There’s No Such Thing as a “blind Ghetto” Product

I’m neither a sociologist nor a psychologist, but I wonder whether minorities go through an evolutionary process where at first they crave to be like everyone else, and ultimately mature as a group to the extent that they are comfortable in their own skins, realising they have their own needs and ways of doing things. In this post, I’ll explore that thesis in the concept of assistive technology.

I’ve been inspired to write this post for two reasons. The first is that it has been disappointing  to read over some years the use of the phrase “blind ghetto” products” to describe devices that have helped blind people gain greater access to information, and to assist us to realise our potential through productivity on the job.

The second thing that finally got me writing this is a conversation in which I participated on Twitter, regarding whether “mainstream” solutions were always a better option than blindness-specific products.

Since we are a tiny minority, it’s inevitable that for the most part, we’ll be swept along with the technological tide. When the world moved from DOS to graphical user interfaces, predominantly Windows, the screen reader industry needed to respond. When a new operating system or version of a major suite like Office is released, screen reader developers need to react. But let’s not forget the flip side of the coin.

In 1933, the 33 1/3 LP record was developed for the American Foundation for the Blind for distribution of talking books. This blindness-specific technology made it into most homes eventually, as music albums were produced on vinyl at this speed. Blindness technology went mainstream.

I remember the original Kurzweil Reading Machine. We had one in its own dedicated room at the school for the blind. The world’s first scanner, in that product, was designed to give blind people access to print. That technology became smaller and smaller, and these days, scanners are a common office feature. Blindness technology gone mainstream.

Blind people started carrying note taking devices around with them in the 1980’s. The TSI VersaBraille was a cassette-based system that offered word processing and other note taking features on the go.

In 1986, I began using the original KeyNote from Pulse Data International. The Braille’n’Speak took the US by storm when it was released in 1987. Both the KeyNote and Braille’nSpeak evolved, and options including refreshable Braille were added to the range in due course.

Blind people were using portable devices for PDA functions long before sighted people had started using the term PDA. Sighted people eventually caught up with us.

There are other examples of how the blindness technology industry has seen its innovations spread beyond the intended market. As blind people, we can be proud of that.

Isn’t it ironic then, that all these technologies might have been described as the time as “blind ghetto” technology?

Hopefully I’m giving credit/blame where it’s due, but the first person I ever recall using the term “blind ghetto” to describe assistive technology products was Mike Calvo, former CEO of Serotek. Now since too many people in the blind community don’t seem to be able to debate a point without knocking the person, let me say that I like Mike and salute his contribution. I’m doing my best based on context to offer a fair definition of the term as he uses it, and I believe the term refers to any assistive technology hardware designed specifically for blind people, where some sort of “mainstream” alternative exists.

By that definition, Mike of course developed the ultimate “blind ghetto” product himself, the original Freedombox. Like the Kurzweil Reading Machine, the Freedombox started on dedicated hardware, then a PC-based version became available. It sought to cater to a large untapped market. Around 80% of the blind population are over 65, and most of them have experienced vision loss later in life because of age-related conditions. They long to have access to newspapers, to communicate with their kids who’ve moved far from home, and do it in a way that doesn’t involve using convoluted computers. At the time, I was enthusiastic about the product as my reviews on ACB Radio’s Main Menu will show, and I’m still enthusiastic about the concept even though it has long since been abandoned. That market remains largely untapped. 

The spoken user interface of the original Freedombox was like a very ambitious version of Siri. Again, blindness technology gone mainstream. I believe there’s still space for a product like that, one that takes into account just how difficult those with deteriorating vision in later life find grappling with computers.

I’ve heard devices like the Victor Reader Stream, Booksense, and Plextalk Pocket being described as “blind ghetto products”. There are services around the world that cater to the needs of readers who are blind and/or have learning disabilities. In the US, they include Learning Ally, Bookshare and the National Library Service. Special format libraries such as the RNIB, CNIB, RNZFB and others exist around the world. We are a unique market being offered unique services. Why not offer devices that cater to that unique market?

There are some Amazon Kindle products that are basic in functionality, and only offer the ability to read books purchased from Amazon. It does one or two things, but does them well, and at a good price. Does this make such versions of the Kindle a “sighted ghetto” product?

The blindness note taker is also a prime target for the “blind ghetto” label. No technology lasts forever, and for many people, the note taker has served its purpose. When I fire up my Focus 40 Blue with JAWS in Microsoft Word, I’ve got Braille input and output every bit as good as I had when I used to enter text in contracted Braille directly into the editor of my note taker. That suits my particular needs for now, but others may well want a single device with long battery life that’s self-contained and offers good quality Braille support. As I have blogged here previously, iOS is fine for very basic writing, but it’s not yet there for our kids. You can’t yet reliably produce documents in iOS containing complex formatting, so iOS is not yet a solution for older students or those in professions requiring a high standard of visual presentation.

