In some ways, it resembles a family reunion or a classic play whose lines are so familiar that you could recite them with the actors. But family reunions can surprise everyone with some brand-new members, and seeing King Lear performed in blue jeans or beachwear puts a new spin on what you remember. So it is with the Technology and Persons with Disabilities Conference, called by the name of its sponsoring organization, California State University at Northridge (CSUN). The 22nd annual CSUN conference was held on March 19-24, 2007, at the Los Angeles Airport Marriott and Airport Hilton hotels. For those who attended past events, there was indeed much that was familiar. There were also, however, numerous surprises--most of them pleasant.
With the rollout of Microsoft's new operating system, Vista, occurring only two months before the CSUN conference, Vista naturally claimed a certain amount of attention in the arena of assistive technology for people who are blind. Serotek's FreedomBox (the first to go public with access to Vista), as well as GW Micro's Window-Eyes and Freedom Scientific's JAWS for Windows, were all demonstrated running Vista throughout the conference. But if you are not the kind of person who cares much about the next operating system until it has been around for a while, there was much more to see.
If traveling and mobility are your highest priority, there were many devices and systems of interest. Maps that can be interpreted by touch but provide detailed audio output are becoming increasingly stable. One research project examined the value of receiving a combination of tactile and audio information while walking through a new environment with a white cane or a dog guide. In addition, GPS (global positioning systems) excursions were hosted by both HumanWare Canada, using the handheld Trekker, and Sendero, demonstrating the popular Sendero GPS product running on the BrailleNote family of products.
Speaking of handheld devices, closed-circuit televisions (CCTVs) are becoming increasingly small and sophisticated, and several portable CCTVs that are small enough to put in your pocket were on display at CSUN. Of course, pocket-sized devices for people who are blind using media other than magnified print were on display as well. HumanWare's smallest braille display, for example, the Braille Connect, provides only 12 cells and is about 5 inches long. For those who are looking for new and versatile handheld devices with speech output, probably the two newest attention getters were the Icon, by LevelStar, and BraillePlus, from the American Printing House for the Blind (APH). A PDA (personal digital assistant) that is designed specifically for users who are blind, the Icon PDA has large, distinctly tactile, buttons; a 30GB drive; and the capability to do everything from playing your music collection to storing your audio book collection and roaming the Internet or reading e-mail wherever there is a wireless connection. APH purchased access to the original Icon design, made the case a bit larger to accommodate six extra keys, and added the functionality of a simple braille keyboard.
CSUN's organizers threw a surprise element into the selection of individual sessions this year. There are hundreds of sessions to choose from, and the conference has, for years, indicated, by simple abbreviations, whether a workshop may be most relevant, to, say, people who are blind or have low vision; have mobility impairments, learning disabilities, or hearing impairments; and are at the beginner, intermediate, or advanced level of expertise on a given topic. The new twist was to require the participants to make reservations online for the sessions they hoped to attend. Monitors were on duty at each workshop, checking names against a list. However, those (more than half in our very unofficial poll) who had not noticed or not chosen to reserve space in the sessions did not need to worry. Although many sessions were indeed packed with participants, an empty space could generally be found for those whose names were not on the list. However, presentations by both Google and Microsoft were filled by people who had preregistered.
In the case of sessions coded "BLV," for or pertaining to people who are blind or have low vision, there were nearly 150 options. These sessions included demonstrations of products, presentations of research findings, and discussions of ways to incorporate assistive technology of various sorts into university or workplace settings. There were sessions on web accessibility, audio CAPTCHAs (Completely Automated Public Turing Test to Tell Computers and Humans Apart), map reading-wayfinding, and how to conduct research with a PDA.
The participants seemed particularly excited about the Trekker GPS or Sendero GPS sessions. Sendero took small groups on a limousine tour with Sendero GPS on the BrailleNote PK reporting the landmarks, street names, and headings, and HumanWare Canada took a group of 10 on a walking-teaching tour, as well as providing demonstrations in traditional sessions.
Other Sessions of Interest
A personal favorite was the session by Roger Smith, of APH, on accessible games. Although this session was targeted primarily to educators and the games are for children or young adults, any computer user who is blind or has low vision who enjoys a little silliness should check these games out. Through magnification, contrasting colors, sound effects, and lots of spoken cues, APH has rendered some relatively typical video games that are usable by--and useful in building skills for--students who are blind or have low vision.
