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My Thoughts on Altruism Versus Commercialism in the Assistive Technology Industry

May 30, 2007 • Darrell Shandrow Hilliker

I’m just taking a quick few minutes to pen my (probably oversimplistic) thoughts on the need of companies doing business in the blindness assistive technology industry to balance the benefits and consequences of their actions to the blind community (altruism) versus their need to turn a sufficient profit to make doing business worthwhile to their investors.

  • It is my belief that the initial reasons for creating businesses in this field are altruistic. The people involved in starting the business really want to see blind people succeed using the new company’s technology. There are many reasons for this desire. For instance, maybe one of the company’s founders has a spouse, child or other close relative who happens to be blind or visually impaired. It may also be the case that the company is founded by one or more blind persons who feel they can do better than the current state-of-the-art or a category of assistive technology is needed which currently does not exist. In either case, the initial reasons for getting started are usually grounded in a desire to help the blind.
  • Being businesses, it ultimately becomes important for the company to justify its existence to its creditors, investors, government agencies and especially its blind and visually impaired customers. Doing this means providing a product or service that customers will buy at a price that allows the company to pay its debts, satisfy its investors, pay its employees, continue development and support of existing products and do the R&D required to introduce new products. I recognize that accomplishing all of these important tasks is an incredibly tight balancing line.
  • Who are the customers of our blindness assistive technology industry players? Are they blind and visually impaired consumers? Are they large government agencies, such as Vocational Rehabilitation, that may be required by law to purchase assistive technology? What are the requirements of these different customers? Does the customer need assistive technology that meets their needs to gain access to the world, does the lowest bidder get the nod, is there a contract in place that requires purchase of only certain technologies regardless of the consumers needs or desires? These questions have a huge impact on the actions of the AT companies. Companies that acquire the bulk of their business directly from blind consumers are going to tend to offer payment plans, keep prices low, operate in an extremely efficient, lean manner and provide the highest levels of customer service and support. For these smaller players, blind and visually impaired people are their bread and butter. The positive and negative things blind people say about them on blogs, mailing lists, consumer organization conventions and other forums will tend to have a direct and immediate impact on their behavior toward those customers. Unfortunately, companies who do the bulk of their business with government agencies, large private sector companies or anyone other than blind consumers may tend to develop a different focus. This will naturally involve meeting the agency, company or organizations stated requirements, which will be represented by rather dry factors like price and technical specifications. When these large, high-dollar customers leave out the blind consumer in their own decision-making processes, their purchasing decisions from our blindness AT companies may cause those companies to switch their focus and priorities away from the blind consumer, perhaps without even recognizing that this has happened.
  • Why do smaller companies often tend to be more innovative than the larger players? The smaller companies like Serotek do not have the same level of name recognition within the community of the large high-dollar government agencies and other organizations that purchase the bulk of assistive technology products. Instead, their bread and butter are the blind and visually impaired consumers themselves. As blind people, we have certain accessibility needs, which we would like to have met by one or more of the players in the industry. Different people have different needs. That’s why there is a choice of products. Reasonable people who care about what happens to the blind and visually impaired know intuitively that a one-size-fits-all approach does not work for anyone. So, by nature, the smaller companies who deal more directly with us are going to inherently take more direct actions to meet our stated needs and desires. I think this is just basic business sense between companies and their customers. Unfortunately, this process becomes seriously warped when the customers are anyone other than the people who directly need or want assistive technology products. It seems, over the years, that as an assistive technology company matures and gains that name recognition within the community of its high-dollar customers, the needs and desires of the people for whom the products are designed in the first place go to the wayside, replaced by and large with the legal and dry technical requirements stated by people who are not blind and whom usually have no idea how the technology is used out here in the real world.
