Volume II Number 1, January 1995

Department: Campus Computing

Daniel Hilton-Chalfen, Ph.D.
University of California, Los Angeles
Guest Contributor:
Sheryl Burgstahler, Ph.D.
University of Washington

Disability-Related Activities at a Computer Fair

For people interested in learning more about adaptive computing technology, there are several outstanding disability and computing conferences to attend. Cal State University, Northridge hosts the largest international, technology and disability conference in the world. This year it is March 14-18 in Los Angeles. Closing the Gap hosts an October conference in Minnesota. Both are long-standing and well-known conferences, and there are newer conferences being established, such as those conferences sponsored by state Tech Act programs.

Invaluable as these conferences are, they are to some extent preaching to the converted. Of equal importance is the presence of adaptive technology activities in "mainstream" computing events. This presents an opportunity to create greater awareness about the potential of this technology and related support services to a much broader audience, one that is typically unfamiliar with the existence of adaptive technology, or even of the great need for it in employment and educational settings. A few past examples of major mainstream computing conferences that have had an adaptive technology component include IT Week in Hong Kong, Comdex, and EDUCOM.

Our guest contributor in this issue, Dr. Sheryl Burgstahler, tells us how a college or university can participate in mainstream computer events by bringing in an adaptive computing component, thereby greatly enriching both the overall event and the lives of those participating. The UW Computer Fair at the University of Washington in Seattle, attracts over 15,000 people annually and is an excellent example of how such a mainstream computing event can also be a showcase for the power of adaptive computing technology.


By Sheryl Burgstahler, Ph.D.,
Assistant Director-Information Systems
Computing & Communications
University of Washington

Campuses are looking for ways to support disabled students and to include them in campus activities. Special presentations and programs are sometimes developed to meet their needs. An often overlooked approach is to take an existing event and include disability-related activities that are related to the overall program. A good example of the use of this approach is the 1993 UW Computer Fair at the University of Washington in Seattle.

The UW Computer Fair is the oldest and largest computer show in the Pacific Northwest. It brings together more than 15,000 professionals from the university and the community for presentations and demonstrations of state-of-the-art computer equipment, software, and support materials. "The Electronic Community" was the theme of the 19th annual fair held on March 17-18, 1993. It featured 50 presentations and 160 displays that demonstrate computer and communications technology for business, scientific, personal, and educational applications. All fair activities were free of charge. Harry Anderson, Macintosh developer and television personality ("Night Court") presented the keynote address, joining a long list of distinguished keynote speakers that includes Steve Jobs and Bill Gates.

Although this event is not focused on disability issues, as the director of the event I make efforts to assure that the event is accessible to individuals with disabilities, publicized to disability-related groups, and includes presentations and demonstrations that deal with use of computers by individuals with disabilities. The ideas shared below may be of use to others who are interested in making an event more accessible and interesting to people with disabilities.


The UW Computer Fair is housed in a facility that is wheelchair accessible. Restrooms and telephones can be used by individuals in wheelchairs and TDDs are available in public areas. Parking for individuals with disabilities is near the entrance of the facility. Braille and large print brochures and Show Guides are available upon request. Sign language interpreters are available and, for disability-related presentations, provided without request.


Each year several disability-related seminars are included in the Computer Fair program. They have included adaptive technology overviews, voice input systems, alternative keyboards, and signage. One of the presentations in the 1993 fair was on an NSF-funded project called DO-IT (Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking, and Technology). This project makes extensive use of computers, adaptive technology, and the Internet in its efforts to recruit individuals with disabilities into science, engineering, and mathematics academic programs and careers. A reception followed the talk so that those interested in this topic could continue their casual conversations after the presentation.

DO-IT also sponsored a booth in the exhibition area. Students with disabilities who attend the University of Washington demonstrated adaptive technology to fair attendees. Product and program literature was distributed in regular print, large print, and Braille. One month before the fair, exhibitors were mailed a survey asking if they distributed special products for individuals with disabilities and if they provided documentation in alternative formats. This information was summarized and distributed from the DO-IT booth.


Information on disability-related activities and access issues were included in the 70,000 brochures that were mailed to prospective visitors. The Show Guide also included this information. Press releases made special mention of the activities planned for those interested in computer access issues for individuals with disabilities. Mailings of special brochures that highlight disability-related activities at the fair were distributed to mailing lists of special education teachers, disabled students on campus, and support organizations and services. Braille and large print versions were sent to low vision and blind students on campus and to organizations that support individuals with visual impairments.

The presentations and booth were generally filled to maximum capacity, and many participants were disabled themselves. Every year, more individuals with disabilities attend the UW Computer Fair, largely because of the efforts to include activities of special interest to them, efforts to make the event accessible, and widespread publicity. The UW Computer Fair offers an opportunity to participate in an activity of general interest as well as an opportunity to get answers to many disability-related questions. Efforts have also increased the general awareness of the adaptive technology available to help individuals with disabilities attain the maximum possible involvement in academic programs, careers, and other activities.

Burgstahler, S. (1995). Disability-related activities at a computer fair. Information Technology and Disabilities E-Journal, 2(1).