“Can I pet your dog?” is a question that is rarely heard at the CSUN Assistive Technology Conference. Participants, speakers, and even hotel staff simply don’t ask. If it’s March, it’s conference season, and service dogs and their owners descend en masse to San Diego. These dogs are working as service animals: assisting people who are blind, have epilepsy, or need emotional support. You wouldn’t ask to pet someone’s wheelchair. Indeed, the CSUN Conference, now spanning over 30 years, highlights the best and most innovative technology and research used to accommodate people with disabilities, but also developed by people with disabilities.
Most participants, vendors, and attendees have an accommodation that work best for them. There’s little judgment at CSUN, for after the last session of the day wraps up, it becomes the largest and most inclusive party on the West Coast. When we met Jamie Knight, a software developer out of the United Kingdom working for the BBC, we got to meet Lion as well.
Jamie has autism. Characterized by difficulties with communication and forming relationships with others, autism can make interpersonal relationships tricky for some, impossible for others. Jamie, though, has Lion. Not a real lion, of course, although that would be quite a standout in the menagerie of dogs at the CSUN conference. Lion is a four-foot-tall stuffed animal that is Jamie’s accommodation. He helps Jamie ground himself and engage in conversation. He enables Jamie to participate in jam-packed conferences, go out with friends, and be productive at work. As Jamie shares, “The autistic guy with a giant lion is pretty memorable”.
For all intents and purposes, Lion is absolutely no different than a sentient, living and breathing, service dog. Of course, Jamie knows he isn’t real, but for Jamie, Lion is the accommodation that fills his backpack, has Twitter followers, and makes him a more cogent software engineer.