Stephen is an industrial engineer. On a typical day he wakes up, brews coffee as he gets dressed, browses the newspaper, then jumps online to send a few emails before his carpool arrives. On the way to the office, he stops by the ATM to get cash for lunch by privately entering his PIN code. Little distinguishes Stephen’s morning from the routine of many working Americans except that Stephen completes these tasks as a person who is blind. With today’s assistive technology (AT), his scenario of independence and efficiency is an increasingly common reality.
Where can consumers and professionals find information about the accessibility tools-new software, new gadgets and new services-that make work, play, education and everyday life easier for everyone? At the International Technology and Persons with Disabilities Conference, one of the world’s most informative AT conferences, hosted annually by the Center on Disabilities at California State University-Northridge (CSUN). This year, the 21st year of the conference, the tradition continued with 4,000 attendees from more than 30 countries, representing consumer groups, educators, rehabilitation specialists, technology experts, administrators and government agencies. Nearly 200 exhibitors displayed their products and services.
From its inception, the CSUN conference has showcased technologies addressing the needs of people in all age groups and with all types of disabilities, exploring advances in education, rehabilitation, employment and quality of life issues. Solutions that were only dreamed about during the first conference in 1985 have become reality and have been improved many times over.
The conference itself is fully accessible, providing information in alternative media such as Braille and large print. For participants who are deaf or hard of hearing, sign language interpreters and real-time captioning are available. Additionally, this year the United States Society of Alternative and Augmentative Communication (USSAAC) provided more than 400 workshops in 16 areas, including blindness/low vision.
Learning disabilities, post-secondary education, aging and employment, with the potential for continuing education credits from the American Speech-Language Hearing Association.
“Each year we hear that one of the most exciting things about the conference is the opportunity to meet with experts, practitioners and users,” said Mary Ann Cummins-Prager, director of the Center on Disabilities, “and to have informal conversations where you can find solutions to vexing problems or just share information and insights. This year’s conference was just as exciting.”
Attendees could also learn about accessibility services provided by numerous national and international organizations and government agencies. For example, the Computer/Electronic Accommodations Program (CAP) provides assistive technology, services and devices free of charge to people with disabilities, federal managers, supervisors and information technology professionals in the Department of Defense and throughout the federal government. CAP services are available to individuals with visual, hearing, dexterity and cognitive disabilities, increasing their access to information and removing barriers to employment opportunities within the federal government.
First-time conference visitor Jonathan Conklin was impressed with the federal government’s efforts toward accessibility, saying he was delighted to discover that electronic and information technology procured by the federal government must be accessible under section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act. Timothy Creagan of the U.S. Access Board-the agency that helps enforce section 508, along with the Telecommunications Act of 1996 and other similar legislation-was on hand to provide information about access requirements for information technology and telecommunications equipment. Technology standards developed by the Access Board cover areas such as computer hardware and software, Web sites, fax machines, copiers, phone systems, cellular services, pagers, etc.
But mostly, people attend AT conferences like CSUN to see the products. Participants had the chance to try out alternative keyboards and input devices, assistive mobility products, augmentative and alternative communication products, technology for people who are blind or have low vision, telecommunication devices, environ mental controls and daily living aids, educational products, software for individuals with learning disabilities and many other AT solutions.
“I can’t believe what I am seeing,” exclaimed special education teacher Justin Brown as he looked at alternative keyboards. For Brown, these products are crucial to help students access learning and lead fuller lives, no matter how severe their disabilities.
Mary Thomas, a left-arm amputee, was looking for alternative methods for word processing operations and environmental controls. She first tested SAJE Technology’s voice-activated telephones, then tried out environ mental controls for lights, TV/DVD/VCRs, security systems and appliances. “These products give me total independence,” she stated, explaining that she is moving into a new apartment in Seattle, Washington, and plans to make it environmentally accessible.
Sharon Bergman, who uses a wheelchair, wanted to find products for more comfortable computer use, such as an adaptive mouse, screen readers, magnifiers and educational software. She was excited to find an ergonomically designed, electric-push-button adjustable computer workstation that is accessible for people using wheelchairs. “I’ve been looking for one for several months,” she said. “I’m glad the search is over.”
Brown, Thomas and Bergman also tested Talk Technologies Sylencer voice silencing mask, which allows consumers to use speech recognition software privately and quietly as they interface with recording devices, phones, etc. Brown remarked that the Sylencer would be an excellent device for taking notes in class and for students who have learning dis abilities. Additionally, the three attendees liked The Writer Learning Systems, a portable keyboard from Advanced Keyboard Technologies that assists students who have disabilities with their keyboard skills through helpful features like word prediction.
The group also stopped to explore solutions for mounting assistive tools and alternative communication devices onto wheelchairs and walkers. For example, Exact Dynamics’ Assistive Robot Service Manipulator (ARM) is a 6+2 DOF robot that assists people who have upper limb disabilities, compensating for lost arm and hand function. It can be mounted on an electric wheelchair or stationed on a mobile base, allowing numerous daily tasks to be carried out at home, at work and outdoors. By means of an input device like a keypad or joystick, the ARM can be operated to grasp objects with its gripper. When not in use, it conveniently folds in beside the wheelchair where it is mounted.
