November 2001 Issue  Volume 2  Number 6

Conference Report

2001: A Technology Odyssey

The conference, 2001: A Technology Odyssey, was a joint effort of the American Foundation for the Blind (AFB) and the Association for Education and Rehabilitation of the Blind and Visually Impaired (AER). Hands-on workshops, lectures, and product demonstrations were the three components of this three-day event. Co-chairs Mark Uslan and Barbara McCarthy originally estimated that 250 would attend, but over 500 people actually attended from throughout the United States and Canada, as well as from Malaysia, Taiwan, Australia, the United Kingdom, Bangladesh, and several other countries.

Twenty-six hands-on workshops, 36 product demonstrations, and 43 presentations featured how-to information with braille, speech, and screen magnification products. At the opening session, Billy Brookshire, AER president and senior human resources development specialist for the Texas Commission for the Blind, read a humorous spin-off dialog between Hal (the computer) and Dave Bowman (the human protagonist) from the famous Kubrick film.

More laughter was generated by Brookshire's litany of quotes from the past 60 years regarding technology, such as then IBM CEO Thomas Watson's 1943 remark, "I think there's a world market for maybe five computers." In 1981, Bill Gates was quoted as saying, "640K ought to be enough memory for anybody." And Steve Wozniak's comment, "Never trust a computer you can't throw out of a window."

Richard Chandler, CEO of Freedom Scientific, provided a glimpse into the future of assistive technology with his remarks about where we've been and where we're going. In the next five years, he predicted, it is feasible to envision a note-taking device that will enable a blind person to surf the web, receive talking global- positioning information, make cell phone calls, and have mobile scanning capabilities for real-time menu reading or interpreting the visual information on the screen of a microwave or VCR.

Expert trainers from De Witt & Associates (New Jersey), the Carroll Center (Massachusetts), AFB, the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired, and other organizations instructed classes of up to 32 people throughout the weekend. All computer workshops were hands-on and taught participants to use various applications with screen-reading and screen-magnification software. Topics included cruising the Internet, accessible web design, and using databases with speech. From the basics of teaching Windows applications in general to advanced training in such programs as Microsoft Word, Excel, PowerPoint, or Intuit's Quicken, the diversity of topics clearly offered something for participants at every level of expertise.

A highlight of the conference was the presentation of the Harvey Lauer Technology Award by AER Division 5. The award was presented to Jim Allan, of the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired, for his work in web accessibility and an ongoing effort to make information accessible to individuals who are blind or visually impaired. Guests were treated to brief remarks from Harvey Lauer, one of the pioneers in the field of assistive technology for blind and visually impaired people, who spoke of his early commitment to technology as an employee of the Hines VA Center for the Blind in Illinois. Lauer recalled buying his own computer in the early 1980's. "In 12 years, I spent $22,000 on computers on my job," Lauer said, "and it was the best investment I ever made."

In accepting his award, Jim Allan stated that information is the key to all areas of life and that access to information is the mission that drives his work. "It is not the work of just one person," Allan said. "It is all of us banging the drum, doing what we do every single day, all of the time, that moves us forward." With regard to his work in making information accessible on his web site, he said, "Publish it and they will come—and get it!"

Energy was high and the response was tremendous throughout the conference, with many professionals indicating a wish for more of this kind of approach to training trainers in the future. No effort, of course, is perfect in its first run, and some areas clearly need fine-tuning. With several sessions running concurrently throughout the three-day event, presenting information on the schedule in a convenient format for both print and braille readers was a challenge. Many participants said it was difficult to interpret the schedule quickly and expressed the need for an additional "At a Glance" page that would present all available sessions on a given day in a simplified format. When conference evaluations are tabulated, other areas for improvement will undoubtedly be discovered. The results will be published in AccessWorld.

Throughout the conference, "live updates" were posted on the AFB web site by AccessWorld's contributing editor, Deborah Kendrick. To read these reports, go to < = 1576.>

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