Leventhal
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