Los Angeles Daily News.
Thursday, March 23, 2006.
By Brent Hopkins, Staff writer.
David Flament flew in from Chicago to witness a world that doesn't seem so small anymore.
The visually impaired techie works with the Guild for the Blind, teaching those without sight how to use computers and new innovations. He found plenty of high-tech wonders at the California State University, Northridge, International Technology and Persons with Disabilities Conference. More than 170 companies arrived to show their wares and organizers expected more than 4,000 attendees to check out the latest in technological advances during the six-day event, which began public showings on Wednesday.
"Everything looks promising," he grinned. "Right now's such an exciting time to be alive. Technology has changed life so much for our community. It's leveled the playing field and even given us a little advantage every now and then."
Companies highlighted a variety of new gadgets, aimed to give sight to the blind and speech to the mute. Lancaster-based Words+ Inc. debuted its Freedom Lite Convertible, a handheld tablet computer that enables speech-impaired users, such as those who suffer from muscular dystrophy, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis and traumatic brain injuries, to construct sentences that are then read aloud. The company expects to have the device on the market by May 1, with an expected retail price near $6,895.
"With ALS, it's very difficult for people to communicate, where even caregivers and close relatives can't talk with them," said Shawn Coleman, a product assistant for the company. "With this, all they need to do is blink their eyes and they can have a whole conversation."
CSUN has hosted the conference annually for 21 years, drawing on the expertise of its Center On Disabilities and organizations it comes into contact with worldwide. Attendees conversed in Japanese and German, in sign language and through computer-modulated speech. In addition to the product exhibition, it hosted panels on how to integrate technology into special education and advancements in the field.
"Many people don't even know these companies exist," said Jennifer Zvi, a professor and learning disability specialist at CSUN. "For some people, they're absolutely amazed. They've never heard about these or they see things that are available for the first time."
Which can be quite a transformative experience, in some cases. While the exhibition had the same feel as any other trade show, with chatty salespeople and banners advertising the latest, the fastest, the best gear, attendees examined the products with unusually keen interest.
>From video telephones to let users communicate in sign language to Braille notetakers, toys to touchpad computers, the offerings spanned the gamut.
The wares were not always cheap, such as the $2,395 PACmate, a personal digital assistant for the blind that can be equipped with a bar-code scanner and global positioning system. Manufactured by Freedom Scientific, a St. Petersburg, Fla.-based company, the device enables a blind user to venture out without assistance. Freedom Scientific also showed off its screen-reading software, which makes tasks like Internet use and e-mail easier for the blind.
"They basically allow a visually impaired person to do everything in today's world that a sighted person can," said Sharon Spencer, executive vice president of sales. "Think about any job today. You probably need to be able to use a computer to do it-we provide that access."
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