Further, the post-PC era is not yet a true reality for blind people. Recently, I thought it would look cool if I ran a PowerPoint presentation from my iPad. While creating the slides in Keynote works fairly well, running the slide show is not accessible.

The term “blind ghetto” ridicules people’s technological choices which while different from the choices made by those invoking the term may be perfectly valid in the context in which they were made. For example, no doubt those who employ the term “blind ghetto” in the United States are celebrating the release of the NLS Bard app, an app allowing patrons of the National Library Service in the US to read their Braille and digitally protected audio content. “hurray,” they cry, “another nail in the coffin of blind ghetto products”. That’s all well and good, if you have the money to maintain the cost of a cellular plan for an iPhone. An iPod Touch is an option, and that’s fine if you feel comfortable using a touch screen. A lot of people will, a lot of people won’t. Some people can’t use a touch screen, because diabetes, a significant cause of vision loss, affects dexterity.

I personally enjoy using Skype in all the operating systems with which I work. I find it works great for me on the iPhone, on my Mac, and in Windows with JAWS. Perhaps because others use a different screen reader, or because they find it less complicated, others use specialised software for Skype written specifically for blind people. I just think it’s great that by whatever means, blind people are chatting with people around the globe. Isn’t that what’s important? And if there’s no need for the product, no one will use it, and it will die. Markets have a habit of working things out like that.

Similarly, people lament the fact that so many blind people who use Windows are using Twitter clients designed for the blind in mind. Yet is that really a problem? I’ve heard some people say that since many Twitter apps let you see the client from which someone is tweeting, using a blindness-specific client is screaming “I’m blind” to the world. First, I think very few people take the time to look at the client from which a tweet is sent. Second, you know what? I’m blind! It’s true! My blindness isn’t me in totality, it doesn’t define me, but it is a part of who I am. I’m comfortable with it, I’m relaxed about it, and I’ll use a tool if it gives me the best access.

In making these points, I’m not seeking to downplay the incredible strides, and yet to be realised potential, of universal design. I personally now use my iPhone as my digital talking book player, a recorder, a very basic note taker, a GPS system, a colour identifier, a money identifier, a light detector, and a mobile device for reading print. These are all tasks for which I may have once used a more specialised, more expensive device. It’s a wonderful trend! I still, however, use OpenBook on my PC, because I like to be able to read a book while I scan it. Not everyone thinks that’s important, and not everyone thinks that’s worth paying the premium for, but we have the choice, and that choice should be respected. I also believe that a dedicated barcode reader for the blind gets the job done faster and better than an app. Some people find an app works just fine for them, and I’m glad we can choose what works best for us.

A discussion of this topic would not be complete without acknowledging the high cost of some of this technology. This is a matter of economics. If you have a product involving significant ongoing research and development and technical support, the price is going to be higher if you have a smaller number of users among whom you can spread those costs. Just like Microsoft, Apple, or any other company, a commercial assistive technology company is there to make money for its shareholders. It does so by providing products that people want. Because of the specialised nature of the products and their cost, we have a situation in parts of the assistive technology market where the user is often not the purchaser. That can create market distortion, and we as blind people need to ensure that assistive technology companies engage with us, the end users.

As a matter of social philosophy, I believe that a society has an obligation to help people with disabilities gain access to the tools they need to maximise their potential. We can’t expect highly skilled innovators in the assistive technology industry to work for nothing, nor can we expect end users to be able to afford what this technology costs to produce. The purchasing of assistive technology by appropriate Government agencies is an investment in our productivity and employability. In conjunction with rehabilitation and public education, it’s an investment that pays dividends as we become productive, contributing tax payers.

There is an alternative approach, of course. After legal pressure from a range of sources, Apple chose to deal with its accessibility issues by writing its own screen readers. They cover the costs of development by including them in all their devices, and spreading the development costs among their hundreds of millions of users, even though the majority of those users never use the screen readers. That’s an attractive model in many respects, although I think iOS 7 and Mavericks show us that there’s a danger of our needs being put on the backburner when there are more pressing priorities, so it is not without risk.

So the next time you hear someone using that term “blind ghetto product”, challenge them on it. The assistive technology industry has a proud record of contributing to technological innovation as a whole. Just as some sighted people use smart devices and others don’t, so too are blind people entitled to a range of choices that reflect a diversity of lifestyles, priorities and preferences. We are a distinct market, and there are times when we’ll opt for a product designed for us, hopefully by us, that caters to those distinct needs. We don’t need to be ashamed of it, we don’t need to shrink from it. We should be mature enough as a community to have an intelligent discussion about the range of options that exist for any given task, discuss the pros and cons, and pick the one that makes sense for us at any given time. We should be able to do that without people disrespecting our choice by using epithets. No matter what technology you use to communicate with others, to access information, to mitigate the nuisances of blindness, I celebrate the fact that you’ve found a way that works for you.

