Exhibit Hall Madness

Paige the eagleMy day job is with the United States Department of Veterans Affairs, VA. I’m part of a team that ensures that software used by VA is accessible by individuals who have disabilities. Ellen is our director and Mary Lou, ML, is one of my colleagues.


In late March Ellen called me. “Hey woman,” she said, “We’ve got the coolest opportunity coming up. There’s a conference in May called GIE Tech Stands for something like Government Information Executives or something like that. It’s a conference for CIO’s across the Federal Government and we’ve got a chance to have a booth in the exhibit hall and demonstrate some assistive technology. I was thinking that you and Mary Lou could demonstrate J-Say.”


J-Say is a bridging program that allows someone to use a computer completely hands-free. It integrates Freedom scientific’sJAWS for Windows screen reader and Dragon NaturallySpeaking from Nuance. JAWS speaks the information on the screen and Dragon NaturallySpeaking allows the user to control the computer and enter text using voice commands.


“The only problem,” continued Ellen, “Is that ML needs to get the software and get up-to-speed with it. Think she can be ready in a month?”


“Yeah, I think so. I’ll call Ed at Next Generation Technologies and see if he can expedite getting the software for us.


By the time of the conference we were ready to go. The first couple of hours after the exhibit hall opened things were quiet. Then word spread about the cool software we were demonstrating and traffic picked up. It was exciting, exilerating, and exhausting.


On the last night in the exhibit hall they shut down the exhibits, opened the bar, and had a game night. Many of the companies that had booths in the exhibit hall provided games. Fred, one of our contractual partners, approached our booth. “You guys want something to drink?” he asked. I went to the bar with Fred, leaving Ellen and ML chatting with some folks from Nuance. We ordered the drinks and I had an idea.


“Hey Fred, watch this.” I still had my wireless headset around my neck. Placing it on my head I switched on the microphone and said, “Wake up.” Then I said, “Start Notepad.” I had the speech output routed through the headset but it was also still connected to the speakers back at the booth. I started Notepad and then I said, “Hello Section 508 booth. This is big brother and I’m watching you. So you’d better behave yourselves.” Then I said, “Stop listening.” When I heard the door close sound indicating that the microphone was back in the passive state I turned to Fred. “Come on, let’s try to keep a straight face when we get back there.” We made our way through the crowd and when we got back to the booth Fred said mildly, “Here are your drinks.” But I couldn’t help it. I started chuckling. Ellen burst out, “You little minx, you’re messing with our heads.” Then we all roared with laughter.


Fred took us around to the various booths. Ellen and I played a wild game of air hockey. We played it by sound alone wildly whacking the little disk and missing it half the time. When the game was over we had attracted a crowd and they all applauded. We all had our pictures taken with Paige the eagle. Nuance had brought the bird from the local bird sanctuary where she had been taken to live after injuring her wing. We tried, and spectacularly failed, at a basketball kind of game.


One of the highlights of the conference, for me, was getting to meet David Pogue, who was, at the time, the technology columnist for The New York Times. . He was the keynote speaker on the last day. Donna, who had helped us with the logistics of getting the booth set up, took me to the ballroom to hear David speak. After his PowerPoint presentation he sat down at the piano and played “Imagine” with lyrics of his own creation. It was all about imagining the future of technology. When he was done the conference organizer took the microphone and David came and sat in a chair about fifteen feet away. Turning to me, Donna whispered, “He’s sitting right in front of us. Want to meet him?” “Sure,” I whispered back. I told Kismet to follow Donna. She stopped and whispered, “He’s about three feet in front of you, on your left.” Poor David Pogue, We approached him from behind and the next thing he knew, a German shepherd came into his line of vision, apparently all on her own. When I heard him gasp I knelt down. “Hello Mr. Pogue. I’m Sue Martin. I read your column every week. I just wanted to say how much I enjoy your writing. And your speech just now, it was great.” We shook hands and I withdrew.


Here’s a video of me using J-Say in Microsoft Word.




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