When the first Assistive Technology Industry Association (ATIA) conference was held in October 1999, some professionals in the field of assistive technology wondered aloud about the real value of another assistive technology (AT) conference. The learning curve has not been an easy one for ATIA, but efforts at both gathering feedback and learning from it were readily apparent at the 2005 ATIA conference, the sixth international event of its kind. Since that first conference, ATIA has been held in Orlando, Florida. As the site shifted from hotel to hotel, however, the venues might be described as moving from bad to worse to finally getting it right. With more than 1,200 participants, 150 exhibits, and sessions to interest attendees from every facet of the field, ATIA 2005 presented an environment of information sharing, learning, and respect--right in line with the mission and goals of the organization.
Caption: The ATIA Exhibit Hall was chock full of attendees and assistive technology.
Sessions ranged from beginner to advanced, with all disability needs well represented. Educators, rehabilitation professionals, developers, and consumers attended sessions to learn about a new authoring tool to determine factors needed to comply with Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 in a given government agency setting; how to incorporate assistive technology into the testing arena; how a hearing-impaired actress and a sound engineer collaborated to develop new technology for the theatre; and a host of switches, communications devices, and picture-based learning tools for children and adults with an array of physical and cognitive disabilities.
The sampling of sessions specifically relating to assistive technology for people who are blind or visually impaired was impressive indeed. Participants could hear a brief history of video magnifiers and see new technology in action, learn how sighted musicians can produce braille music scores for their colleagues who are blind, and attend an explanation and demonstration of a fully accessible handheld personal digital assistant (PDA). There were sessions on using global positioning system (GPS) devices designed for people who are blind, a retail company's development of a payment terminal with text-to-speech capabilities and braille markings for independent use by a customer who is blind, and a wide variety of other relevant presentations.
New Products Launched
David Dikter, ATIA's executive director, stresses that one of the goals of the organization is to promote the development of the best assistive technology products possible for people with disabilities. "We're bringing key leadership from around the country and around the world together in a single place," Dikter said. "And we're creating an opportunity for our membership to work together as an industry."
Business is business, however, and it is no surprise that leading companies compete to bring out their newest additions to the assistive technology field during such focused events. Among the new product launches highlighted at ATIA 2005, there were several that will benefit people who are blind or visually impaired.
There were, of course, updates to such popular programs as Jaws for Windows and Window-Eyes. New braille displays vying for attention were Freedom Scientific's Focus 40 and Focus 80 and Pulse Data Humanware's Brailliant, ranging from a 24 to a 64-cell model. Unique features of the Focus products include a "seamless" display and Perkins-style keyboard for issuing commands. Highlights of the Brailliant include its under 1 pound size and intuitive USB-powered interface. (Both Focus and Brailliant displays will be reviewed in an upcoming issue of AccessWorld.)
IRTI drew considerable interest with its launch of eClipse Writer, a tool for creating your own DAISY format files. And Telex Communications announced improvements to its Scholar player, the sturdy machine that plays DAISY and other digital talking books.
Freedom Scientific also introduced its new SARA, Stand Alone Reading Appliance, a user-friendly reading machine that can store up to 20 gigabytes of scanned reading material in an organized structure on its hard drive, and an upgrade to the MAGic screen magnification software. Pulse Data introduced two new video magnifiers: myReader, a system that can produce an image of an 8 1/2-x-11-inch page in three seconds and present it in the same format as a large-print book, and the Pocket Viewer, a pocket-sized video magnifier for reading menus, labels, and other print materials on the go.
And, while you're on the go, both VisuAide's Trekker and Sendero Group's GPS software for use on the BrailleNote and VoiceNote were demonstrated with Bluetooth wireless receivers, resulting in less cumbersome hardware to tote when navigating a new or familiar route.
Certainly one of the biggest news items at the conference was the announcement of the merger of two leading AT companies. VisuAide of Canada, the company that distributes the Victor Reader, Trekker, Maestro, and other products has merged with New Zealand-based Pulse Data, which offers BrailleNote, BrailleNote PK, Brailliant Braille Displays, Pocket Viewer, and a host of other products. The products and the people will now be one large entity, maintaining all existing offices--and the single name will be the resurrection of a familiar one: HumanWare. (See AccessWorld News in this issue for more details.)
During previous ATIA conferences, environments were painfully less than friendly to attendees who were blind or visually impaired. David Dikter and other ATIA staff have worked hard to remedy the situation, consulting with a number of individuals who are blind. The result, while far from perfect, was a number of comfort-inducing accommodations.
The Caribe Royale All Suites Resort, ATIA's new home in 2005, is a collection of five towers and a convention center. Red-carpet runners led the way from one building to another, providing a tactile and high-contrast visual path for attendees who were blind or visually impaired. All conference materials were provided not only in braille and large print, but on CD containing a facsimile of the web site and a DAISY-formatted CD as well. "The aspect that most pleases me about the conference CD," Dikter commented, "is that it included every piece of information about the conference, and it was provided to every conference participant, not just as an accommodation to some."
There were braille menus in all of the hotel's restaurants and braille hotel information sheets. Tactile maps of the hotel and exhibit areas were also provided to participants who requested braille. While there were some problems (for example, some staff were unaware of the braille menus' existence), the level of comfort afforded customers who are blind was commendable. In fact, one winning quality of the Caribe Royale, as Dikter pointed out, was that the independently owned hotel has often gone beyond ADA compliance, and has held its own annual awareness trainings for staff long before ATIA brought its business.
The conference ended Saturday, January 22, and by Monday, David Dikter was already meeting with hotel staff, ironing out wrinkles and pressing for improvements for next year. "There is no such thing as pleasing 100 percent of the people 100 percent of the time," he said, "particularly when we have so many constituents, but we'll keep working toward making ATIA the premier international AT conference."
ATIA 2006 will be held January 18-21, 2006, in the Caribe Royale All Suites Resort, Orlando, Florida. To learn more or register, visit <www.atia.org>.
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