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posted 6-5-2003

California Stat University, Northridge Adaptive Technology Conference:Imagine a life free from sour milk chunks. Envision a world without pink loads of laundry—where one rogue red sock amidst the sea of whites won’t reek havoc in the laundry room. Create a scenario in your mind where the injection of a few ‘nano-chips’ could potentially destroy a life-threatening tumor. Sound like science fiction to you? It’s not. It’s closer than you know, and companies like IBM are pooling their worldwide scientific genius to make it happen. Whether it is a smart chip in the refrigerator that prevents the fateful sip of week-old beverages, or the ‘smart-washer’ that detects the offending sock before the cycle even starts, advances like these are right around the bend and only just the beginning.

Technology is moving forward at a rapid pace, and every year the California State University, Northridge conference offers a platform for companies to showcase current products, as well as hints of what advancements lie on the horizon. CSUN, as it has collectively come to be known, focuses on assistive technologies that provide access to information technology for all people. The 18th Annual International Conference, “Technology and Persons with Disabilities,” was held March 19-22 in Los Angeles, Calif.

Dr. Harry “Bud” Rizer, director of the Center on Disabilities at California State University, Northridge, had hopes that this year’s attendees would help “promote the benefits of AT on the largest scale possible.” He notes that the progress made “is only truly effective when the needs of everyone requiring access to needed information or technology have been met.”

On hand to open the conference was one of the leading inventors of our time, Ray Kurzweil, whose proposals and ideas regarding the future have enraptured and intrigued various fans including Stevie Wonder, Bill Gates and Bill Clinton. Kurzweil is responsible for developing the first omni-font optical character recognition, the first print-to-speech reading machine for the blind, the first text-to-speech synthesizer and has achieved numerous additional technological breakthroughs. Touted not only as a futurist and inventor, Kurzweil also excels as an entrepreneur and has successfully founded and developed nine companies, with focuses ranging from OCR, music synthesis and speech recognition, to virtual reality, financial investment and cybernetic art. Inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in September 2002, and decorated with copious other awards, Kurzweil was an ideal choice for kicking off a conference dedicated to the advancement of assistive technology.

Another player with a keen interest in the AT arena is IBM, who this year offered a glimpse of a world where anyone can access technology at anytime from anywhere, regardless of any disability they may have. IBM is focused on a particular goal: to make assistive technology available to everyone. Their strong presence at this year’s CSUN conference was due largely in part to the cutting-edge presentation “Advance Your Tomorrow: The IBM Multimedia Experience.” This sensory-loaded display allowed conference goers to experience through touch, sound, sight, and smell the many ways in which IBM accessible technologies can help all people master their work environments. IBM’s director of diversity communications, Jim Sinocchi notes, “We were told the buzz of the show was the IBM futuristic technology. It really showed how technology can level the playing field.” It was a show where you could literally “walk in and experience the future.”

In the past, the costly nature of many adaptive products has been a problem. Shon Saliga, director of the IBM Worldwide Accessibility Center in Austin, Texas, makes an important point, “Assistive technology is extremely expensive. If we could take the technology and embed it into every single mainstream product that we build, the price point then plummets and the cost is shared by everyone.” The inclusion of this technology into all products is a necessity because the average person will experience 13 years of disability in their lifetime, due chiefly to advancement in age. With the baby boomer population growing older, disabilities and impairments become inevitable. Seven percent of the world’s population is currently over 65 years of age, making assistive technology not only convenient, but also essential to a vast number of the populace.

A veteran of CSUN conferences, IBM was on hand for the 17th year, featuring an array of products and services demonstrating accessibility tools such as Web Redesign, Web Hosting and Web Remediation, which all serve to make websites compliant under regulatory guidelines and specific legislation. One of the products exhibited was IBM’s Home Page Reader, a tool specifically geared toward those with visual impairments that utilizes text-to-speech technology to ‘read’ pages out loud. Another product featured was IBM’s Knowledge Producer Learning Management System, which makes customer e-learning courseware accessible. Along with their current products and services, IBM also shared information about their research technologies which spanned from linguistic analysis software to display technologies offering specialized settings for people with disabilities. Taking a futuristic approach, IBM also hinted at the vending machine of tomorrow. This ‘intelligent’ machine would respond to voice command, debit a ‘smart card’ rather than taking coins or bills and provide the consumer with the nutritional content of the goods it dispenses.

IBM is positioned to be a forerunner in accessible e-business solutions. Business director Jani Byrne explains how IBM crafted their approach to hone in on a ‘top-down strategy’ involving every IBM executive worldwide. It was quickly realized that if the matter of assistive technology was presented as a philanthropic endeavor, it would appeal to the heart rather than the mind or the wallet. This put into effect the notion of addressing what drives every business: the bottom line. Byrne discovered, “When we talked to the executives we put the initiative into a business vernacular, an ROI [return on investment] equation, and we saw them step up to the plate.” When the executives were confronted with the actual dollar amounts to be potentially gained by addressing the issue of accessibility and the technology advances that could be made, the plan was set swiftly in motion.