30 Comments on “There’s No Such Thing as a “blind Ghetto” Product

  1. I often find myself using terms similar to “blind ghetto product,” but it’s not because I don’t respect those who choose to use blindness-specific products. I do, however, think that there’s a trap that can be fallen into, and I think, although it’s unintentional, blindness products help to facilitate this. But then, my bias is in favor of universal design, unless there’s no way that can be accommodated for blind users. I use and iPhone, an iPad, and yes, a Braille Sense, but I use the Braille Sense in very specific circumstances which the iThings won’t accommodate. So I guess I’m of two minds on this. I believe that, to a large extent, the assistive technology manufacturers are propped up, and I think that in the long run this is bad for the market. But this doesn’t mean I think the AT developers should go out of business tomorrow. I do, however, wish that there were more outward cooperation between the AT market and the mainstream tech companies. Just my two cents, and once again, a great article, even if I don’t agree with all of it.

  2. This article misses the meaning of ghetto product to a certain extent. The meaning of ghetto product in respect to the blind means a product that is so prohibitively expensive that it can’t be purchased without the welfare of the government. Those types of companies can continue to scream we are a small market all they wish, but the real truth is, the individual has never been their customer, because the AT companies have been able to rely on government to purchase their products. For example: Freedom Scientific has never offered any purchase option aimed at the individual, and in over 20 years have never lowered the cost of Jaws. Let’s not forget the reason why the merger happened tthat created Freedom Scientific was a promise of lowering the price to the consumer. This has never happened. Instead, Freedom Scientific’s main customer is based on the welfare of the government. That is the meaning of a “blind ghetto product”

    • Hi John, this is obviously the definition you ascribe to the term, but that wouldn’t explain why devices like the Stream have been defined by some as blind ghetto products.
      I also disagree with you that the purchase of assistive technology products by Government agencies is welfare, and indeed I covered this in the post. I consider it the obligation of any civilised society to level the playing field by equipping people with disabilities witht he tools to have a fair chance.
      Obviously there’s a debate to be had on that point, however I believe it can be had without using terms like “blind ghetto” or, for that matter, “welfare” in this context. They are terms obviously designed to inflame rather than promote respectful discussion.

    • Oh, I agree. I have heard of AT companies that under fulfill the bid and you end up getting barely stable products that easily crash. I recall, on a personal note, one company wanting me to have a 256 meg of ram at a time when the recommended for Jaws was 512 megs. It makes a difference. I like the idea of built-in mainstream accessibility. But I have long enjoyed my Braille Lite which I was given in 1997. I suspect I’d not have made it through grad school without it. It is very old now and pins are weakening. I wish I could afford that blind ghetto product, the Apex, but alas!

      I have an older Brailliant 32 display which was on sale in Jan 2012 for about $1600. Now I have seen the 40 cell version on sale for only a little more money. It’s a hard market to gage. I once read in something called WYFIWYG by a Peter Duran something about a white paper about a multi-line braille display using an electro-chemical reaction. But that was over a decade ago. Now, I hope that there is a ghetto fix for scoping software. Sometimes, you need specialized products.

      It’s funny how people might think the BARD app is mainstream. You use this app to access blind-specific audio content on a mainstream device. But the app is blind-related and accesses special content.

      I wish someone would develop an Openbook app just to read short mail items of only a few pages and a basic braille translation app. Updating these software packages to run on a 64 bit platform can cost over $1,000 — much for an unemployed person looking for work with no assistance from myopic government and state agencies!

      Wonder where Mr. Calvo ended up?

  3. The term government welfare is in fact a true term as to what pays for many of the products Freedom Scientific sells each quarter. It is handled in America by the Social Security Administration. I will ask this question, if the Social Security in America goes into default, would Freedom Scientific be able to sustain their business? Do they also develop products for the sighted markets? How many purchases are made by individuals versus government? Are American tax payers always going to have to fund Freedom Scientific’s research and development, and product purchases, or does Freedom Scientific have a long term goal of being self sustaining without government contract purchases?

    • I’m not sure why you’re particularly fixated on one of a number of assistive technology companies, but I am now starting to repeat myself having made the substantive point in my post. Let me say though that the majority of purchases from any assistive technology companies are rehabilitation related. That is not welfare and has nothing to do with DSS. Producing a screen reader that does the hard graft of being able to work with a range of proprietary technologies requires ongoing development and support effort. I agree it’s not viable to expect end users to meet these costs. So in short, my answer to your question would be yes. And I believe it’s an investment that can be returned through employment opportunities, assuming it’s coupled with public education and rehabilitation. however, again, i covered this in my post. It’s what’s known as a social contract. You get what you need, so you’re then in a position to give back.
      The one thing I would add which I didn’t address in reply to your first comment, is that the cost of refreshable Braille has been slashed. It would be great if new technology could make it cheaper still, but I can remember a time when a 40 cell Braille display was approaching $5000. Now, it’s $2700. When you take inflation into account, that’s a big reduction. Hopefully that will continue.

