The 14th Annual Technology and Persons with Disabilities Conference held March 15-20 Los Angeles is unlike any of the numerous trade shows and public expos I regularly attend.  The public is invited, but the public served most by this worthy effort is the millions of individuals with special needs.

As I recall, this is my 11th annual visit to see what’s new for people who appreciate life more than most of us.  Of course I get to see technology applied in ways I never would have dreamed.  Cruising the exhibit aisles and attending workshops is an opportunity to be humbled by the quiet heroes for whom daily life is never easy.  I see products and technologies that, frankly, amaze me.  I also see products on display that I think would be useful and accepted by those of us without the special challenges of the primary intended market.  This year was no exception.

First, though, just try to imagine what life would be like if you suffered from “low vision” or were blind, or deaf, or did not have the use of your arms or legs, or both.  What about severe learning disabilities?  How about the relatively difficulties presented by dyslexia?  Or, for a moment, think about how your life would be different if you needed to rely upon extraordinary technology to assist in operating the most basic commands on your computer or to turn lights on or off, or to operate the TV or radio.  Take it a step further to think about what you might need in order to access the Internet to find this article, or navigate this page, or the Web itself, all without sight or sound, or without the use of your arms or legs.  Twenty years ago there was not much in the way of assistive technology.  Computers?  The Internet? Daily life? If you were dealt a raw deal at birth or by happenstance, opportunities were few compared to today’s technology-rich environment.

Technology enhances not only the lives of the fully functioning citizens (or those who think we are full-functioning), but there is a massive industry with its own buzz words and terminology surrounding the application of technology for those who need it most.

Imagine requiring a head-mounted switch to access devices that communicate your wishes and needs, or an eye switch for the same purpose that senses electrical impulses generated by eye movement.  Little electrical sensing pads placed on the skin outboard of the eyes receive minute electrical signals that can be translated into physical movement for the control of a motorized wheelchair or to navigate a computer.

There are assistive devices for low vision and the blind that can do everything from reading the text on a computer screen to generating Braille documents.  There are digital talking books and clocks and screen magnifiers and speech recognition products that are the same as those for the rest of us, as well as specialized speech rec products for those who require more.

For the hearing impaired and deaf there are special signaling devices to provide visual alerts or modified audio signals that can be heard even by impaired citizens.

Products for every kind of serious learning disability are on display and demonstrated.  Whether an individual suffers from dyslexia, autism or severe retardation there are products that can help, many of which are from companies whose names you may already know.  The exhibitors link below takes you to the complete listing linked to each exhibitor’s own Website.  Thank G-d for the Internet!

Organized by the Center on Disabilities at California State University at Northridge (CSUN), the Technology and Persons with Disabilities Conference is actually an international gathering with about 250 conferences and more than 130 exhibitors.

They come together to share information and to showcase the products and technologies that make life so much better for millions of people across the globe.

Technology has enabled those who might previously have been excluded from the workforce to be productive citizens.  There are the average Johns and Joans, and then there are individuals whose contributions are exceptional and noteworthy.

The most prominent example I know of a techno-enabled world citizen is, of course, famed physicist Dr. Stephen Hawking.  His genius might never have been realized had it not been for technology that enables him to communicate with us to share his brilliance (for those among us with the smarts to understand his work).  The advanced ALS that physically immobilizes him and make it impossible for him to walk, speak or to care for himself has not affected his mind.  Dr. Hawking speaks to us though special devices that respond to his slightest movement and anticipate his words by adapting to and learning his patterns.  In another time, Hawking would certainly have been institutionalized and forgotten.

So much for background!  The inspirational keynote for this year’s Conference was delivered by Ted Kennedy, Jr., who lost part of a leg to bone cancer at the age of 12 in 1973. (Read the Keynote full text here.)  Today, Kennedy is a successful attorney in the areas of Health Law and Disability Law, a disability activist, husband of Katherine G. Kennedy, M.D, and father of two young children.  As Kennedy said, “the assistance of technology is really of no use if nobody knows about it.”  He went on, “Instead of looking at the things people can’t do let’s start to learn to look at all of the things that people can do with help.”

