Photo of Curtis Chong Demonstrating

Curtis Chong demonstrates nonvisual Web
access while conference participants look on.

Expanding the View: a Technology Access Conference

by Betsy Zaborowski


From the Editor: As more states pass model technology laws and as Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act begins to have an impact, state and federal procurement officials and producers and vendors of access technology will find seminars like the one conducted last May at the National Center for the Blind to be of great benefit. Maryland was one of the first states to mandate that state officials purchase only technology that can be adapted for use by disabled people. In the following article Dr. Betsy Zaborowski, Director of Special Programs for the National Federation of the Blind, describes a seminar conducted in Baltimore to provide information about nonvisual access and other technology matters. This is what she says:


On May 19, 1999, over 135 people attended a conference held at the National Center for the Blind to learn about nonvisual and other technology-access issues. This all-day conference was sponsored by the Information Technology Board of the State of Maryland, of which I am a member; the Governor's Office for People with Disabilities; the Maryland Technology Assistance Program; and the National Federation of the Blind. Attendees included information technology professionals from around the state of Maryland, technology vendors who do business with the state of Maryland, representatives from federal agencies, adaptive technology companies, and others.

The principal reason for this conference was to provide procurement officials from state agencies and representatives of companies marketing technology to the state the opportunity to learn about nonvisual access issues and solutions. The law on access to information technology which was passed by the Maryland General Assembly and signed by the governor in 1998 has had the immediate effect of creating much more awareness of the need to provide for nonvisual access in technology being purchased by the state. Therefore, while it would be nice to think that state procurement officials and technology vendors would be interested enough to come to such a meeting on their own, the fact that "it's the law" undoubtedly helped to capture their interest.

The program began with opening remarks from Dr. Marc Maurer, who emphasized the need for partnerships between the technology community and consumer organizations like the National Federation of the Blind. Following that, a panel of experts discussed access technology issues from a variety of perspectives. Jim Thatcher, who coordinates IBM's adaptive technology development, spoke of current projects at IBM and trends that affect the private sector. Mike Pascillo, a technology access consultant who recently published a book on Web-site design that ensures access, spoke on the need for a coordinated effort to ensure that access issues are at the forefront of new technology regulations and advancements in the field.

James Gashel, Director of Governmental Affairs for the NFB, outlined legislative trends such as nonvisual access requirements in a growing number of state technology procurement procedures and the implications of regulations proposed under Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act. Jennifer Simpson, technology director for the President's Committee on Employment of People with Disabilities, outlined what the committee is doing to improve job opportunities that are dependent on technology access. Others also discussed special adaptations for the physically disabled and the efforts of the Veterans Administration to address access needs.

Following the panel discussion and using overhead transparencies, Curtis Chong, Director of Technology for the NFB, gave a well-received demonstration of the principles of sound Web-site design which make it possible for the end user to implement nonvisual access means. The audience was impressed with Mr. Chong's agile use of keyboard commands to activate the speech program being used. Many commented afterwards that Mr. Chong's presentation was the highlight of the day.

During the luncheon held in the National Center's dining room, Major F. Riddick, the Governor's Chief of Staff and chair of the Maryland Information Technology Board, introduced Mr. Bill Opet, President of PSINet's Network Services Group, who gave the keynote address. Mr. Opet discussed the efforts of PSINet to expand networking capabilities throughout the country as well as its recent acquisition of the naming rights to the new Ravens football stadium in Baltimore. He also made a commitment to assist the NFB to provide expanded offerings on our Web site and promised an ongoing partnership with our organization.

Afternoon activities included a workshop on Maryland's nonvisual access law and its implementation, which was conducted by Lesley Hern, Maryland's Chief of Information Technology. The workshop also included a discussion on employment issues associated with nonvisual access conducted by Jennifer Simpson of the President's Committee and Anthony Cobb, Director of the NFB's Job Opportunities for the Blind program. Participants were also able to view a number of technology demonstrations held in the International Braille and Technology Center.

Evaluations filled out by those who attended clearly indicated high satisfaction, and a significant number requested additional training and consultation opportunities. This was the first comprehensive conference like this in the state of Maryland, but it certainly won't be the last. The National Center for the Blind is becoming the site of an ever-increasing number of training seminars and conferences. Our facility and staff together with a national network of experts are the best ingredients for success.