By John Lamb
Gatherings of technologists always have an atmosphere of excitement about them whether it’s generated by the thrill of discovering the next big thing or just catching up on the gossip about what’s hot and what’s not.
But there is an even more special buzz to the California State University Northridge (CSUN) Technologies and Persons with Disabilities Conference, the largest assistive technology event in the international calendar and this year celebrating its 25th anniversary.
Some 5,000 people thronged the massive towers of the Manchester Hyatt Hotel in San Diego at the end of March, many of them vision-impaired. Some 200 hotel staff had received special training in disability awareness from the university, not that those walking flat out across the lobby with a white cane in front of them looked as though they needed much help.
Harry Murphy was the man who started it all back in 1985. He was working with deaf students at the time. “I kept getting questions such as ‘what are you doing for students with learning disabilities, or what are you doing for students with computers?’” he recalls.
Initially, Murphy envisaged a conference of 200 people from Southern California, but 600 turned up from around the world. “It was like having a tiger by the tail: you can’t stop swinging or it will bite you. We ended up occupying two hotels at Los Angeles airport.”
The setting up of Northridge’s own Center on Disability grew out of the event. “People just kept asking what sort of technology we had in our university, so we raised $300,000 to establish a computer contact center.”
This year’s central topic was employment. The keynote speech was delivered by Captain Ivan Castro, the only serving blind person in the US Special Forces, who highlighted the fact that less than a third of blind people of working age in the US have a job, a situation that the feisty Dinah Cohen is keen to rectify.
“The problems are huge but it isn’t a hidden issue anymore. Best practice doesn’t work; we are looking for next practice,” said Cohen, who is director of the Computer and Electronic Accommodations Program (CAP).
Her organisation provides training and equipment to disabled federal employees and disabled service people. Over the past 20 years CAP has provided assistive technology to over 85,000 civil servants, including 14,000 wounded service personnel.
However, with disabled people representing a decreasing proportion of the government workforce, CAP is involved in educating federal officials on how to hire more of them. At the end of April, federal agencies will be interviewing 600 disabled people in a single day for jobs.
“People want to see Federal Government walk the walk rather than just talking about it. People without evident disabilities are ignored, we want to breakdown the silos in government and work together,” said Kathleen Martinez, Assistant Secretary of Labor for Disability Employment Policy and another of the star speakers at this year’s CSUN.
Martinez, who is blind, had just completed a six-city listening tour to gather information on barriers and best practices relating to the employment of people with disabilities.
One lever in promoting disabled employment is Section 508, the law that obliges federal agencies to buy accessible equipment for disabled employees. The legislation requires suppliers to adapt office equipment such as computers, photocopiers and telephones.
At CSUN the legislators held a public hearing at which delegates were able to respond to proposals to refresh Section 508. The US Access Board aims to update the legislation to include newer technology such as real time text, ATMs, mobile technology, electronic books, video and voice texts. The overwhelming message was that change should come as quickly as possible.
Not everyone was so keen, however. Book publishers are arguing for exemptions to Section 508 to preserve digital rights management to protect copyright, potentially preventing the creation of machine-readable copies of texts accessible by people with reading difficulties.
This is one issue that will go on generating excitement long after the Hyatt Hotel has put away its CSUN guide-dog water bowls for another year.
NOTE: John Lamb is editor of Ability magazine www.abilitymagazine.org.uk .