Upfront I need to let you know, that this trip was not a regular one to a conference, and also my first to Israel. So I tried to filter all noise that comes with classic “woooah”-effect in a new country. Access Israel organized the 7th international conference on disability and inclusion on 26th May at the Avenue Convention Center with over 800 people from 22 different countries. Klaus Hoeckner from the Austrian Association of the Blind and Visually Impaired often recommended this event to me.
Together with Advantage Austria (WKO) and Martin Essl (Essl Foundation – Zero Project) he managed to organize a delegation of 21 people from NGOs, private companies, as well as federal institutions. Exchanging ideas and knowledge and gaining new business opportunities in the field of assistive technologies and social approaches or just to have a look at what the challenges are in other countries for a more inclusive society where the main aims of this delegation. Access Israel was founded 20 years ago under tragically circumstances by the former Air Force pilot Yuval Wagner after a helicopter crash on a training mission. After he wrote a letter to the president, he got the command to enhance the situation in Israel. Now, 20 years of unremitting efforts by Yuval and his team and long time friends later, this organization got a huge impact on the society and life in Israel and thanks to their knowledge-sharing also on various other countries all over the world.
On the first evening we had dinner together with Martin Weiss (Austrian Ambassador), Roland Adrowitzer (TV Correspondent) and Yuval, Michal & Rani from Access Israel at the Mashya Restaurant, which was located in our hotel. One of the best you can go in Israel. So I don’t have to explain why I love this place or also daily breakfast, prepared by the same kitchen staff. Even though the rooms were quite small, this organized hotel was perfect, as also other attendees spent their nights there and so you had plenty of time to talk to interesting people.
B2B speed dating
On day 2 Access Israel and the export institute, ministry for tourism and the ministry of foreign affairs organized a B2B Event with curated meetings to find new business opportunities. I’m still very excited about a company I talked to, as they provide a really cool tool for a11y testing and further process handling, that I have never seen before. I promise, you will hear about that soon. In the afternoon we had the chance to visit the Perez Institute for Peace and Innovation in Yaffa. After the official reign of Shimon Perez he returned to the city, from which he flew from the Nazis in 1934 and built a very astonishing place, not only from the architectural perspective. It’s a place where technology, culture and visions meet and provide a very impressive hub for the future. Huge displays with animations, VR journeys, life-size screens with stories about founders from Israel, an auditorium with view to the seashore or a collection of innovations from Israel, that changed the world, awaited us during a private tour through this place. I only can recommend this spot to every tourist or entrepreneur visiting the country.
Inclusive day trip to Jerusalem
On day 3 we had the chance to go for an accessible trip to Jerusalem. Probably it was not the perfect weather with sunshine and around 38 degrees but it was worth every minute. We started with a perfect view on Jerusalem from Mount Scopus observation point. We entered the city after some security discussions with the police via the Zion gate, visited the Jewish Quarter, Via Dolorosa and the Church of Holy Sepulchre to get a fresh and delicious pita before leaving to the Temple Western Wall – the Kotel. All of this trip was done without any (major) problems, even for wheelchairs.
However, I wouldn’t recommend to use the accessible way down to the Kotel by yourself, as the cobblestoned streets and the inclination of a roughly 4.000 year old city can’t be managed by some tweaks. I have to admit, that they made a good job without changing the city’s flair. Franz Joseph Huainigg, who joined the second group to the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem also managed to get into the building – but he did.
So it’s one of many situations on this journey in which we experienced everything is possible. With some 40 degrees on the display, we returned to the hotel for refreshment before following the gentle invitation of Yuval and his wife for a private dinner at his mansion. It was the most intimate time we had, even though we were about 50+ guests. We were served a “traditional” (amazing dishes by a really excellent chef ;)) shabbat dinner.
"Accessible" Roadtripping - The Dead Sea
Saturday – Shabbat! most of you will know, that in the jewish community the seventh day, not Sunday but Saturday is Shabbat and nearly everyone follows this rule of the 10 Commandments. Werner Rosenberger, Manuela and me decided to make a roadtrip to the Dead Sea instead having a tour through Tel Aviv and Yaffa. It was hard to find an open car rental this day, but nothing can stop us, not even Shabbat. We decided to go to Kalia beach, as we heard that it’s accessible for wheelchair tourists too. Don’t trust this information. In spite of the efforts of the management that gave us a ride in a golf cart over the terrasses to the water, we needed to carry Werner in a garden chair on muddy ground to the shore, where we had to overcome an additional 1m gap. We accomplished this mission, but think about the number of tourists in the past, who were so close to that experience of “swimming” by themselves again. These tourist hotspots should be accessible, as a small ramp and some waterproof wheelchairs cost nothing compared to the economic and emotional benefits. If you are in a wheelchair, you should go south to Masada or into one of the Resorts and Spas. When we our returned to the car, we realized, we got a ticket for parking on the disabled parking lot – in that region, 43 degrees, with a friend in a wheelchair. I hope Rani had some luck in the meantime clearing that situation, as we visited 5 police stations, without any useful information. On the way back to Tel Aviv we also decided to take a detour to Jericho – it’s hard to explain the differences between the high tech nation Israel and the isolated West Bank. The people were so polite but you can imagine only by driving through this area, how they suffer from that decade long dispute.
