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Kurzweil/Vendors Produce Hope During CSUN’s Conference

John Williams
John M. Williams

Standing before thousands of people attending the California State University Northridge’s 18th Annual International Conference on Technology and Persons with Disabilities, world renowned inventor, scientist, entrepreneur and author Raymond Kurzweil’s optimism profoundly raised a vision of opportunities before the audience and a worldwide live web audience (visit AT508.COM and ABLETV.COM for video interviews with exhibitors) when as the keynote speaker for the opening session he told them, “technology will eradicate the terms handicap and disabled because it has already eliminated communications, physical and neurological barriers for people with disabilities.”
CSUN’s conference was held between March 17-22 at Hilton and Marriott Hotels, LAX International Airport

Kurzweil, the visionary, listed many areas of technologies’ benefits to people with disabilities that brought joy and hope to the attendees and the worldwide Internet audience.

He told the audience that speech recognition, for example, is a listening device for deaf people and by recognizing natural continuous speech in real time the device will enable a deaf person to read what people are saying, thereby overcoming a hurdle facing deaf and hearing-impaired individuals.

He gave blind people cause for celebration when he mentioned that the reading technology associated with Kurzweil Educational Systems developed a new generation of print-to-speech reading software for sighted persons and for blind people.

The Kurzweil 3000 scans a printed document, displays the page, as it appears in the original document with all of the color graphics intact and then reads the document out loud while highlighting the image of the printed material as it is being read.

For paraplegics he raised the hope of walking again when he spoke of the combination computer controlled stimulation and exoskeleton robotic devices.

For Kurzweil technology is infinite in its benefits to people with disabilities, and the attendees felt that way as they left the keynote address and waited for the exhibits to open up later that day.

AT Products
More than 4,200 registrants from 35 countries and hundreds of walk-ins paraded from booth-to-booth, more than 100, looking at a veritable shopping list of assistive technology products designed to increase educational and job opportunities for people with disabilities of all ages and abilities.
Additionally, hundreds of workshops covered discussions dealing with one of these topics: deafness/hard of hearing, speech/language, visual, traumatic brain injury, mobility and orthopedic, developmentally disabled, behavioral/emotional and learning disabled. People with these disabilities attended the conference.

The attendees included special education teachers, human resource managers, occupational therapists, rehabilitation counselors, parents of relatives with disabilities, advocates, personnel directors, physical therapists, students and users of Assistive technology products, nurses, lawyers and doctors. Each one of them had a personal reason for attending.

“My mother is losing her vision, and I need to discover tools to assist her maintain her independence,” said Dr. Chris Wagner.

He visited Sighted Electronics, Betacom, Pulse Data – Human Ware, Bank of America, Freedom Vision and Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic. He discovered different products to assist his mother.
Occupational therapist Julia Long wanted to see environmental controls for daily living, and visited AbleNet, Infogrip, Quartet Technology and Tash, Inc.

“No one manufacturer has the tool to meet all the environmental needs of people requiring them, and so this smorgasbord of products is vitally important for occupational therapists,” Long said as she clutched a keyboard. She was looking for the orbiTouch, keyless keyboard.

Wheelchair rider and an individual with Cerebral Palsy Jim Lesher needed to know the status of augmentative and alternative communications aids. And so he stopped by The Great Talking Box Company, Prentke Romich Company, Words+, Zygo Industries and Erica.

For people interested in educational software for children and teenagers with disabilities, 16-year-old Joe Howard and his mother visited AlphaSmart, Applied Human Factors, Metroplex Voice Computing, Riverdeep – The to Learning Company, Henter Math and R.J. Cooper & Associates.

Howard is learning disabled and has a permanently injured right hand with physical limitations. He liked the Virtual Pencil by Henter Math because, “I am weak in mathematics and this product offers some element of hope for me,” Howard stressed.

For other attendees, the general sessions were the stars of the conference.

Speech impaired Gerald Thomas says he benefited greatly from Rick Hohn’s session on AAC and Computer Access used for Making Public Speaking. “I never realized augmentative communications products could be used to deliver speeches,” Thomas said. He also attended a session where he saw Cosmobot, an interactive robot toy controlled by gestures or voice for children in speech/language therapy.

For Betsy Tobias, Exploring Accessible Interface Strategies for Cell Phones showed her how to develop an accessible interface strategy for people with visual impairments. Tobias is legally blind.
And for Sharon Dalton, Terry Thompson’s presentation on How to Create Accessible PDFs was a learning situation that she says, “solved my problem in making PDFs accessible.” Dalton is a web designer interested in accessibility issues.

For Nikki Carter, rehabilitation counselor, America Online’s session on The Accessible AOL during which she saw demonstrations of keyboard intellilkeys overlays to improve the online experience for people with developmental disabilities made her day.

“This session was a step forward in showing us that the manufacturers of these products and a major ISP are uniting to help people with developmental disabilities access the World Wide Web,” Carter said.

The business community was represented at the conference. And for first timers such as Manuel Ortiz, Jose Martinez and Joseph Washington, the products, the spirit of the attendees and the corporate sponsorship involvement by Hewlett Packard, AOL, Sun Microsystems, IBM, Kurzweil and Microsoft left strong impressions.

“I would never believe that businesses were this much involved in developing products for disabled people,” Martinez said. He lives and works in Sacramento, CA.

Ortiz, a human resource manager, wondered why there were so few Hispanics at the conference and why none of the owners of the companies were Hispanic.

“The Hispanics in this country need to know about these products,” Ortiz said. He said he was determined to start a crusade to get more Hispanics involved in the disability movement and access to these products. He said the lack of Hispanic presence was for him the reason none of the general sessions were in Spanish.

Oddly, no one mentioned the absence of African Americans and their lack of impact in the AT field.

A software and multimedia developer, Washington was impressed by the versatility of the hardware and software and the IBM movie dealing with the empowering benefits technology provides. Still, he wonders whether Microsoft and IBM can co-exist peacefully in an accessibility world. Simultaneously, he sees the competition between the two global giants in the accessibility areas as healthy for the market and consumers.

Looking at HP’s role in accessibility he says, “I think HP’s presence creates a balance between Microsoft and IBM.”

Washington believes the conference should develop sessions for businesses employing people with disabilities because he believes businesses need exposure to these products. He thinks the big companies should promote the conference among their business clients.

Overall the attendees were pleased with the conference, the expansiveness of its content and its willingness to deal with contemporary issues.

“This conference extending from Monday’s general sessions through Ray Kurzweil’s impressive speech on Wednesday to the Effects of Web Based Instruction and Teacher Credentialing on Saturday and to the sessions on Section 508 showed how far this technological movement to advance opportunities for people with disabilities has come and how contemporary the issues are,” said Dalton.

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