  • Why do the larger companies seem to take actions that are viewed as attempts to eliminate the smaller players? Well, obviously, this is a huge, muddy question, but I think it ultimately comes down to money. As a company grows, it needs more resources. Product sales drive the need to hire more employees, acquire larger facilities, gather more investment, take advantage of loans and other credit opportunities and do all the things a business must do in order to meet the customers’ demand for more product. As technology advances, products must be maintained and new products must be devised to meet the evolving needs of customers. While all this goes on, the company must constantly strive to support all its existing customers. Just as it seems to be with individuals, the acquisition of more and more wealth results in the spending of more and more money to expand that success. Things move along rather nicely in most cases so long as the assistive technology company’s customers remain largely from the blind and visually impaired consumer base. But government agencies and other large players have a great deal more money to throw around than the typical blind consumer. The more money a customer is able or willing to spend on something, the more willing the provider is going to be to do all they can to meet that customer’s needs. This is just another one of those unchangeable business constants. Those with the gold ultimately make the rules, whether we like it or not. It isn’t going to be changing anytime in the near or even distant future. This has a lot of implications. Innovation costs money and other resources and “necessity is the mother of all invention”. It seems like the larger players in our industry are innovating only when it is deemed necessary by their high-dollar customers, rather than by blind and visually impaired consumers who may need innovative technologies in order to educate themselves, obtain or retain their employment, live their daily lives, etc. For instance, why does it seem that one company appears to have fallen behind the curve with respect to Windows Vista and now seems to be struggling to catch up to other players in some areas? Most large businesses and government agencies wait at least a year before implementing a new operating system. Did this company feel they had more time before they had to innovate, in order to spare the expenditure of resources until it came time to meet the needs of their high-dollar customers? Did it jump because it was surprised when some of those large customers said they were moving to Vista sooner than expected? Did the smaller players decide to innovate faster and take Vista more seriously because some of their blind customers said they needed access to that operating system to keep their jobs or just because they wanted to buy a new computer that no longer offers support for Windows XP? Was all of this just too much? Did they decide to start filing lawsuits, make threats and do other underhanded things to some of the blind community consumer activists and smaller players in the field to allow them some time to catch up and hold onto that coveted big business?
  • Why litigate rather than innovate? Why is there a lawsuit over an aledged trademark violation that has been happening for almost seven years? I’ll say just this much on this direct subject. There are a lot of questions coming from all over the blind community as to Freedom Scientific’s supposed motives for filing this lawsuit. I’ll just state what I believe to be a foregone conclusion should Freedom Scientific win all it requests in the case. If the case goes to trial and Freedom Scientific wins, then Serotek will no longer be a going concern. It is that simple. Whether intended or not, an important player will have been unceremoniously deleted from the field. It is just that simple, boys and girls!
  • Why do we as a blind community have so little impact on not only the mainstream world around us but also the assistive technology industry? I’m afraid the reasons for that are simple as well. We have at least a 70 percent unemployment rate. While a lot of discrimination and misunderstanding do exist on the part of employers, I strongly believe that much of the problem is simply that most blind and visually impaired people make the choice to take their Social Security checks, public housing and other government-provided welfare benefits and sit home. They aren’t getting an education, volunteering or even trying to acquire gainful employment. I played the TLC song “No Scrub” on my show on ACB Radio Interactive the other night for a reason! If most of us are just subsisting, then we don’t have enough money to spend in order to significantly impact the business decisions made by our assistive technology companies, let alone insist that mainstream technology companies make their products and services more accessible to us.
  • Why does it seem the two largest blindness consumer organizations in the United States are hesitant to weigh in on the Freedom Scientific Versus Serotek case? I’m afraid I must come to the conclusion that this organizational paralysis simply has just about everything to do with the fact that Freedom Scientific donates sizable sums of money to these organizations, whose leadership can’t be blamed for not wanting to bite the hand that feeds them.

As you can obviously see by now, this article has become something of a stream of consciousness on my part concerning my thoughts on the assistive technology industry for the blind and visually impaired. I do believe I have one idea that could start us on a path to a rebirth of the blindness assistive technology industry in a way that would meet the needs of all the small and large companies as well as blind and visually impaired consumers. This is going to be controversial, but here it comes anyway. Have I ever shied away from controversy on this blog or otherwise in the blind community? The idea is simply this: Two thirds of the senior management of all companies doing business in the blindness assistive technology industry should meet the definition of legal blindness and of course should be otherwise qualified to hold their positions. These management teams should also equitably represent the full spectrum of legal blindness from highly partially sighted to totally blind. It is my long held belief that only competent blind and visually impaired people from our community can correctly assess our needs and take positive actions that really benefit the blind and visually impaired. As always, your comments are highly encouraged.

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