Serotek declares war on the traditional adaptive technology industry and their blind ghetto products. With this announcement we are sending out a call to arms to every blind person and every advocate for the blind to rise up and throw off the tyranny that has shaped our lives for the past two decades. It is a tyranny of good intentions – or at least what began as good intentions. But as the proverb says, “the road to hell is paved with good intentions.” And for the past two decades the technologies originally conceived to give us freedom have been our shackles. They have kept us tied down to underperforming, obscenely expensive approaches that only a small percentage of blind people can afford or master. They have shackled us to government largess and the charity of strangers to pay for what few among us could afford on our own. And we have been sheep, lead down the path, bleating from time to time, but without the vision or the resources to stand up and demand our due.
That time is past.
We stand today on the very edge of universal accessibility. Mainstream products like the iPod, iPhone, and newly announced iPad are fully accessible out of the box. And they bring with them a wealth of highly desirable accessibility applications. The cost to blind people is exactly the same as the cost to sighted people. It’s the same equipment, the same software, the same functionality, and fully accessible.
What Apple has done, others are doing as well. The adaptive technology vendor who creates hardware and software that is intended only for blind folks, and then only if they are subsidized by the government, is a dinosaur. The asteroid has hit the earth, the dust cloud is ubiquitous, the dinosaur’s days are numbered.
But dinosaurs are huge, and their extinction does not happen overnight.. Even as they die, they spawn others like them (take the Intel Reader for example). Thank you, no. Any blind person can have full accessibility to any type of information without the high-cost, blind-ghetto gear. They can get it in the same products their sighted friends are buying. But let’s face it; if we keep buying that crap and keep besieging our visual resource center to buy that crap for us, the dinosaurs of the industry are going to keep making it. Their profit margins are very good indeed. And many have invested exactly none of that profit in creating the next generation of access technology, choosing instead to perpetuate the status quo. For instance, refreshable braille technology, arguably the most expensive blindness-specific(and to many very necessary) product has not changed significantly in 30 years. Yet, the cost remains out of reach for most blind people. Where’s the innovation there? Why have companies not invested in cheaper, faster, smaller, and more efficient ways to make refreshable braille? Surely the piezoelectric braille cell is not the only way? And what about PC-based OCR software? It’s still around a thousand dollars per license, yet core functionality hasn’t changed much; sure, we get all sorts of features not at all related to reading, along with incremental accuracy improvements, but why are these prices not dropping either, especially when you consider that comparable off-the-shelf solutions like Abby Finereader can be had for as low as $79? ? And let’s not forget the screen reader itself, the core technology that all of us need to access our computers in the first place. Do we see improvements, or just an attempt to mimic innovation with the addition of features which have nothing to do with the actual reading of the screen, while maintaining the same ridiculous price point.
This maintaining of the status quo will, inevitably, face an enormous crash, worse than the transition from DOS to Windows based accessibility. You can expect a technology crash that will put users of the most expensive accessibility gear out of business.
Why? I won’t bore you with all the technical details, but the basic story is that some of these products have been kept current with patches and fixes and partial rewrites and other tricks we IT types use when we haven’t got the budget to do it right, but we need to make the product work with the latest operating system. That process of patching and fixing creates an enormous legacy barrier that makes it impossible to rewrite without abandoning all who came before. But you can only keep a kluge working for so long before it will crumble under its own weight. That, my friends, is exactly where some of the leading adaptive technology vendors find themselves today.
There are exceptions. Serotek is an exception because we have completely recreated our product base every three years. GW Micro is an exception because they built their product in a highly modular fashion and can update modules without destroying the whole. KNFB is an exception because they take advantage of off-the-shelf technologies, which translate ultimately into price drops and increased functionality.
But even we who have done it right are on a path to obsolescence. The fundamental need for accessibility software is rapidly beginning to vanish. The universal accessibility principles we see Apple, Microsoft, Olympus, and others putting in place are going to eliminate the need for these specialty products in a matter of just a very few years.
Stop and think. Why do you need accessibility tools? To read text? E-book devices are eliminating that need. None of them are perfect yet, but we are really only in the first generation. By Gen2 they will all be fully accessible. To find your way? GPS on your iPhone or your Android based phone will do that for you. To take notes? Easy on any laptop, netbook, or iPad. Heck, you can record it live and play it back at your convenience. Just what isn’t accessible? You can play your music, catch a described video, scan a spreadsheet, take in a PowerPoint presentation – all using conventional, off-the-shelf systems and/or software that is free of charge.
There are still some legacy situations where you need to create an accessibility path. Some corporations still have internal applications that do not lend themselves to modern devices. There will certainly be situations where a specialized product will better solve an accessibility problem than a mainstream one, especially in the short term. We don’t advocate throwing the baby out with the bathwater, but we do advocate that we begin to hasten the inevitable change by using accessible mainstream solutions wherever possible. Even now, the leading edge companies are reinventing their internal systems with accessibility as a design criteria, so the situations that require specialized products will certainly become fewer as time goes on.
If our current Assistive technology guard’s reign is coming to an end, why the war? Why not just let it die its own, natural, inevitable death? Because nothing dies more slowly than an obsolete technology. Punch cards hung on for twenty or thirty years after they were completely obsolete. The same is true for magnetic tape. Old stuff represents a comparatively large investment, and people hate to throw away something they paid a lot of money for even if it’s currently worthless. But that legacy stuff obscures the capabilities of the present. It gets used in situations where other solutions are cheaper and more practical. The legacy stuff clogs the vocational rehab channel, eating up the lion’s share of the resources but serving a tiny portion of the need. It gets grandfathered into contracts. It gets specified when there is no earthly reason why the application requires it. The legacy stuff slows down the dawning of a fully accessible world.
It hurts you and it hurts me.
To be sure, I make my living creating and selling products that make our world accessible. But first and foremost, I am a blind person. I am one of you. And every day I face the same accessibility challenges you face. I have dedicated my life and my company to making the world more accessible for all of us, but I can’t do it alone. This is a challenge that every blind person needs to take up. We need to shout from the rooftops: “Enough!”
We need to commit ourselves in each and every situation to finding and using the most accessible off the shelf tool and/or the least-cost, highest function accessibility tool available. With our dollars and our commitment to making known that our needs and the needs of sighted people are 99% the same, we can reshape this marketplace. We can drive the dinosaurs into the tar pits and nurture those cute fuzzy little varmints that are ancestors to the next generation. We can be part of the solution rather than part of the problem.
And all it takes is getting the best possible solution for your specific need. Once you have found the solution to fill that need, let the company know you appreciate their work towards better accessibility. Let your friends (sighted and blind) know about these accessibility features; they probably don’t know that such features exist.
Make your needs known to the vocational rehab people you are working with, and don’t allow them to make recommendations for a specific technology for no other reason than that it’s been in the contract for years. Make sure your schools and your workplace understand the need to push technology in to the accessible space. Show them the low-cost alternatives. In this economy some, the intelligent ones, will get it and the tide will begin to turn.
And then in short order the tsunami of good sense will wash away the old, and give us the space to build a more accessible world for all of us. Let the demand ring out loud and clear and the market will follow.
If this message rings true to you, don’t just shake your fist in agreement and leave it at that. let your voice be heard! Arm yourself with the vision of a future where there are no social, conceptual, or economic barriers to accessibility, and let your words and your actions demonstrate that you will not rest until that vision is realized. Take out your wallet and let your consumer power shine! You do mater as a market people! You have kept this company alive with your money for 8 years this month! I believe that if we all get together and do our part, we will finally say “NO more!” same old same old! Join the revolution! Together we can change the world!