The future of accessibility
But even though that sentence was so much questioning the whole system, I strongly believe, that all individuals working in this area or just helping other people directly or even by supporting legislation that targets positively on more inclusion, are testimonials, even if we can’t print them all on large billboards. Susan Scott Parker, founder of Business Disability International and Caroline (as well as other partners and supporters) managed to get this topic on the table at Davos. Slowly but unstoppably, this topic gets more and more awareness, as politicians, managers and other decision makers more and more understand, that the system from the past, by just ignoring will cost billions in future and produce a split society in many ways.
Speakers like Ralf Shliwa from Airbus Germany, Magnus Berglund from Scandic Hotels gave some insights on their efforts for more accessible services or products in the tourism sector by proving that investments in this topic not only produce costs, but also increase sales and customer loyalty. I also had the chance to meet some very gentle guests from the US who provided some insights on the state of accessibility in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago. This is why attending such conferences is so important to everyone dealing with aspects of inclusion, as you will get knowledge that will avoid making the same mistakes and instead produce more impact.
A pretty cool session was held by Christopher Patnoe, Sr. Programs Manager of Google US on the future of assistive technologies by using AI and DL. Google does some pretty impressive work in various projects, sometimes not with the main goal on A11y but more on UX, nevertheless the output is a useful tool for everyone. A huge milestone that global tech companies like Google managed to achieve was to outsource intense operations (CPU, RAM) to the cloud, so AR or translation applications become a useful solution.
Google’s new prototype is now also capable of not only translating your words, but also to keep your voice. Just imagine, what this means for the future. Welcome to Star Trek’s universal translator era. In their projects they had to deal with so many topics like image quality, misrecognition (is it a fridge or a door?), latency, cognitive burden (what is the useful information to extract viewing in a supermarket shelf?) or also extended use (not everyone likes to have a power bank all the time).
At nearly every conference you can now find accessible parkours to experience the world for all kinds of disabilities. From managing a track in a wheelchair to finding your way with a white cane etc. But as the topics at these conferences are more and more digital, it would only make sense to me to have also the experience of what makes the difference of well developed IT services or simple websites. Companies spend so much budget on performance and UX, but if they really just take a look on accessibility, the will find out, that a high percentage of factors paying into these two topics are the essential ones also for a11y. They will increase traffic, they will increase conversions, they will increase revenue. Isn’t that what companies want? And by the way, you will also have a positive impact on the society. Give it a try.
For the conference I have also negative mention, as there was only one track, the large conference hall, so no alternatives. This led to the fact, that in the afternoon, the conference room was more or less empty and the award ceremony with inspiring projects got not the attention it should have gotten.
Feast of the senses dinner
For the dinner we were pretty excited, as the Feast of the senses was in line. A special dinner targeting also several disabilities, but not in the classic way of a parkour. For me as a passionate food lover it was a very touching experience. The first course needed to be eaten blindfolded. Differ red from white wine in same glasses? You now think that this is easy by smelling – sure. But do you always like to be the person, who sniffs on your glass? Also the temperature makes a difference, as served well, you can differ the red (warmer) from the white (cold) by feeling. The second course was meat with mashed potatoes, but you have to deal with limited motoric skills, as it’s common for paraplegic persons. Our impairment was simulated by simply wearing oven gloves, but with wood boards on the inner side. It was simply frustrating, dropping the knife or the fork all the time. But you want to accomplish that mission, as the only opportunity was to starve or ask someone to cut it for you. Did you like it as a child, when your parents had to do everything for you? We were told, that some chefs manage it nowadays to really adapt the food for disabled persons in a way, that it looks completely the same, but is already cutted into smaller pieces. For me as a person growing up in a hotel, this should be trained in every cooking class.
Israel - I’ll be back!
On the last day, some workshops and roundtables provided intense knowledge. In 4 rounds you learned from major companies and organizations on key factors of accessible tourism, promoting a11y, accessible websites and applications or employment. Honestly, it’s the same in every area of business, as we also serve companies in different sectors and if you focus simply on inclusion no one will open his wallet for you. If you focus on the strength of individuals, the UX of a website or simply the cost reduction for governmental organizations, you will get open ears. And isn’t it the same with inclusion? No one wants to be in this separated group, we all are just a single group with individual needs.
I can strongly recommend this conference to everyone working in the area of inclusion to experience an astonishing organization in a lovely country. See you next year!