Wednesday, January 09, 2008

NCTI Technology Innovators Conference

Recently Lucy Gray and I were invited to the 2007 NCTI Technology Innovators Conference. The focus of this conference is building solutions to make technology and information more accessible, especially for young people with disabilities. Check out this slideshow of the conference highlights!

An important part of this conference is connecting researchers, innovators, entrepreneurs and policy makers. It was inspiring to hear from innovators and social entrepreneurs like Jim Fruchterman from the nonprofit technology company, Benetech. Recently, Benetech was selected by the Office of Special Education Programs at the U.S. Department of Education to provide access for every student with a print disability in the United States via Lucy spoke on a panel with Jim and Chuck Hitchcock from CAST on NIMAS legislation, an significant law that guides the production and electronic distribution of digital versions of textbooks and other instructional materials so they can be more easily converted into accessible formats. Lucy's main question was: Why can't services like Bookshare be made available to allow all students access to digital textbooks?

In his recent ITM post Steve Hargadon encouraged the use of open source to create exciting collaborations and provide solutions. So, at the NCTI conference, it was exciting to meet developers who shared open source assistive technology initiatives that offer free tools. This included Steve Jacobs from the IDEAL Group. Steve shared about his colleague Charles Chen (a Google technologist) who developed Fire Vox.

Fire Vox is an open source, freely available talking browser extension for the Firefox web browser, essentially a screen reader designed especially for Firefox. In addition to the basic features, such as providing navigation assistance that are expected of screen readers, Fire Vox provides support for MathML and CSS speech module properties. Imagine how students would benefit to have dense text read aloud to them! Steve Jacobs and his colleagues (including Chen) have also repackaged Fire Vox so that it (and other open source applications) can run off of a standard, portable flash drive equipped with a fully-accessible talking menu. I spoke with Steve, and if you want to learn more about portable open source assistive technology, take a look at his NCTI presentation and/or contact him directly. (Talking about making applications accessible - check out the features of the new Google Toolbar (5) which supports applets used by assistive technologies like screen readers etc. and enables keyboard navigation and access. )

An underlying theme of the conference this year was ensuring that the “participatory culture” of social networking also includes young people with disabilities. For example, there was a session titled “Second Life for Students With Special Needs.” Topics during this session included how 3D environments such as Second Life can be made accessible for people with other disabilities such as low vision. Everett Harper, director of community initiatives at Linden Lab, also mentioned Brigadoon Island, an area in Second Life devoted to people with Asperger's syndrome (for more info on Second Life, check out a February 2007 ITM blog post, where I highlighted Amanda Baggs, an adult with autism who participates in Second Life.)

Conference face to face sharing was done via various theme events. One such event was the Innovations Marketplace which allowed innovators to share ideas with venture capitalists and grant makers gave presentations. At the Techology Expo an opportunity was provided for key leaders in assistive and learning technology to showcase their work. This year's Peer Awards for the Brightest Idea was given to SMART Brain Technology. Smart Brain Home System uses technology to improve the behaviors of individuals with autism, language disorders and attention deficits. The equipment is being tested through an NCTI grant with adolescents with ADD. The large picture posted here shows Domenic Greco of "Smart Brain Home System", with Julie Duffield of WestEd at the Technology Expo. Julie is pictured about to wear a visor with sensors attached to a Sony PlayStation. This device tracked her brain activity and gave neurofeedback on her attention levels while playing a racing game.

To keep important discussions like this going after the conference, the folks at NCTI have issued a brief titled “Using the Power of Social Media to Promote Assistive and Learning Technologies ” and invite all of us to give our input to this document. These issues and people at this conference provided much food for thought about diversity, access and innovation. View the NCTI conference sessions materials to learn more.

Also if you want to find out more information or resources related to this event please feel free to contact - Julie &/or Lucy.