OK, so it doesn’t have the sex and sizzle of the expos and conferences we usually cover, but this event has something very special.  It has heart and soul and noble purpose.  Each and every visitor, exhibitor and producer behind the scenes has one objective: Help disabled persons to lead a better, more fulfilling, productive and satisfying life.  The participants are passionate and caring and dedicated to the cause.

Now you know about a terrific showcase of technology for very special people.  Check it out online and don’t forget to pass along this information to everyone you know who can use it the most.

Here are some of the coolest finds I think you’ll like:

• The ALPHASMART 2000 from Intelligent Peripheral Devices (IPD) is a portable, text input device used in many, many classrooms and homes. (See the photo.)  Compatible with nearly any Mac or PC, the ALPHASMART 2000 is durable and lightweight and can be an inexpensive alternative to a laptop computer for students and other note takers.  I’ve used an ALPHASMART portable keyboard for several years!

There is a full-size 80-key keyboard and an easy-to-read four-line by 40-character display.  It can store 64 pages of text with eight separate files for storage.  Check spelling with its built-in 70,000 word dictionary.  The ALPHASMART 2000 needs no special software to transfer text to Macs or PCs in any application.  There can be direct printing to most popular PC printers and Apple printers with parallel ports, or via built-in infrared support.  It runs on three AA Alkalines for at least 120 hours.  Call for educational pricing.  Consumer retail price is $230.  Phone (888) 274-0680.  (See the photo)

DAISY Consortium is establishing a new international standard for digital talking books serving the blind or print disabled.  Interesting stuff on the Website to check out.  Explanation of the talking book system is here.  Links to interesting product development using this technology are here.

Leapfrog Technologies demonstrated their Cyberlink Mindmouse, a brainwave computer controller.  Strap on the headband with embedded sensors, train up and use your mind to do the pointing and clicking on your PC.  This looked really cool!  I don’t have any idea how nor why I would use it for any practical purpose, but it was a real show stopper.  Someone’s going to get really good at using this as a PC game controller.  $1500 Phone (602) 948-9720.

• If mind control of your PC is too much to think about, how about a new way of eye control? EyeTech Digital Systems demonstrated their Quick Glance mouse control replacement device using eyetracking technology.  A camera and a couple of sensors watch your selected eye and fixes cursor placement at the “stare” point recognized by the camera.  Either a slow blink or a hardware switch actuates the mouse “click.”  There is no hardware to wear.  The company thinks that precision CAD work and other operations requiring precision accuracy could benefit from the technology.  $2700 Phone (602) 386-6303 (See the photo.)

• Don’t fumble for a pencil and paper while you’re on the phone and need to take a quick message.  Use Phone Pen!  Phone Pen is a little device I first saw at CES that attaches via double-sided tape to your phone handset.  When it’s time to take a phone message of any kind, push and hold the record button for up to 20 seconds of audio from both sides of the conversation using an inductive mic.  Finish the call, hang up and get that paper and pencil.  Now, push the play button; listen to what was recorded and calmly write the info you need.  Watch for a product review coming soon!  $30  Phone (912) 272-4220. (See the photo.)

Parrot Plus Full Voice Organizer features voice input, voice output and voice search.  It’s a phone directory and dialer, address book, voice notepad, meeting planner, musical and talking alarm clock, talking calculator and comes with a PC interface for backing up the stored info.  There’s a display to show what’s happening and to indicate setting status and changes.  Flip down the cover to access the keyboard.  Stores up to 13 minutes of audio, as many as 1,500 names, according to the France-based manufacturer.  $200 Parent company with more product info is here.   (See the photo.)

• Want more from your voice-operated PDA?  Well, have a look at Voice Diary from Israel-based Voice Diary, Ltd.  This handheld screenless voice scheduling device can record up to 40 minutes of alarmed appointments, to-do lists, voice searchable phonebook entries and voice memos.  It’s a phone dialer, talking calculator, stopwatch and countdown timer, and clearly pronounces the date and time.  $229  (See the photo.)

Check out Conference proceedings here.

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