If you've been involved with assistive technology in the past 23 years, the chances are that you are at least aware of the Technology and Persons with Disabilities conference, the international event informally known as CSUN, for the place of its origins. Begun in 1985 by the California State University at Northridge (CSUN) Center on Disabilities, the conference was originally held on the CSUN campus. Dr. Harry J. Murphy, founder of the event, served as the master of ceremonies for the March 12 kick-off breakfast this year and, as he reflected, 200 participants was deemed an enormous success that first year. The conference quickly outgrew its original site and has, for many years, filled a few hotels at the Los Angeles International Airport. Hosted this year by the Los Angeles Airport Marriott and the Renaissance hotels, the conference welcomed some 4,530 participants, representing a wide range of disabilities, professional perspectives, countries, and levels of technological expertise.
The first two days of the conference, as is the CSUN custom, were devoted to in-depth preconference sessions, each lasting three to six hours. The program for Wednesday through Saturday offered a smorgasbord of presentations ranging from demonstrations of products to the presentation of research findings and all manner of technologically interesting matters. The sessions were coded to indicate whether the presenters deemed them to be at the beginner, intermediate, or advanced level, as well as to which disability group they might of greatest interest. These latter designations included such tracks as learning disabilities; deaf and hard-of- hearing; aging; mobility impairments; augmentative communications areas; and, of course, those of interest to technology users who are blind or have low vision.
Vendor presentations in the blindness arena could be found for all the well-known and lesser-known companies that distribute products for this particular population, including Freedom Scientific, HumanWare, GW Micro, Dancing Dots, Handy Tech, Touch Graphics, and Serotek. Participants could attend workshops on popular GPS (global positioning system) products for people who are blind or PDAs (personal digital assistants) or how to teach braille music notation to children who are blind. There were sessions on producing blogs, podcasts, and DAISY-formatted audio materials. If you were looking for something a bit more off the beaten path, you could attend a session by researchers from Arizona State University on a shopping device that could enable shoppers who are blind to browse the shelves in a grocery store; a session on structured negotiations presented by attorney Lainey Feingold (who has negotiated scores of agreements resulting in accessible ATMs and point-of-sale devices); and, my favorite, a talking kiosk by Steve Landau, the president of Touch Graphics, which despite some initial technical difficulties, demonstrated a talking wayfinding kiosk with light and animation sufficient to attract any tourist, as well as completely tactile and auditory information to assist visitors in navigating unfamiliar public facilities. (Two such kiosks are currently installed, one in New York City's Penn Station and the other at the Staten Island Ferry terminal.) Imagine walking up to a kiosk in an airport or shopping mall, touching the screen, and being guided through an audio question-and-answer process to trace the route to your desired location on a completely tactile surface!
Two conference highlights that were packed to capacity were keynote addresses by men whose names will be familiar to most AccessWorld readers. On March 12, the keynote speaker for the official kickoff breakfast was Jim Fruchterman, the founder in the 1980s of the Arkenstone company, the first company to market a PC-based reading system for people who are blind, and later, the founder of Benetech and Bookshare.org, a nonprofit peer-to-peer organization through which people with print disabilities share books that are scanned and converted to machine-readable text. For a man who began his professional career as a rocket scientist and who was named a genius in 2006 (when he received the MacArthur Fellowship's Genius Award), Fruchterman's lively and entertaining speech was solid evidence that he is still the same warm, engaging, and compassionate social entrepreneur whom so many have come to love over the past few decades. His newest initiative, Raising the Floor, is the embodiment of his goal to put technology in the hands of all people with disabilities, worldwide, without regard to economic capabilities.
Fruchterman briefly assumed another role following his address, that of "audio describer," for the purpose of describing the presentation made by Gilles Pepin, CEO of HumanWare, to Jim Halliday, founder and former president of the HumanWare company to honor Halliday on his retirement. (The presentation itself was an original oil painting of Halliday's home and vineyard in Oregon, where he will be retiring with his wife Karen.)
The other keynote address that drew a full house was that given by Raymond Kurzweil, on March 13, in the Sheraton Four Points hotel. Kurzweil, whose name is familiar to many AccessWorld readers for the reading technology that bears his name, was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of fame in 2002 and, along with being known for having invented the first reading machine for blind people and the first music synthesizer, has earned a reputation for making remarkably accurate predictions about the future of information technology. He predicted in the 1980s, for example, that the Arpanet, an information network shared by a relative handful of scientists, would become a worldwide network by the mid-1990s. The Internet was the realization of that prediction.
In 2002, Kurzweil said that it would take about four years to develop a handheld reader for people who are blind. In 2006, the Kurzweil-National Federation of the Blind Reader, a PDA joined to a digital camera that could shoot and read a page of print, was introduced.
His CSUN topic, "The End of Handicaps," presented his theory that in another decade or two, technology will have shrunk to its smallest external size and will begin finding internal applications. Destroyers of cancer cells will be sent into the bloodstream, he said, and programming will be sent to the brain to eliminate bipolar disorder or rewire visual perceptions.
The CSUN exhibit halls are always hubs of major activity, and 2008 was no exception. One of the hottest products of interest to blind consumers was the KNFB Mobile, a Nokia N82 mobile phone with the Kurzweil reading software on board. HumanWare introduced the Trekker Breeze, a new GPS product and announced a new upgrade for the Victor Reader Stream that includes, among other features, compatibility with Serotek's System Access Mobile Network. A bit of just plain fun is always welcome, and one of the highlights of the conference for me was playing a lively game of Snakes and Ladders at the Touch Graphics booth just before the conference closed on March 15. The fast-paced game of chance for all ages, which combines a tactile playing board with audio cues, is completely interactive. Progress around the board is accompanied by lively sound effects. Encountering a ladder means multiple moves in one turn and landing on a fellow player triggers the computer sound of that player being kicked down the stairs. When so many pieces of assistive technology are focused on work and productivity, it was a breath of fresh air to encounter one that was purely entertainment with no higher purpose.
Speaking of fun, another off-topic highlight for many was the poolside HumanWare party, where Stevie Wonder joined in the fun, greeting partygoers and even joining in a group sing-along led by "The Visuettes," an "ensemble" of HumanWare friends who are known for an annual five-minute frivolous performance.
Caption: Deborah Kendrick, Stevie Wonder and Sheri Albers soak up some sun at the CSUN conference.
A hallmark of the CSUN conference has long been its attention to detail in providing accessibility and accommodations to attendees with all types of disabilities. The good news is that conference materials were provided in all alternate formats—print, braille, audio, and a completely navigable CD produced by the DAISY Consortium. The bad news is that the beauty of the CD was undoubtedly missed by many attendees because no general information accompanied it to describe its nature or content. There were no tactile maps as there have been in the past. Some workshops that required hands-on activity offered completely accessible workstations for those who needed screen readers as well as those who used typical screens, while other workshops had no accessible demonstration models available.
Other changes that were not necessarily positive included the requirement that participants register for all sessions. Many people reported that their desired sessions were displayed as completely full online, but when they visited the sessions, there was ample space. Clearly, people change their minds about which workshops to attend after they arrive at the conference, and the requirement for registering in advance may actually discourage full participation.
Another change was the opening time of the exhibit halls. Traditionally, exhibits have opened with an exhibitors' reception on Wednesday evening—which has been the most popular and animated exhibit period. This year, exhibits opened early Thursday morning—a time when many participants were not yet in the exhibit hall frame of mind.
While changes in organization may not have made a good thing better, the CSUN conference is still a good thing. If you can attend only one technology conference a year, this one would be a profitable choice.
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