It isn’t often that when I am delivering a plenary session at a conference that the audience is moved to tears, but that is exactly what happened at ND2012. Let me explain what happened....
It was the final plenary on 30 May in Old Billingsgate. I was on stage excitedly introducing the video of John Hayes MP, Minister of State for Further Education, Skills and Lifelong Learning who was launching two new Jisc TechDis services.
John Hayes couldn’t be there in person but he was so enthusiastic about the BIS/Jisc TechDis partnership projects that he wanted to introduce them to the ND2012 delegates himself.
I should explain here that Jisc TechDis has been working with the Department for Business Innovation & Skills (BIS) on three projects to ‘improve take up and understanding of assistive and mainstream technologies for the benefit of disabled and disadvantaged learners.’ These projects: the TechDis Voices, TechDis Toolbox and the Small Business Research Initiative were presented to the audience and explained more fully in a video montage.
I was pleased with both films and felt they had turned out very well , and even from where I was sitting there seemed to be conversations going on immediately with delegates asking each other about the TechDis Voices. When I talked of the other project – Toolbox - I really wanted people in the audience to understand how important technology can be, how liberating, how empowering and enabling it can be for people with disabilities. That’s why I asked Robin Christopherson from AbilityNet to deliver the next bit of the plenary. TechDis works with AbilityNet on a range of accessibility issues including testing the accessibility of our website and providing us with supporting materials for topics such as our senior manager briefings.
I have known Robin a good number of years and knew he could deliver an expert overview of the Toolbox and the stress the importance of its message to other disadvantaged users.
Robin, who has been blind from birth, talked about how technology has enabled him over the years. He explained how when he was young it was necessary to purchase specialist equipment that cost thousands of pounds. But things have changed and he now has a computer in his pocket in the form of his smartphone. Robin demonstrated how he can use voice recognition on his phone to undertake research on the internet. He showed how he uses the camera and an app to tell him if the money he is holding in his hand is a twenty, a ten or a five pound note. Many of the features that were once considered specialist are now part and parcel of everyday technologies. Robin has also been a part of the story of Toolbox and some of the video footage to come, will show Robin and his skill with technology at work and so I felt it important that the topic came to life at the launch event.
As I sat on the stage with the other keynotes in the TechDis slot; Robert Mullins of Raspberry Pi fame and Saul Nasse – controller of BBC Learning, I was aware of the hush in the room. Robin finished his speech speaking eloquently and emotionally about how without technology he would not have been able to complete his studies and earn his degree. Without his degree he would not have been able to get meaningful employment with AbilityNet. If he had not had employment he would not have moved to Warwick where he met his wife and ultimately, without the help of technology he would not be the father of two gorgeous children.
It was very moving and I was not the only one with tears in my eyes.
After Robin’s slot he (plus guide dog Tenby) and I sat on the stage together and I explained to him what I was watching – ie that many people were actually mopping their eyes, and at the end of the session when one of the photographers came on stage – I thought for a group picture - instead he grabbed me by the arm and almost hugged me and then shook Robin’s hand (nearly shaking it off) saying how we, but in particular Robin had changed his outlook on life and that he had phoned his friend (another photographer) saying – in tears as he spoke - how he could not do his job without his sight and he had never valued it so much.
Robin and I took great delight in then talking to him of the many blind photographers we knew and I mentioned the work of another good friend of TechDis, Artur Ortega (ex Yahoo) who set up the Blind Photography Yahoo Groups - - but that is a whole other story.
That evening the Digital Leader’s dinner took place and I lost count of the people who came up to me and congratulated TechDis and AbilityNet for walking the walk and talking the talk and in most cases moving them to tears.