  4. In closing, I’ll just say read what I said carefully. I mentioned AT companies, but held Freedom Scientific out as an example because they are indeed the most well known in the blind world. So Jonathan don’t take what I said as a personal attack on you or Freedom Scientific, because the business practice as a whole is unsustainable.

  5. Interesting discussion, nuanced nicely. Rehabilitation versus welfare is for another time. I have a broader comment to make. Blind ghetto reflects our tendency toward cynicism, and today’s mean spirited ridicule-based commentary, and as such it’s most often not fair, not terribly humorous either. Let me say that the devices made with blind people in mind have been great in my life and I don’t feel bad about any of them, from Braille watches to the actual fact of there being an American Printing House for the Blind, established in 1858 as a government sweet heart contract that makes a lot of things possible in the US. Frankly I wouldn’t have designed a product for use by blind people that involved tapping and gesturing; that old mainstream comes with a cost, albeit it also comes with tremendous potential for making affordable products, and only one in your pocket instead of several in a huge back pack. Indeed it’s as you say Jonathan, really a non-argument, since products that accomplish what we need are by our definition good products.

    Finally Jonathan, showing us the funding model Apple used putting the screen reader in its operating system makes a funding model understandable. Thanks for that.

  6. While the term “Blind Ghetto may have been popularized by Mike Calvo, and possibly myself, then Host and Producer of the SeroTalk Podcast, For the record, the term “Blind Ghetto” was first used by chris Hofstader, referring to the extreme price markup of the PAC Mate. At the time he left FS in 2004, it cost the company about $400 to manufacture, package and ship a PAC Mate BX 440 and a 40 cell display which sold for up to $5,700.

    • I’m afraid that just because someone says something, it doesn’t make it true.

  7. Excellent article, I agree almost entirely, though I did want to raise one point. And keep in mind, I’m assuming you’ll agree with this, so look at it as an expansion, not a criticism.

    I want to talk about a knife and a cassette player. I forget what the knife is called, but it’s a kitchen tool, big knife with this metal contraption under it. You slide the metal thing to the desired width, tighten down a screw, and hey presto!, you chop your whatever into quarter inch bits or whatever size you’ve set it to. Moving on with this little nostalgia trip, anybody remember the Handi-Cassette? They still make them I think. Six hours on one 90 minute tape isn’t bad, worked great for recording lectures for me.

    So my point in mentioning these is to both echo the beginning of your article, and to explain why “blind ghetto” might still get used. I would think both of these products would be perfectly viable mainstream products. True, maybe we don’t use cassettes so much anymore, but back in the day, there’s no reason why businesses for instance, which might have a need to record meetings as an example, wouldn’t have jumped at something like the Handi-Cassette. The knife should be obviously useful. But are these mainstream products?

    Not at all. It’s certainly true that any old person can call up APH and order a Handi-Cassette, or find the knife from whomever sells it. It’s not like these companies check for blindness at the door, as it were. But they are off in their own little space, a blind ghetto, if you will. So to me, it’s not just that we might use a specific product because we’re blind, personally I’ve never worried about that, I’m blind and if you can’t deal with it that’s your own problem. But the size of the market, at least for some products, seems to me to be artificially restricted. These products aren’t mainstream products, they’re being sold specifically for the blind Etc., so right there the market is self-limited, and hence, the cost must be greater.

    Obviously such a solution wouldn’t work for every blindness product. But I’m with the initial commenter, Amanda I believe it was, who mentioned a preference for general design. Actually, that’s not quite true. What I do think is that even if you start with something designed specifically for the blind, you might try to see if that design is, or can be made, more general. If so you can potentially sell to a wider group of people. Audiobooks is another example of a blindness product going mainstream, and now we have many speech systems going mainstream, you mentioned a couple in the article.

    Imagine if this mainstreaming had started happening ten years ago. Where would we be now? I don’t think anybody can answer that, and it’s possible there were barriers of various sorts in place. So maybe it’s all happening now because it’s the time for it to happen. But I do think looking at a design to help more than just blind folk, if possible, makes the most sense. I’m reminded of rockbox, which makes various mp3 players speak, I used it extensively before I got my iThingy. It was actually designed so sighted people could have spoken feedback, e.g. when they had their mp3 player hooked up in a car or were jogging, and it just so happens that we started using it as well. To me, that’s exactly the kind of thinking we need more of, both in mainstream and blindness technology.

  8. Speaking as someone who uses some of the aforementioned “blind ghetto” products, I do find it frustrating that companies release features we’re supposed to celebrate as ground-breaking when, to a large degree, the features ought to be a matter of course. The fact that a product is compatible with Windows 8, for instance, is of little consequence, because isn’t that the fundamental role of a screen reader? To work with the latest platform for which the product was designed?

