The Accessible World and Beyond

I’ve had an amazing few weeks! At the end of April I gave the technology track keynote speech at the Accessible World, a conference about accessibility which took place right here in Philadelphia. Two days later I judged EvoHaX. I started getting sick, but gave a speech at Dev Talks with a bad sore throat. Then I felt sick for a week. Meanwhile, Philly Touch Tours has hit critical mass.

When Ather Sharif first announced the Accessible World, I felt very excited. The conference would last two days, and would have six tracks covering different facets of accessibility: technology, education, media, recreation, health care, and policy. At first, Ather asked if I would give a fifteen-minute speech, and I said sure. A few weeks later he revised that to giving the half hour tech keynote speech, and of course I agreed.

Meanwhile, Philly Touch Tours, the business I cofounded last year, wanted to play a part. EvoX Labs designed the page for, so it seemed doubly appropriate. We created a tour of the Comcast Accessibility Lab, and the Common Touch exhibit. Trish and Katherine, my business partners, also agreed to give a speech. Trish’s daughter Katie gave a lightning talk as well.

After a lot of planning the time finally arrived. I didn’t go on the actual tour because I had seen both places before, and really had to work on my speech. The extra time did me good. I hope everyone liked the tour. Comcast does some amazing work in accessibility. And regarding Common Touch, I can only say that I never thought I’d consider the slate and stylus as advanced.

I only got a few hours of sleep as always happens before I have to speak, but I made it to the conference. My speech happened pretty early on, so I gave it then relaxed. At one point I slipped into a strange dream. They started talking about adapting science, using oscillators and graphs or something. Suddenly they played a loud tone (presumably from said oscillator) and it woke me up and gave me some strange visuals. I wanted to know more, since I always found science labs challenging, and fell asleep every day in chemistry despite my best efforts.

The first day came to an end. I just could not deal with going to the very loud TGI Friday’s. Instead I went home, ate, and rested. I loving having conferences in Philly! I woke up the next day to 193 emails.

I knew I would not make it bright and early. I rolled in around noon and heard a few of the afternoon talks. After the conference we had a happy hour. In an ironic twist, the waitress brought my flatbread, but neglected to tell me, so it got cold. Welcome back to the real world! I met a nice woman from England named Shre, and regaled her with P.E. horror stories. I promised her that she could ask any mainstreamed blind student and she’d hear similar. I think it inspired her. I had another hundred emails when I got home.

I got a day’s rest, then had to judge EvoHaX, the accessibility hackathon. I had judged the others, and felt glad Ather included me again. I thought that more had taken place, maybe five, but I guess not. They have that much value.

The winning team designed a camera meant for OCR scanning, turning printed text into speech for those with difficulties reading or the blind. The device included a camera, LED for providing light, and a bluetooth transmitter. It fit on the index finger. An app could then read the text in real time, using Google’s OCR engine for example. This device has great potential, and I hope they develop it.

The same goes for the other projects. The audience selected for their favorite a device to turn any audible alert, speech, or motion into a smart watch notification to aide the deaf. The prototype had a microphone and an accelerometer. Eventually it could transcribe speech, so it could notify a user if someone calls their name. This could help the hard of hearing a lot.

A team designed an app for mapping accessibility of buildings. It took me back to my work with Map4Access, which sort of brought things full circle. We wanted to do something similar, then we found out that none of the apps for gathering accessible data had decent accessibility. They just didn’t make it a priority. As a result we wrote our own and even conducted some trial research.

Finally, a team designed a really cool magnetic board for making tactile sketches. It had a grid of 384 nails, 18×24, or the common 2×3 ratio. A magnetic pin would pull them up, and a plastic sheet (or the top of the pen) could push them down. I already want the finished version. They spoke of digitizing it, which would open the door for a low cost braille display, not to mention tactile images. They need to increase the resolution and redesign the pen a little, but they already know that. Amazing!

This phase had come to an end, but I still had more ahead of me. Unfortunately I started feeling sick and I could do nothing. I had already promised that I would speak at Dev Talks about RubyMotion and accessibility. I love speaking to developers, and wanted to do something for Philly Tech Week. Even though my body hated me for it, I pulled myself together and gave the speech. I sincerely apologize for sucking on a throat drop the whole time. I simply could not have delivered the speech without it, my throat would have hurt too much. Despite that and my laptop dying I think it went well. You can listen to it if you dare. Also check out motion-accessibility.

Meanwhile, something else amazing had started happening. We got an email from Neema Roshania of News Works WHYY, and she came out with a crew to the Penn Museum. They did a story about Philly Touch Tours, and the story aired during the first day of the conference. They did a wonderful job. NPR picked up the story, and a version of it appeared nationally.

On Tuesday, the day after I started feeling sick, we had a training for the staff of the Magic Gardens. At the last minute we received an email from channel 3, the local CBS affiliate. They wanted to do a story, so they hurried out there, and sure enough it aired on that night’s five o’clock news. Incredible! Philly Touch Tours had hit critical mass.

That did it! I felt sick, but satisfied. I lay around for the next few days and gradually started feeling better. Now a week after Dev Talks I’ve finally gotten around to writing everything down and extracting all the audio. I hope you enjoy it. Remember to help make this an Accessible World! See you in 2017.