Recent legislation has prompted IBM and other high profile companies to take a serious look at assistive technology and accessibility-compliance issues. Specifically, an amendment to Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 enacted in February 2001 “requires that when federal agencies develop, procure, maintain or use electric and information technology, federal employees with disabilities have access and use of information and data that is comparable to the access and use by federal employees who are not individuals with disabilities, unless an undue burden would be imposed on the agency.” The legislation further requires that individuals with disabilities, who are members of the public seeking information or services from a federal agency, have access to, and use of information and data that is comparable to those who do not have a disability.

Another principle player in this year’s conference was Hewlett-Packard, whose accessibility goal “is to design, produce and market products and services that can effectively be used by everyone, including people with disabilities, either on a stand-alone basis or with appropriate assistive devices.” Michael Takemura, Director, HP Accessibility Program Office noticed a change in their products at CSUN this year. “Traditionally you see more AT specific products on the conventional desktops or notebooks, items like screen readers,” he said. This year, the focus has shifted from assistive devices to user-friendly end products. “We are taking a product and rather than developing assistive technology to run on it, it is actually being used as an assistive technology product,” Takemura continued. One example of this technology is Hewlett-Packard’s Pocket PC, a handheld device being researched and used by numerous organizations to support different needs. The diversity and range of similar products are essential in supporting a variety of users. A person with a visual impairment may use the pocket PC as a scanning device to read food labels in a pantry. Another PC may be equipped with a global positioning device that could assist people with cognitive disabilities who confront mobility and transportation issues, such as mass transit.

Hewlett-Packard also highlighted their Tablet PC. People who are deaf can use this device as a note taker, and input is accepted from multiple applications, ranging from keyboard and voice, to pen, depending on the user’s specific need. Exciting breakthroughs are “really taking CSUN to another level,” Takemura adds. “There is a maturation process going on in the conference that is very healthy for the industry and for all who attend. I noticed people with no direct tie to the world of disabilities and assistive technology attending for the first time. I think that is very interesting.” Interesting and wonderful, considering AT and compliance issues will eventually affect us all.

Having just launched their first round of products with a concentrated and coordinated focus on accessibility, Macromedia has their hands full. As a second-year attendee to the conference, Bob Regan, Senior Product Manager for Accessibility, said Macromedia’s time is spent, “collecting as much information as we can on the impact the release of those products has had, the usability of those tools by and for people with disabilities, and trying to integrate that information into the next generation of our products.” A number of Macromedia’s products have been recently released, including Contribute, a simplified web-editing tool designed to support accessibility at a high level, as well as to cater to people who are not very technologically savvy.

Another product stirring excitement is Macromedia Breeze. This simple demonstration tool delivers a Powerpoint presentation via streaming media using Flash, while adding audio content at the same time. A traditional Powerpoint file sent over the web would be very large. Utilizing Flash makes the file considerably smaller with a much lower bandwidth requirement, thus allowing additions such as audio to be tacked on. As products such as Contribute and Breeze are released to the public, Macromedia waits for feedback which will allow them to tailor prospective technological advancements. According to Regan, the goals for Macromedia’s future include, “continuing to grow our presence at events like CSUN, working with groups like knowbility.org to help expand awareness, practicing accessibility in mainstream design and then also participating with government, university and state designers to help them meet the requirements of accessibility policies.”

What would a technology conference be without the presence of Microsoft? This year, Microsoft continued to display support for the ongoing partnerships they have with a number of vendors through the Microsoft Assistive Technology Vendor Program. MATvp provides expanded support to AT vendors and developers by delivering products that enable people with disabilities to use information more productively and easily. Madelyn Bryant McIntire, director of the Accessible Technology Group, stressed the importance of these ongoing partnerships and the impact they have on accessibility. “Microsoft and its assistive technology partners are dedicated to ensuring that all people have access to tools that empower them to achieve their ambitions and reach their full potential,” she said. Furthermore, the program provides vendors with increased access to new technology codes, Microsoft product design reviews and numerous other resources that help these partners deliver AT solutions compatible with Microsoft products. Microsoft also utilized the CSUN conference to announce a joint project with Easter Seals that will provide people with disabilities expanded access to a broader array of AT products through their online Assistive Technology Catalog, which contains more than 100 products along with in-depth information regarding these technological tools on one convenient online site.

Sun Microsystems highlighted UNIX Accessibility solutions and held a series of hands-on guided tours of the accessible GNOME desktop for UNIX, where attendees used new products such as the Gnopernicus screen reader/magnifier and the GOK dynamic on-screen keyboard to navigate the graphical desktop, create text documents and read a newspaper web site in Braille. These sessions were also used to discuss upcoming versions of StarOffice and Mozilla which illustrated accessibility features being developed for those products.

Last but certainly not least are the multitudes of other vendors that participated in the conference. Approximately 150 companies took part, featuring a broad array of assistive technology products and services. These organizations are all working diligently to make certain that the IT world is accessible to all who wish to be a part of it. Every year, the CSUN conference expands, bringing forth new faces and fresh ideas, guaranteeing that people of today as well as future generations will have no boundaries, at least not with accessibility.

If you missed CSUN this year, be sure to get out a pen and mark your calendar for next year’s event. The 19th Annual “Technology and Persons with Disabilities” conference is scheduled for March 15-20, 2004, in Los Angeles, Calif. For a list of this year’s contributing vendors visit CSUN online.

—by Ryann E. Smith

 

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