    I’ll express the same frustration here that I did over on Chris’s blog. People assume there is only so much innovation you can extract out of something like a screen reader, but that view largely excludes people working in the mainstream who need better access to popular apps. If products are sometimes deemed “ghetto,” it might be because we pay so much to buy and maintain products that ten years later can still only do a fraction of what mainstream solutions can achieve.

    Yes, I understand the cost of designing for a smaller market, but I also understand the reality of marketing to the middle man. The social contract Jonathan refers to is a flimsy one if the unemployment rate remains largely unchanged even with the thousands of dollars government agencies throw at assistive technology vendors.

    No, the basic Kindle devices are not ghetto, but then again, sighted people are not paying an arm and a leg to obtain that Kindle product. The equivalent for a blind person would cost at least several hundred dollars because there is supposedly more ingenuity that goes into making them talk. That prompts a larger question about how much companies are doing to streamline manufacturing and how much of it remains inefficient to the benefit of a company’s bottom line.

    Don’t get me wrong. I also do not appreciate people bashing products that work well for a segment of our blind community. For example, I bought the new Victor, because I enjoy the ease of book navigation that cannot be matched by a touch screen. However, let’s not promote these products as a means to not take advantage of emerging technology, the same technology that will differentiate between competitive job applicants and applicants that are still behind the curve. It is entirely possible that companies manufacture things that appear to be an aid but behave more as a long-term hindrance. I do not much appreciate my head being patted and told: There, now you’re on the edge of technology. Cut me a little slack. I have equal access to the Internet and still see a chasm between what blind people can perform on a computer and what sighted people can do.

    Just my twenty dollar’s worth.

  9. This was a fantastic article. The phraise “blind ghetto product” really pushes my buttons for some reason, and many people who use it seem to be judging/criticizing those of us who still use special blindness products. I think everyone should have the right to use whatever works best for them personally without having others belittle their choices. We should all be thankful that we have so much choice in this day and age. Anyway, I think this article articulated my thoughts far better than I could myself, but I just wanted to chime in and say that as far as I’m concerned, you’ve hit the nail right on the head with this one.

  10. I also agree with almost everything in this article. I believe many specialized products should exist, because they often allow us to do something better or faster than a mainstream product would. Maybe the people who use this term as an insult should consider weather they are using bline ghetto apps.
    I am just bothered by the fact that whenever a specialized product exists, the hole world starts thinking it’s the only reasonable option out there. It’s unacceptable to say that a limited feature set is what we disabled people need and, we should be greatful and willing to pay a ridiculously high price for it. Unfortunately, some of the companies that make these assistive tech products are sold by people who truly believe this, and their advertising makes the general public believe it, too. I only object to companies that sell these products for a ridiculously high price, not because they can’t aforde to sell them for less, but because they know they can get away with charging a high price for any product for this market. I guess expecting anything else would be asking for preferential treatment, since this is what companies that make mainstream products do too. 🙂
    I want to be able to use the same devices my sighted friends and family are using, and do not want any person or company using the stupid excuse that a special product for me is available, so they don’t have to put forth any effort to make their product more accessible to me.

  11. To me, blind ghetto refers to products that cost a great deal, but that don’t have functionality that fits with the high cost. Basically, I think we pay a great deal of money for not much. If I think a $6000 notetaker is the best fit for me then that’s okay, but if I’m spending $6000 on a notetaker, then I’d like it to have at least as much functionality as an iPad. But it really doesn’t. It will have many limitations and not give me half the things I may want. Whereas a Braille display & iPad are thousands of dollars less than a traditional notetaker & they actually do much more. In other words, blindness products may be great for some people, but if we’re going to pay a lot of money for a specialized product then I think it’s fair for us to hold that product’s company to a high standard & insist that we get what we’re paying for. I think that the ghetto part comes when we pay much more for what amounts to less product.
    I did agree with your points about education however. Unfortunately, Braille on a mainstream product just isn’t good enough for children right now. I hope it reaches that point, but it’s not good enough quality for a young Braille-learner yet. But as an employed adult, I don’t choose to pay money for less functionality just to get better Braille.
    One last point.. how do some of these AT product execs sleep at night? They make a LOT of money off of a group who can least afford to spend it. I know that they have the right to because that’s how business works, but that doesn’t necessarily make it a good idea. I wonder how they justify it to themselves? I just know that I wouldn’t feel good about buying a 2nd bottle of wine at dinner & taking my family on vacation in Europe while Joe-Bob in Nebraska is eating Ramin noodles for the next 3 weeks because he had to spend hundreds of dollars to get his Braillething fixed. JMO

