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a life free from sour milk chunks. Envision a world without pink loads
of laundrywhere one rogue red sock amidst the sea of whites wont
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? Its not.
Its 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 years
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 years 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. IBMs 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 worlds 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 IBMs 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 IBMs 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
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 years 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-Packards 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
users 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 Macromedias 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 Macromedias 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 Macromedias 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
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 years 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 years contributing vendors visit CSUN online.
by Ryann E. Smith
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