Looking Back: The CSUN Conference
Thirty years ago (1984), I started planning for the first California State University, Northridge (CSUN) conference, “Technology and Persons with Disabilities,” to be held on the CSUN campus in October 1985. At the time we did not have a single computer in our unit, the Office of Students with Disabilities. The Rehabilitation Engineering & Assistive Technology Society (RESNA) and Closing the Gap had a couple years head start on us. Could the field support another conference? The expectation was that 200 people might attend, mostly from the southern California area. Instead, a worldwide audience of 600 showed up and away we went.
Looking back, here are just a few of the highlights:
At the first conference, Don Johnston showed up with a suitcase or two of products and we gave him a folding card table to show his wares. Fifteen years later, he needed a tractor-trailer to haul his devices to the conference and his company took up a considerable amount of exhibit space. Consumers found their technologies, Don found his market, and companies like his prospered. An industry was born.
It was good to see mainstream companies like Apple and Microsoft establish offices that dealt with access issues for people with disabilities. At the first CSUN conference, Dr. Alan Brightman was to announce the formation of Apple’s office. I put him in a room that was far too small. It was hot, guide dogs were being stepped on and were yelping, and the crowd spilled into the hallway. These days, when Alan and I meet one of us always says, “Remember that first conference? Remember the room? Remember the dogs?” In addition to establishing a significant corporate model that was emulated by others, Apple also threw its support into “parent power” by establishing a network of assistive technology centers across the United States.
Over the years, technology exploded. Along came the web and the challenges of Internet access. In the early 90s, we got excited about the potential of Virtual Reality (VR) and conducted three separate conferences on it in San Francisco. However, applications lagged theory so we blended VR issues into the regular annual conference. Today, a great challenge is with mobile computing and access.
So many people got excited about the potential of assistive technology and a profession of service providers began. At first, they learned a little bit and applied it with persons with disabilities, learned a bit more, applied it, and so on. Today, a systematic body of knowledge is being transmitted in undergraduate and graduate courses at scores of colleges and universities around the world—all to the great benefit of users.
What is the end result of all of this? This is best answered by the consumers of assistive technology, many of whom went on to found and lead organizations dealing with accessible technologies. Without question, assistive technologies have improved the lives of persons with disabilities in the areas of education, employment, rehabilitation, and daily living.
To all who are involved and to all who will become involved in the wonderful world of assistive technology, the words of Mother Teresa come to mind:
Never worry about numbers. Help one person at a time and always start with the person nearest you.
Dr. Harry Murphy is the founder of the CSUN conference. Today he serves on the Advisory Board of the conference. The 29th annual CSUN conference, "Technology and Persons with Disabilities," meets in San Diego in March 2014.