New Tech and a Sense of Community: CSUN’s Assistive Technology Conference Celebrates 38 Years

  • Three people stand at exhibit table, looking at a robot dog.

    Sony's dog, Aibo the "social robot" put in an appearance at the Sony booth at the exhibit hall, much to the delight of conference attendees. Photo by Lee Choo.

  • Woman, standing, leans over to greet woman in wheelchair and her assistance dog.

    Saying hello: Assistance dogs are a common sight at the CSUN Assistive Technology Conference, which took place this year at the Anaheim Marriott from March 13-17, 2023. Photo by Lee Choo.

  • People walk through the hallways at the Anaheim Marriott Conference Center

    On to the next session! More than 3,500 people attended this year's Assistive Technology Conference at the Anaheim Marriott from March 13-17, 2023, that saw a "significant increase" in first-time attendees. Photo by Lee Choo.

  • People seated in conference room facing a stage filled with video monitors

    The CSUN Assistive Technology Conference offered more than 300 education sessions ranging from introductory courses on technology to advanced technical topics. Photo by Lee Choo.

  • Conference founder Harry Murphy stands on stage alongside podium and gestures to the crowd

    CSUN Assistive Technology Conference founder Harry Murphy presented the 2023 Fred Strache National Leadership Award to educator Keith Christian. Murphy spoke about his idea for the conference back in 1984. "I had a vision... if it was to be successful, of potentially helping thousands, upon thousands, upon thousands of people with disabilities, their families and those who serve them."

  • Three women in the foreground raise their arms in the air and smile for the camera.

    Time for some fun! Conference-goers could take a break in the evenings at different events that included karaoke, bingo and the traditional happy hour where folks could chat and mingle. Photo by Lee Choo.

  • Small groups of people stand in the hallways, conversing with each other.

    The hallways were a great place to catch up with old and new friends at the CSUN Assistive Technology Conference, March 13-17, 2023 at the Anaheim Marriott. Photo by Lee Choo.

  • Keith Clarke (left) poses with interpreter Jay Slater Scancella in front of the T-Mobile booth in the exhibit hall

    Keith Clarke and interpreter Jay Slater Scancella, at the T-Mobile booth at the CSUN Assistive Technology Conference exhibit hall March 15, 2023. Clarke spoke about the powerful feeling of community. "Just coming together and realizing that we're here for the same reasons, with the same goal and to be together in the same room." Photo by Lee Choo.

  • Carlos Mitchell, seated in wheelchair, smiles for the camera

    Carlos Mitchell says he's checked out the exhibit hall "5 or 6 times" over the years. "I like to see what the technology is out there, whether it's for myself or for other types of disabilities," he said. Photo by Lee Choo.

  • Andrew Elkins stands, looking into the camera, with the exhibit hall in the background

    Andrew Elkins is the Event and Marketing Manager for CSUN's Center on Disabilities. "We welcome more exhibitors to bring their products and showcase them," Elkins said. "While we have a lot of corporations that are here and their competitors, they all work together towards a single goal, which is creating technology and accessibility for everyone." Photo by Lee Choo.

  • Mika Pyyhkala (left) and Therese Goren stand and smile for the camera in the hallway outside the exhibit hall.

    Mika Pyyhkala and Therese Goren work for Envision, a Kansas-based company that offers products and services to blind and visually impaired people. Goren said the new technology is just part of the conference's appeal. "Then, meeting people, of course. Meeting and networking and getting to know all these amazing people that are out here doing the same thing I want to do, to try and improve everybody's lives." Photo by Lee Choo.

If you were a first-timer at the CSUN Assistive Technology Conference this year, you certainly weren’t alone. This year saw a “significant increase” in first-time attendees at the nation’s premier tech conference for people with disabilities, that took place March 13-17 at the Anaheim Marriott.

So what drew all these new people in? Event and Marketing Manager for CSUN’s Center on Disabilities, Andrew Elkins, said the jump was likely due, in part, to a more robust digital advertising campaign.

“I believe that the reputation of the conference and positive word-of-mouth from the community drew new attendees as COVID travel restrictions were reduced,” Elkins said. “That, and the need to connect with the community after isolation.”

That sense of community was on display at what many attendees call the “CSUN conference.” People lingered in conference rooms to talk after the educational sessions– of which more than 300 were offered. Many sat or stood out in the hallways to catch up with others, while red-shirted staff members roamed the large hotel conference center, ready to help anyone who needed assistance finding their way. There was even a new conference feature this year, called “Birds of a Feather” — these popular hosted get-togethers took place at lunchtime each day for people with similar interests– one was devoted to first-time attendees.

Another big draw at the conference was the exhibit hall, which was free to the public. Two enormous rooms housed more than 100 exhibitors, ranging from technology giants like IBM and Sony to small companies showcasing their accessibility-minded products. There were numerous types of technology and services on display, including a variety of screen readers, apps and cameras.

More than 3,500 people attended this year’s annual conference and technology expo, which got its start in 1985 on the CSUN campus. It’s one of a handful of conferences in the world dedicated to showcasing new technology to create more inclusive experiences for people with disabilities. CSUN Today talked with some of the people who attended to find out their favorite aspects of the event.

Mika Pyyhkala is the director of digital accessibility for Envision, a Kansas-based company that offers products and services to blind and visually impaired people. He has been coming to the conference for many years, following it through many changes of venue.

“Back when it was at LAX, and when it was at San Diego and when it came here,” Pyyhkala said.

For him, the major reasons for attending are to check out the latest technology and to network. “The blind community is small and you know there are some people that you might just see at one or two events throughout the year, from different parts of the country.”

Pyyhkala’s colleague, Terese Goren, came to the conference for the first time last year.

“I have heard about the famous CSUN Conference for years and have always wanted to come,” Goren said.

Goren teaches and trains people on how to use screen readers, magnification devices and other assistive technology as a senior analyst at Envision. The “latest and greatest” tech on display piqued her interest.

“Anything to do with digital accessibility,” she said. “Then meeting and networking and getting to know all these amazing people that are out here doing the same thing that I want to do and try and improve everybody’s lives.”

Keith Clark was overseeing the T-Mobile booth in one of the conference’s exhibit halls, explaining the products and services available for the hard of hearing, deaf, blind and people with speech disabilities. Through his interpreter, Jay Slater Scancella, Clark said this was his second time working at the conference.

“I’ve already met so many folks that I remember from last year, people [saying] ‘Oh, I remember you’ and it’s just great to reconnect,” Clark said. “Between last year and this year, so many things have happened. So many new technologies have emerged. It’s a very, very quickly growing field.”

Next year’s conference will take place March 18-22, 2024 at the Anaheim Marriott.

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