Skip to Content

Mike Calvo: Separate But Equal is a Myth

June 1, 2007 • Darrell Shandrow Hilliker

This is just too important and thought-provoking to exist only as a relatively obscure comment on a couple of blogs.

Separation by definition means that the separated parties will develop in response to different factors and sooner or later inequality will result. That is why Serotek has always focused its mission on accessibility anywhere. Our goal, within our sphere of influence, is to remove all barriers and eliminate accessibility or lack thereof as a reason for separation and discrimination. We believe accessibility is a right, not a privilege.

Jonathan Mosen of Freedom Scientific has said that adaptive technology is a business, not a religion, and we agree. In fact that very perspective has pushed us towards solutions that are increasingly mainstream. The reason is that when a company focuses on solutions only for the blind community, its direction is shaped by the economic forces that govern that community. That means that government funding has a disproportionate role in sale and distribution of its products. It means that the overall market does not have the volume potential that governs the consumer or business technology markets. It takes AT out of the price/performance curves that shape the market for all manner of digital toys and tools. Instead, the people who might benefit most from digital technology are stranded and forced to seek out subsidies to pay the exorbitant prices that AT producers have to charge. And these same AT producers, because their markets are so limited, do not have access to the capital mainstream technology companies can tap and thus tend to lag the industry in applying advances in technology or in bringing innovative, cost/performance improving changes to their product offering.

The capacity and adaptability of human beings is such that sight or lack thereof makes little real difference in the potential contribution a person can make to an organization in most functional roles. There are blind people who can match any sighted person in sales, accounting, product design, information technology, promotion, production, supervisory or executive management. There are highly capable blind janitors and CEOs; blind lawyers and accountants; investors and inventors; teachers and technicians. But a great many of those jobs are several times more difficult for a blind person to get and accomplish than a sighted person because the information that is essential to accomplish the job is not as accessible to the blind person. And that, we believe, is just plain wrong. That inability to access information is a barrier separating accomplished individuals from competing for jobs that they are otherwise qualified. Unfortunately, because our industry has developed and marketed adaptive technology to the “blind” community, it does a poor job of making it easy for businesses to make their information world accessible. Using conventional technology, the cost of making all corporate information accessible in a large corporation or government organization could easily be tens of millions of dollars. And for what? To give one person a chance to compete for one job? The economics as you can see push us to separation. And that keeps the blind community in its box.

At Serotek, our goal is to make that barrier go away. We don’t think it should cost very much to make the world accessible. We think the accessibility should be built in, available for those who need it to tap into it. Accessibility should be a simple “plug-in” that can be added to any application or database. It shouldn’t require an enormous investment in dollars by the organization making the information accessible and it shouldn’t require an enormous investment in training to the individual who wants to use the tool.

Five years ago when Serotek came on the scene, this kind of thinking was fantasy. Now it is well within the realm of possibility. We aren’t there yet, but we can see the day on the horizon when there won’t be an adaptive technology industry. The accessibility tools will always be built in. This kind of thinking requires that we see the blind community as part of the mainstream. It means that blind kids grow up side by side with sighted kids doing the same things. It means that asking whether or not someone is sighted is as taboo as asking their color, sex, or religion. It is not relevant information for most employment or other human activities. For Serotek that means we do think mainstream. We try to make our accessibility tools work for anyone. Our RIM and RAM products, for example, do not discriminate between blind and sighted trainers and technicians. The tools work equally well for either. As information access becomes increasingly mobile and ubiquitous, the need for hands free and eyes free access increases. Our System Access tool can browse the Internet or access an application for a sighted person unable to look at a screen just as well as it can for a blind person.

The Adaptive Technology industry is, we believe, on the cusp of a transition. We see the economics of accessibility changing as it becomes increasingly an important mainstream functionality. As that happens, the technology gap between the tools used by the mainstream community and those available to the blind, will go away and with the disappearance of that gap, the cost/performance factor for accessibility tools will catch-up to the mainstream. Think about it. That will change the entire culture of this industry and the change may not be much to the liking of those who have shaped their business around the traditional economics of AT. Some sacred cows of accessibility, such as Braille, may struggle to find a place in a world where anything stored or transmitted digitally is accessible. Now before I get tuns of email saying I don’t want to see Braille live, I just want to say that I believe that Braille is an important part of a blind person’s life however creating Braille from accessible content is what we should shoot for. I will reserve any other comments I have about Braille for another time.

Serotek is, as far as we know, the only significant AT company where the CEO, CTO, and the majority of employees are blind. Yet our focus is very much on making accessibility a tool for bringing together, not separating the blind community from the mainstream. Accessibility anywhere and everywhere we believe benefits all.

Categories: Uncategorized

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.