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Coleman conference recap

On October 13 I attended the Coleman Institute National Conference on Cognitive Disability and Technology, a.k.a the Coleman Conference, in nearby Westminster CO. The conference is in its 11th year, with over 200 people in attendance on the day I went (the primary day out of the 3-day event). It provided me with a great opportunity to connect with people in the field, given my growing interest in mobile technologies for people with cognitive disabilities. And with the conference close by and free of charge to all attendees, it was an easy decision for me to attend.

Cognitive disabilities are manifested in a wide variety of ways, and as such there’s no one set of symptoms even for a given cognitive disability; e.g., someone recovering from a stroke may exhibit memory loss, an inability to understand things they see, reduced capability to speak, or other symptoms–and that’s just one of many types of cognitive disabilities. Given these differences, it’s tough to come up with an agenda that speaks to everyone. The folks in charge of the conference did an admirable job, and I’ll touch on some of the highlights for me (and put forth a “wish list” for future conferences, from the perspective of a first-time attendee).

The morning sessions focused on the national- and state-level economic issues that affect (and often dictate) the direction of cognitive disability research and development. With the economy in a bit of a tailspin, this session was, as you might expect, a bit dismal. It was great to have some of the numbers and statistics available—it’s certainly something that I expect to use in writing proposals and papers—but I wish it had been covered in less time.

The poster and demo sessions (there was a morning one and an afternoon one) were both great. They were dominated by projects from the University of Colorado schools, and it was good to see the work that’s been going on around here. It was also great to connect with the companies in the area who are working to improve technological solutions to problems of people with cognitive disabilities. In particular, I got to talk extensively with people at AbleLink Technologies and Imagine Smart Home. It was also helpful for me as a first-timer that there were posters highlighting prior conferences from the last 3-4 years.

Lunch was held as a set of hosted roundtables, with an impressive list of hosts. I was a bit lost trying to find the best match to sit in on–the list of roundtables was not available on the website, so I couldn’t plan ahead of time. And the tables had the leaders’ names on them, but not the topic! I was able to sit at a table on dispersing technology with Rodney Bell, which was pretty on-topic for me–but after hearing the panels in the afternoon there were a few that I might have chosen to attend instead. If I could change one thing, I’d switch the panels to earlier in the day to provide a preview of the roundtable leaders to the attendees.

Rodney Bell did a good job with his roundtable. As a technology consultant for the Coleman Institute, he was clearly plugged in with the needs and directions of the field. He had a great list of advice, though he touched on one of my pet peeves for the area: he stated that “smartphones and tablets are the future of computing” for cognitive disabilities. I certainly think that they are part of the future, but there’s a lot of need for the key characteristics of a desktop or laptop, as there are things that devices of the form factor of a phone or tablet just can’t (and never will be able to) do very well or at all. Choose a smartphone or tablet when you need the portability or combination of functionalities (e.g., GPS, accelerometer, sensors) that they provide, but sometimes the desktops or laptops that may already be in hand will meet your needs as well or much better.

The two 5-person, 1-moderator panels were the most informative element of the conference. It provided an opportunity to get varying opinions on two key topics for cognitive disabilities: cloud computing and technological integration. Clayton Lewis led the topic on the former, and he had clearly thought a lot about the questions for each panelist. Ann Cameron Caldwell led the other panel, featuring some differing opinions on the roles that technology can and should hold for people with cognitive disabilities (from self-advocacy networks, corporate leaders, and others). I would have been even happier if the panels were longer. And again, I wish I’d heard a bit from each of those people earlier in the day so I could have made a point to approach them or attend their roundtables—perhaps just a lament from a first-time attendee that most didn’t experience.

The last two talks were very engaging as well. Cathy Bodine, the Executive Director of the Assistive Technology Partners Group at UC Denver talked about some of their uses of technology in recovery and rehab—and I got to have a drink with her afterwards and landed an invitation to her open house next week. And Peter Blanck, a University Professor and PhD/JD at Syracuse University talked about his experiences as a lawyer on the side of people with disabilities—wow, what a dynamic and engaging job of integrating stories around the key points of his arguments. He argued that cyberspace is a “place” that should be accessible, just as physical places like stores and offices must be accessible to people with disabilities, and he highlighted key issues to b e resolved in the courts related to cloud computing, cross-country regulations, and more.

So in all, it was definitely a worthwhile experience. I plan to have a couple of posters in next year’s event, and I expect to be better positioned to gain more from the event.

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