    • Hi Allison, no doubt at all that the iPad and all of the Apple products have been a huge break-through and set the bar very high in terms of demonstrating the benefits of universal design. The iPad does many things, and you’re right, far more things than your average blindness-specific note taker. The thing is though, the iPad doesn’t yet perform the task that some note taker users want, and that is to facilitate the production of well-formatted written material accessibly. I’ve talked to a number of blind lawyers, and people in other professions who have to write for a living, who say that they want something really portable that handles document production well, and iPad just ain’t there yet. I suspect it will get there eventually.
      I personally have no desire to own a note taker at present. My Braille display and laptop running JAWS does what I need it to do. But for some people who need very long battery life and a one-piece portable device, that’s not their favoured option. So I’m not coming to the defence of these products because I use them personally, I’m saying that I have no right to impose my own technology preferences on the rest of the blind community, nor does anyone else. If there’s no need for these products anymore, then their production will stop due to lack of sales.
      I’m clearly no fan of this awful term “blind ghetto”, but might it not be the case that if specialised products didn’t exist for those who need them to stay in school and on the job, we’d be confining them to a blind ghetto because they couldn’t produce the material they want in a way that makes them most productive? Universal design has huge benefits, but we must also be careful that our access isn’t dumbed down for critical job-related tasks.
      The absolutely huge reaction this post has received on social networks has shown me just how upsetting and belittling people find the term “blind ghetto”. It’s needlessly judgmental and offensive. I think there are some people using specialised products who may well benefit from switching to a device like iPhone, and sadly, using terms like “blind ghetto” is just going to turn them off. We could have a much more informed, more respectful, less inflamed debate if we were simply to talk about specialised products for the blind.
      In the 10 years I was working in the assistive technology industry, the cost of refreshable Braille fell quite markedly. What this tells me is that there is competitive pressure to reduce prices where that’s viable, because were that not the case, tech companies who found cheaper ways to produce refreshable Braille would have just pocketed the profits. I’m sure there’s a lot of ongoing research about making Braille even cheaper still. One day, someone’s going to crack it, and as someone who’s passionate about getting Braille into the hands, or under the fingers, of as many people as possible, I’ll be cheering very loudly when it happens.
      I have every confidence, and indeed every hope, that those in assistive technology companies sleep very well at night. If the prices they set were that unrealistic, it is a free market and some “honest broker” would come along and undercut them.
      That’s why the social contract aspect of services to people with disabilities is so important. The equipment is funded in the hope that it will facilitate people being full, contributing members of society through improved employment opportunity. Now obviously technology can’t change societal attitudes and expectations, so this is only part of the equation. Quality public education and advocacy are critical as well.

      • Now that you mention the drop in Braille-devices prices for the second time, I need to react. For some reason, and I think mainly because of the ‘social contract’ you mention in your post as well, Prices in Europe of Braille devices are just as high as they were 10 years ago. Government agencies think they need to help those ‘poor blind people’, while companies charge whatever they can get away with, because those from the agency making the final purchase, have no idea what they are buying and what the costs are elsewhere.

        So for expensive special-market devices or software, there is no free market, at least not in my part of Europe.

  12. I agree with your logic, but wouldn’t it have been better if you had wanted to be true to the context in which Mike used the term? Surely a little proofreading would have revealred that. It is equally true that I don’t understand those constantly thumbing their noses at the fact that I prefer games in the blindness arena because they’re accessible, and not because their equivalent to sighted versions or even trying to be. I only hope one day Braille support will be there, where it now lags.

  13. Disclaimer: This is only my own opinion, not any kind of official statement by my employer, Serotek.

    It’s clear that because specialized devices don’t enjoy the same economies of scale as mainstream devices, the former tend to be more expensive. Also, specialized devices tend to lag behind the mainstream. The classic Blazie note-takers were based on an 8-bit Z80 processor right up to the end, when they were superseded by the PAC Mate line in 2003. As far as I know, the HIMS note-takers are still based on Windows Mobile 6.x. Cearly, because of their specialized nature, these devices don’t automatically benefit from the rapid pace of advancement in mainstream technology.

    However, unlike Mike Calvo, I think the label “blind ghetto” is unnecessarily inflammatory. If specialized devices are what some blind people actually want or need, then there’s no reason to denigrate them. I think it’s narrow-minded to insist that one’s preferred solution is the only good solution. Diversity is good; the world is big enough that multiple solutions can thrive. So while it’s good to promote mainstream products and push for more access to these products, it seems to me that we should dispense with the “blind ghetto” label.

  14. Until you mentioned this post on Facebook, I never heard the term. It appauls me. I still have not found anything that lets me jot down and recover information as quickly and intuitively as a Braille ‘n speak. Certainly not an IOS product. I have a sighted friend who also finds the iPhone problematic for that purpose. She uses a pen and paper. Which are not accessible to me. Should I be using a slate, even though I’m not as fast with it? Or, perhaps, since its not exactly the same as a pen, that too should be abandoned as blind ghetto technology?
    I just learned that if I upgrade to IOS 7, VoiceOver will not be usable while I’m on the phone. What are these people doing who sperm blind ghetto technology, carrying two phones so they can jot down a note while talking?

