John M. Williams
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
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.
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 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
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,”
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
“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
“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
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.