Peter Brunet and Larry Weiss, of IBM, discussed IAccessible2, an extension of Microsoft Active Accessibility (MSAA), which provides access to advanced features in Windows programs, such as editing functions, hyperlinks, charts, and menus. IAccessible2 enables assistive technologies like screen readers and screen magnifiers to access information from the operating system that was not available before. The developers of the Firefox browser are implementing IAccessible2, and IBM is encouraging other companies, including Microsoft, to use it as well.
Ai Squared, Dolphin Access Products, Freedom Scientific, and GW Micro all demonstrated their screen readers or screen magnifiers working in Windows Vista. Beta versions of these programs were available at the conference, and almost all the programs are projected to be released by the time you read this article.
Jennifer Bilotta and Richard Boardman, of Google, discussed the beginning of their company's accessibility efforts. They focused on the research that has been conducted to develop the audio CAPTCHA that Google uses on Gmail. The speakers admitted that this solution did not work for people who are deaf-blind, however, and asked for suggestions.
Geoff Freed, of WGBH's National Center for Accessible Media (NCAM), demonstrated ways to make onscreen information and emergency alerts available to television viewers who are blind. Such information may include school closings, breaking news, and warnings about tornadoes and other disasters. The Federal Communications Commission has ruled that emergency information must be made accessible to people who are blind, but stations have not done so yet. NCAM is using text-to-speech to develop a prototype system that makes these text messages accessible.
More New Products
GW Micro and Human Information Management Service introduced the Voice Sense, a PDA with speech output and a braille keyboard. The Voice Sense features a word processor, appointment calendar, phone book, media player, FM radio, and scientific calculator. The price is $1,895. The companies also showed the Sync Braille, a small, lightweight braille display, which is available in 20- and 32-cell models.
Freedom Scientific has added a 21-inch screen model to its line of TOPAZ CCTVs. It also announced that it will soon be possible to play DAISY books from Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic on its PAC Mate PDA.
Still other products that were demonstrated included Zoom-Ex from ABISee--software and a camera that allow you to scan, read, and listen to a page or an entire book of text on a laptop computer, and the Junior, a new, handheld CCTV from Clarity Solutions that has a 4-inch screen, weighs 11 ounces, magnifies from 3x to 9x, and sells for $695.
Rating the Conference
The CSUN conference has historically been the event against which to measure the level of accessibility provided by other conferences. Sadly, this is no longer the case. Problems that were reported in AccessWorld in 2006 and discussed with the CSUN staff after the 2006 conference were repeated this year. Once again, a poor job was done in producing the braille version of the conference program.
For such a large and detailed conference, braille materials are voluminous. In past years, to make the bulk more manageable (and usable), the conference provided the program materials for the entire week in several smaller booklets--one booklet for each day, for example--rather than the entire list of sessions in one continuous volume, as well as a separate volume for exhibitors, speakers, the conference overview, and so on. This year's program had no breakout booklets, with the exception of a Quick Overview volume. The remainder of the 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.
A transcriber's note stated that advertisements and hotel maps were omitted. Thus, the advertisements, which were paid for by the exhibitors, including the American Foundation for the Blind, were not available to the braille-reading participants. Therefore, these attendees could not learn 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. No breakfast menu was available in braille.
The CSUN conference's web site was redone during the past year. Shockingly, when you select many of the links on the site, the resulting pages open in a new window, a violation of the guidelines of the Web Accessibility Initiative. Online conference registration was outsourced this year to an organization called Let's Go Expo. This site was accessible, but important information that was available in previous years was impossible to obtain this year. For example, it was not possible to search for and download a list of all sessions related to blindness and low vision that included descriptions of the sessions. You could download only a list that included each session's name, presenter, location, and time. This information is not good enough to plan your conference schedule. The CSUN staff completely changed in the past year and a half, and the new staff did a poor job of handling accessibility issues at the 2007 conference. The staff of AccessWorld are willing to advise CSUN on improving the situation at the 2008 conference.
An e-mail message that was distributed prior to the conference announced that in 2008, all the exhibits will be located in a tent in a parking lot between the Marriott and Hilton hotels. This is a bad idea and will present problems involving navigation and mobility, climate control, and security for both people and equipment.
If you missed CSUN 2007, you may want to plan now for the 2008 conference. Next year's event will be held on March 11-15, 2008, and you do not need to read a conference program or a list of exhibitors to know that it will be a fact-filled, fun-filled, technological and networking bonanza for anyone who is interested in assistive technology.
Darren Burton and Marc Grossman contributed to this article.
CSUN 2006 by Deborah Kendrick and Jay Leventhal
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