Dr. Harry Murphy: A Man of Vision
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Dr. Harry Murphy: A Man of Vision

Deborah Kendrick

Throughout the assistive technology industry in the United States and elsewhere, CSUN has become synonymous with one of the most revitalizing events of the year. Actually called the "Technology for Persons with Disabilities" conference, the event has been informally referred to since 1984 by the acronym for its sponsoring university, California State University at Northridge.

Dr. Harry Murphy, the man who has orchestrated the CSUN conference and whose leadership has shaped it into a major international gathering, retired at the end of March 2000. This seemed an opportune time to pay tribute to the man who has set a standard for excellence in arranging exhibits, workshops, and speakers, and providing all appropriate accommodations during the event to the constituency who use assistive technology products.

The 2000 CSUN conference hosted nearly 4,000 participants, over 150 exhibits, and scores of concurrent workshops covering every disability type and level of technology. "Accommodation" is not just a word to the CSUN staff, but a genuine way of conducting all activities.

At a special recognition dinner for Dr. Murphy, staff and friends in the technology world paid tribute to the man whose energy, charisma, foresight, and organizational genius have somehow never inflated a humble opinion of himself. In song, dance, poetry, and speeches, friends and colleagues roasted and toasted a man who is clearly loved and widely respected. The CSUN conference, of course, will continue to serve as a reminder of his gift to the disability community as he moves on to do other things.

At 63, Harry Murphy has far from slowed down. In the final months on the job, he made the 350-mile drive from San Francisco (where he now makes his home) to his office at the Center on Disabilities on the CSUN campus twice weekly. He is involved in a number of projects at both ends of the state. As he quipped in his remarks at the retirement dinner, "This is a good time to announce that I am accepting a new position—as CEO of myself." What follows are excerpts from a series of conversations (largely conducted via E-mail) with Harry Murphy.

Kendrick: What was your original connection to disability? Did you have a family member or friend with a disability who led you into this field?

Murphy: I was a teacher of high school English in Camden, New Jersey, and hated it. I was ready to quit education and become a part of my uncle's hardware firm. Then I got an invitation to teach at the Pennsylvania School for the Deaf in Philadelphia. This came about through Temple University's (my alma mater) placement bureau. I had no family relationship to disability, so I "came in the back door," as we say.

Kendrick: What were the steps between the teaching assignment at a school for the deaf and a position as director of services to disabled students at CSUN?

Murphy: After becoming a teacher of the deaf, I won a national scholarship to come to CSUN for a master's in leadership. [The degree is officially called a master's in administration and supervision, and Dr. Murphy later earned an Ed.D. as well.] When I finished, I worked in research at John Tracy Clinic in Los Angeles, and then was principal of a school for the deaf. I first came to the CSUN campus in 1972 as assistant director for the National Center on Deafness, where I wrote grants for student services, interpreting services, telecommunication training programs, and so on, until 1979.

Kendrick: Can you talk a bit about how the CSUN conference originated, what the purpose was, and how many participants were involved?

Murphy: I created the conference in 1984 as a result of students with disabilities and school counselors asking me what I had to offer students at CSUN in the way of computers. The answer then was nada. We had not a single one: not for administration, not for students, none. I have a background in meetings, so it made sense to bring people together from two camps: those who knew what they were doing, and those who wanted to know. We were in the latter camp, so by running the conference, we gained the most knowledge. At the first conference, I expected 200 people regionally, i.e., from southern California. We were blown away when 600 people from all over the United States and several foreign countries showed up. That was a highlight for sure. I actually thought that we had missed the curve on technology. After all, we had Apple IIes. What else could there be in technology? So much for vision!

Kendrick: Which came first for you: an interest in disability or an interest in technology?

Murphy: Disability came first. I am a techno-klutz myself. I don't know how technology works and don't care. I also don't know how my refrigerator or toaster works. I just want cold milk and hot toast. I do understand the power of technology to change the lives of people and that is where my motivation comes from.

Kendrick: What are the personal milestones in your career—that is, which are the highlights that make you smile to yourself, proud that you were there?

Murphy: I was the facilitator of the work of an incredible staff. They have provided magnificent services, such as counseling, tutoring, and computer services to thousands of students with disabilities during my time here. The conference was created, and I got out of the administration of it very quickly, and turned it over to staff who made it the biggest and, we think, the best of the technology conferences. Training across the Pacific was created, and when we phased out of that, staff created an even better training program, our Assistive Technology Applications Certificate Program. I am grateful to the university for permitting me to travel all over the world to make this truly an international program.

Kendrick: CSUN is a conference where the needs of blind and visually impaired participants are genuinely addressed and met. This is not necessarily the case in many cross-disability contexts. Can you talk about how that came to be?

Murphy: Like most things, it came about through evolution. Exhibitors with products for the blind came, and then blind people came. The more blind people who came, the more exhibitors, and so on. We have tried to supply all persons with disabilities exceptional access—physically and electronically.

Kendrick: Why are you retiring? And what do you plan to do next?

Murphy: I am of that age (63) and have had a wonderful 39-year career in disability. I've accomplished all (and more) that I ever set out to do. There is great young leadership in the center, and the center is in very good hands. I wanted to leave while things were going well—and they are. I wanted to retire while I was still healthy and enthusiastic for work and life—and I am. I have purchased a home in northern California, 11 miles north of the Golden Gate Bridge.

I've become active in the San Rafael community, especially in the arts. I love the area, my neighbors, and am now a five-minute walk from my partner of the past 13 years, Dr. Deborah Gilden, of Smith Kettlewell Eye Research Institute. And yes, I know how very lucky I am.