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ATIA Conference Raises Expectations for Disabled Consumers

John Williams
John M. Williams

The Assistive Technology Industry Association’s 4th Annual Conference provided more than 1,000 attendees opportunities to discover multiple ways assistive technology products will impact the lives of adults and children with disabilities.

Having been to many assistive technology conferences, it is still a thrilling feeling to watch peoples’ facial expressions as they walk from booth-to-booth unearthing opportunities through the products they held, clutched, penetratingly examined and desperately wanted to have for either themselves, a friend or family member. The awesome appreciation of these products lacks international boundaries.

“I have never seen products like these,” said Hans Harold from Norway. A software engineer, he was fascinated by the orbiTouch, a keyless keyboard. He spoke about the employment benefits of these products and said, “How can anyone with a disability be unemployed or uneducated when such products like these exist?”

Canadian Special Education teacher Mary Crystal, the mother of two children with disabilities, saw educational value in these products and was struck by their diversity. Looking over the products to pick her favorites, she said, “The optical character reader that translates Braille into print I think is marvelous. We have blind students in our school, and our teachers had to learn Braille to work with them. But this product, stands by itself.”

One of Crystal’s children is nearly totally blind and uses Braille.

If I had to pick a theme for this conference it was, “Improving Access to the Information Technology World.” Improving educational opportunities for children with disabilities was a dominant goal, and the presence of many education manufacturers seemed to stress this theme in their products and conference presentations.

I have always believed that assistive technology is the great equalizer for users with disabilities because it eliminates communications barriers. Additionally, I say that this technology is liberating technology for the user because it provides the end user with the freedom to achieve independence and a self-sustaining life.

The products were the stars and the attendees and exhibitors knew it. After decades of these conferences, consumers were treated with the respect they have earned. One of the vendors told me, “It has taken us a while, but we understand that consumers know what they need, and we are trying to give it to them.”

In talking to attendees, none of them said they were talked down to. Rather as John Kostner, the father of a quadriplegic child said, “The manufacturers listened and talked to me about my son’s needs.” Kostner says he did not feel as though he was being rushed during his conversations with vendors.

Not being rushed was important to the attendees. Kostner and other attendees believe the smaller the show’s attendance the more chance there is to get personal with the sales people, and the more detailed discussion they can have about products and their impact upon a person with a disability’s life.

The attendees knew what they liked and wanted to see, and there were plenty of products for people who were blind, or visually challenged, physically challenged, speech challenged, cognitively challenged and for deaf or hard of hearing individuals.
Occupational therapist Jean Stuart liked the orbiTouch and saw it as a replacement for key guards and a product that can reduce repetitive stress injuries in the workplace.
A blind Kerry Hobson loved the Pac Mate, an accessible handheld Pock PC for either blind or visually impaired users. The product brings the universe of Windows based commercial applications to blind users.

There was an international presence at the show. Manufacturers were there from Japan, Canada and Ireland. Legally Blind Karen Lawrence was impressed by Betacom’s Visable Video Telescope, a handheld product, for legally blind individuals, that can be used inside and outside. Betacom is based in Ontario.

Visuaide, a Quebec company, manufacturers digital audio readers and is developing a new generation GPS based orientation tool for blind and visually impaired people.

Canada’s Madentec offered a variety of computer access products for different needs.
Ireland based TextHelp Systems Limited provides software solutions for people with learning and literacy difficulties.

Another Irish-based company FreedomVision sells a portable laptop version of a screen reader magnification product for visually impaired people.

Japan’s Electronics Info Technology Industries Association showcased a Braille printer, a page-turner, talking aid product and an alternative keyboard.

Coming home, Josh Randall was fascinated by Origin Systems eye gaze technology that provides alternative access to computers and alternative communications devices.
And Christine and Harold McKinney liked LC Technologies Eye Gaze System, a portable eye operated communication and control system. Christine has multiple sclerosis and is gradually losing her ability to type.

In education, Larry Hudson liked Intellitools learning solution programs for the “diverse classroom.” He has an eight-year-old son with physical disabilities.

Sheryl Thomas was enamored by Kurzweil’s software for reading and writing for individuals with learning disabilities. A special education teacher, she says, “The Kurzweil products can help my students with learning disabilities lead independent lives.”

In the speech communications area, 15-year-old, wheelchair user Michael’s Farrady’s eyes became as huge as balloons as he played with augmentative communications devices by Prentke Romich and later by DynaVox Systems.

And for people interested in knowing about Section 508 compliance software, Deque Systems’ RAMP program showed attendees how it can find and correct 508 violations.
One of the show’s highlights occurred during the opening night, when FASST (Florida Alliance for Assistive Services and Technology) announced a $1,000 loan through its loan program to a blind Nancy Gilbert, 72, Stuart, Florida to purchase JAWS so she can do volunteer work at her church.

ATIA had more to it. It provided 150 sessions on topics covering a variety of technology products used in education and professional areas. Yet, for future conferences ATIA needs more diversity to be a better show. It needs to expand its outreach to the disability community to bring more people with disabilities into the exhibit hall. The manufacturers need to employ African Americans, Hispanics, Asians and people with disabilities. ATIA needs to outreach to the different racial communities to entice them into the conference. It needs to reach out to the business community through the Orlando Chamber of Commerce and have a question and answer and demonstration session on assistive technology. It needs to work with the Council for Exceptional Children, National Education Association and other educational groups to bring in more teachers. It should do live Internet shows, and it needs to have a meeting of consumers to listen to their needs about future products and conferences.


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