    • I realize that assistive technology is expensive. However, I disagree that all companies who produce assistive technology are not trying to make prices of their products affordable enough for individuals to purchase the technology as individuals. Sarotek has a plan to make accessibility to computers affordable. GW Micro has a plan so people can pay for up to a year for Window Eyes and it has some programs that work with any screen reader to use Skipe and Facebook with no or little cost. and most or all of premier literacy’s products are quite reasonably priced. As a totally blind person, if I were a student, I probably would recommend a product that connects to an I Pad or an I Phone or even a lap top which I can take notes on and use to produce Braille documents that can be translated into Word documents and printed out. I really like the idea of having hands-on ability to read Braille on my computer or on my I Phone or I Pad. The one thing that I do not like with the I Phone or I Pad is the inability to transfer documents to an external drive or an SD card. To be quite honest with you, I believe the only reason we have accessibility in the mainstream is that people showed manufacturers that accessibility is helpful for many people and not just a few. Anything that helps all people access information and do the things they want to do is a good thing.

  15. Like nearly everything in life, the use of blindness-specific products or mainstream products needs to be a balance. I would not want a blindness-specific product created that would then allow mainstream developers to say “Oh well, the blind have what they need now–we don’t have to worry about them.” Early on, attempts were made in this very vein when several browsers were proposed especially for blind people. That definitely slowed down Microsoft’s commitment to create a browser that blind people could use. In fact, the fact that their mobile version 7 was and is not accessible has held back blindness-specific Braille notetakers a great deal!

    I paid for my own current Braille notetaker. And let me tell you, I suffered for doing it. I took the last one in for repairs at a convention a year ago. I paid $400, for which the repairs lasted a day. So I went to a different group, told them my tale of woe, paid their exorbitant price for which I was told I’d get compatibility with newer USB external hard drives, my data wouldn’t disappear, and I wouldn’t have to reset my unit frequently. Well, this unit is smaller. I have to give it that. And I like using it just fine. But every time I charge the unit, it has to be reset. I was told two upgrades ago that this had been fixed. Not yet. It makes me skeptical of paying thousands of dollars ever again for a product I find useful.

    I also use IOS devices, and while I can’t write War and Peace on them, that’s not their purpose! I still have a laptop for that. But I think Apple needs to win some sort of universal reward for building accessibility (not just for the blind but for other disabled people, too) into each of its products. When my son bought his iPad, I could turn on Voiceover and see whether there was good reason for me to have one. When a sighted friend was having trouble doing something I knew how to do, we turned on Voiceover and I walked her through it! This isn’t a one-way, or one-group street.

  16. Hi, although I agree with most of the article, I want to add the following. Blind specialty products is less than a problem today than in the past in the sence that the internet makes it much easier to do your research for yourself, instead of relying on your nearest wholesaler to give you accurate options, including offering mainstream solutions where applicable. For example, Openbook with an expencive scanner with an expencive computer was many a time pushed as the only option for a blind person to scan printed documents in my country. If I didn’t work in the computer environment where I was introduced constantly to new developments, advice like this would be stealing from a blind person. If the middleman was interested in giving me a solution, he should have been obligated by plain honesty to inform me that I can go and buy my own computer and scanner, and if I are willing to go through the process of learning a less accessible product, I can go and buy abby finereader or OmniPage. He could then point out the spesific features that makes the specialty product petter and perhaps worth the extra cost, and give me the chance to make my own decision. The best of all is I walked to the nearest computer shop and got that very same scanner for half the price, and that is the truth.
    Unfortunatly this only happens in a dream world. Even today I’m happy using OmniPage, because I rebbled against the idea that I’m a moneymaker for others just because I’m blind.
    I do acknowledge that in this example, especially today, Openbook has some very nice features, but it’s still very expencive, so I can choose not to buy it since I only use scanning for recreational purposes.
    For a portable option today? Well, that’s the good news. We do have options, and yes, everybody have the right to make his own choices. If I needed a portable work horce to do creational stuff on like writing formatted documents etc, I’d jump at the ms surface 2 in a flash, since it runs full Windows, and any windows app I may need. Once again, I chose the iPhone since I don’t need such a device at the moment, and needed an accessible phone.
    Blind specialty products did help to bring to the world’s attention what technology can do for blind people, but that’s no reason to excuse the creaters of such devices from the obligation to stay up to date with the rest of the world, in which case it may be more acceptable to pay there price.
    If I see one more of this talking watchis with the kockoral for a alarm and an anoying voice screeching “it is now 4 45 PM, BING!” I’ll have an infarction. The first time that came out, it was wonderfull, but why didn’t anybody immediatly start looking at improvements? a watch that can quietly tell you the time in just two words, 16 45? Something a businessman can use in a meating without looking like a rediculous person?
    It is more things like those watches, phones with huge buttons so it’s easy to feel, etc. etc. that’s even today been sold as specially developed for blind people that I might consider to put under this label. Tools that are well thaught out, well designed, and not rediculously priced, do have it’s place. The victor reader family is a good example of such a product.
    Anyhow, that’s enough from me now.

