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.