Manufacturers of products for people with blindness or low vision proudly showed Braille books and magazines, magnification products, voice synthesizers, Braille embossers, screen magnifiers, closed-circuit televisions (CCTVs), accessible personal digital assistants (PDAs) with Braille and speech output, GPS orientation solutions, digital talking book DAISY software and portable DAISY players. Bank of America demonstrated its commitment to accessible banking for everyone by outlining its variety of accessibility services, such as a talking automatic teller machine.
Touch Graphics presented the Talking Tactile Tablet, a peripheral computer device that allows users to feel diagrams, maps and drawings. Similarly, the VOICEYE Player from AD Information & Communications attracted a lot of attention. Simple and low-priced compared to Braille or audio books, the portable VOICEYE personal digital device uses a specialized camera and decoding software to convert any printed material into human-like speech, enabling people with vision loss to read the same written text as anyone else.
For organization on the go, LevelStar’s ICON mobile management system was a hit, sporting a 20 GB PDA that can also snap into a Braille or QWERTY docking station to become a Notetaker. Said Frances Bush, who has low vision, “I can have incredible freedom with the ICON. Its versatility is powerful.” Bush particularly liked the ICON’s portability, its WiFi feature and its email function.
Dancing Dots courted music lovers, displaying technology that benefits musicians who have low vision. Said attendee Tom McKenzie, who is blind, “I scanned print ed scores and then listened to the results. With this technology, blind musicians can develop Braille music notation and play their musical ideas on their PCs.”
Many individuals with vision loss were impressed with Polara Engineering’s state-of-the-art Accessible Pedestrian Signal (APS) systems. APS provides audible and tactile indication of each phase of the walk cycle, as well as customized voice messages that orient the pedestrian.
Many participants learned for the first time about the wide range of accessibility services offered by Internet provider AOL, such as AOL.com Portal, which offers enhanced screen reader compatibility and high contrast support for users who are blind or have low vision. Said AOL’s director of accessibility Tom Wlodkowski, “Our underlying goal is to make AOL a powerful tool for all of our members.”
Other AOL services are designed to assist users with hearing loss or speech difficulties. For instance, AOL Instant Messenger (AIM) Relay Service allows consumers who are deaf or hard of hearing to use any standard or mobile telephone in the United States, connecting to telecommunication relay services with the assistance of AOL instant messaging to place relay calls directly from their AOL Buddy Lists. Traditionally, to place a relay call, the caller would connect with a relay communications assistant using a TTY device and type in the number he or she wants to call. The communications assistant would then place the call and relay the conversations back and forth between the two parties, reading the caller’s text to the hearing recipient and typing the recipient’s voiced response back. With AIM Relay Service, users simply add the relay vendor’s designated screen name to their Buddy List feature and send an instant message to the vendor stating the ten-digit phone number they would like to call. Once they connect with a communications assistant, they proceed as with a traditional relay call, except using instant messaging instead of typing text into a TTY device.
AIM Relay Services on the desktop also supports the ability to place video relay calls, where the caller and the communications assistant communicate in American Sign Language through a webcam. In addition, users who have the AOL or AIM client loaded onto their wireless devices can enjoy the added benefit of accessing relay services while away from their PC and on the go.
Another AOL innovation, AOLbyPhone premium ser vice, is available toll-free from any telephone and allows AOL members to send and reply to email and access 411 Directory Assistance through spoken commands. Finally, the AOL Stream Closed Captions ser vice supplies consumers who are deaf or hard of hearing with several closed captioned video options. Now in the News is a captioned three-minute video from CNN that changes 12 times daily, and AOL offers closed captions on two cartoon series, Princess Natasha and SKWOD, available through its KOL online channel for children ages 6 to 12. AOL members can also access open captioned video tutorials to learn more about AOL’s features, tools and services.
HP showcased the utility of its platforms for a wide variety of accessibility purposes. For example, the company joined the nonprofit ABILITY Awareness in a presentation about HP technology in the ABILITY House Smart Home, built in partnership with Habitat for Humanity of Greater Birmingham for homeowner Der rick Daniels, who has quadriplegia. Daniels participated in the CSUN presentation by speakerphone.
HP provided a Pavilion Media Center PC and compatible AT devices and applications that allow him to control from his PC station the home’s lights, doors, ceiling fans, televisions and other appliances. Addition ally, HP equipped Daniels with a several assistive products for operation of his PC: a Madentec Tracker, a head-tracking device that converts head movement into computer mouse movement; Madentec Screen Doors, an on-screen keyboard that works with Tracker; and a Madentec Magic Cursor 2000, a clicking solution for Tracker that emulates clicking a mouse. Beyond managing the physical mechanisms of his home, with this assistive technology Daniels can browse the Internet, send email and use standard software applications to complete his college assignments. BellSouth, which sponsored construction of the home, provided extensive telephone technology and services, and Sure Hands Ceiling Lift Systems provided a lift to assist Daniels’ caregiver in transporting him back and forth from his bedroom to the bathroom.
From home to school to work, AT enhances the lives of millions of Americans, and CSUN continues each year to showcase the best in new products and technologies.
by John M. Williams
and Noelle Kelly