  17. Jonathan, your points in your reply to my prev comment are well taken. I have no issue w/ ppl who choose blindness specific products cuz they are more effective for them. I still maintain that, if we’re going to buy blindness products, & if the AT companies feel they have to charge high prices, then we should be insisting on high quality products. So far, I don’t think we’re getting quality from these companies. We’re also not getting appropriate functionality for the times we live in. Most blindness products lag behind mainstream in terms of the features they offer. Why? Should we accept less functionality just cuz we need some Braille formatting options & TTS? I think we currently do that. I think many blind professionals/students are finding that they need both a notetaker & an iDevice in order to be competitive. IS this really necessary? If we’re gonna buy a notetaker, shouldn’t it have as much comparable functionality to mainstream products as possible? JMO again.

  18. Many thanks for posting this article Jonathan,

    I’ve come to it rather late, but I’ve found both it and the resultant discussion to be extremely interesting. You don’t say this directly, but I’m willing to bet that the only people that use the term ‘blind ghetto’ products are blind people. I highly doubt that sighted people care whether blind people listen to music or Audible books on an iPhone, a Kindle or a Victor Reader Stream. They might be interested in what the Stream is, or how a blind person can operate the touch screen on an iPhone, but that will be as far as their interest goes.

    While there must always be a market for specialist products (why would a sighted person need a Braille display?), some of the blindness-related products are overpriced, sub-optimal and don’t need to exist. I don’t think it’s all about market size, some of them have been released by large companies who should know better. You mention Mike CAlvo from Serotek, and I’m thinking of his highly entertaining review of the Intel Reader when I make this point.

    I take issue with one point that you make: I’m not sure that a mainstream software developer including a screen reader in their operating system risks making the needs of blind people an afterthought leading to inferior access any more than the specialist screen reader company approach does, look at the stella access on offer to us under Windows Phone 8, for example. You’re reduced to using a suite of talking apps from Code Factory that will probably allow you to access less than 10% of the phone’s functions.

    The dearth of quality screen readers giving access to Windows is I think a problem, and the whole approach needs to be rethought. You only need to look at the method by which you adjusted settings in Window-Eyes until very recently, for example, to know that you were operating a product that had had its last design overhaul (for the front end at least) in the very early 90’s. I think only Serotek have actually tried to do something in this area both in terms of the look and feel of the screen reader, and in terms of how they price it. Clearly NVDA is open source and has the characteristics of that class of software.

    Ive been thinking what we might do about the overpriced, comparatively poor quality access to Windows that the current model affords us. Obviously Microsoft isn’t going to develop a fully fledged screen reader or pay one of the current manufacturers to do it. If this were ever likely, I suspect it was back in the 90s when there were far more commercially produced Windows screen readers than there are now, and the manufactures would have cried foul.

    With that in mind, I wonder whether someone could develop a screen reader to provide core access to Windows rather like Narrator but which used open standards, so you could effectively plug modules in to give you access to your favourite programs. So if you thought that GW had the best access to Word but that FS had the best access to Excel, you could use a module from each manufacturer. Obviously this won’t happen as it’s in no-one’s interest to force it.

    Another method that might lead to better and cheaper access to Windows would be if you placed a duty of accessibility on the computer manufacturer. This could lead to the Apple pricing model being adopted, but with the advantage that there are obviously numerous hardware computer manufactures that run Windows on their machines and numerous access technology firms with whom they could go into partnership. This might lead to some interesting competitive tension, and I doubt that the hardware manufactures would be had over a barrel by the access technology companies as they will be far more astute and better able to look after themselves commercially than the average blind consumer or Government agency not needing to worry about the bottom line.

  19. I agree that one size doesn’t fit all. I enjoy using my iPhone with Braille displays but based on my recent experience with IOS 7 I’m not so sure that the phone and Braille display combination does what I need. I have had numerous problems like having my phone not pair with the display even after it had been defined and used before. I’ve also found serious problems with cursor routing and getting the navigation keys on my Braille display to work consistently. Then there’s the issue of having to go through multiple menus just to pair a display with a phone. Apple should make the interface easier. I would think i should be able just to look at the list of BlueTooth devices and then pick a Braille display and pair it but this isn’t possible.
    I might think again about using a notetaker for writing and sending e-mail.

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