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assistive technology

Expand Your Independence and Work Around Inaccessibility: Join Aira for a Sept. 12 Conference Call

September 8, 2017 • Darrell Shandrow Hilliker

Michael Hingson, Aira’s Director of Strategic Sales, has asked us to distribute the following announcement regarding a conference call for blind people who may be interested in expanding their independence using Aira.

If you are looking for ways to deal with the inaccessible, real world, we hope you will take some time to attend the Sept. 12 conference call, contact us for answers to any additional questions you may have and sign up to start enjoying the benefits of remote sighted help on your schedule. Signing up through this link provides you and us a free month of Aira service, which helps you and our family.

Hello,

I am writing to invite you to a teleconference call on Tuesday, September 12, to introduce you to Aira. Perhaps you have heard of Aira or perhaps you have not yet heard of this incredible product.

We call Aira “a visual interpreter for blind and low vision persons”. With Aira anyone can accomplish tasks usually inaccessible to blind people because they require significant eye sight to perform them, more eye sight than we have ourselves.

So, what is Aira exactly? Aira is a product consisting of smart glasses with a tiny high-resolution video camera, an app on a smartphone, and a specially trained agent who describes the images seen by the glasses’ camera. To use Aira a blind person contacts Aira through the Aira app. When a request is made an agent is called by the smartphone while at the same time a video internet connection is established between the agent and the glasses. When the agent answers the call from the user, not only does the agent see what the camera transmits, but they also receive gps and Google map data showing where the user is and what is geographically around them.

Agents are specifically hired because they have an aptitude for describing and providing information as required. They go through special training and a rigorous battery of tests before they are permitted to accept calls and go to work. Aira agents do not help, but rather they provide information. If, for example, you use Aira while walking and you approach a street corner the Aira agent will not tell you when it is safe to cross the street. The agent can indicate it they see cars coming and they can tell you when the traffic light turns green for you. Aira does not replace canes, guide dogs or your travel skills. Instead, Aira enhances your toolbox of information gathering techniques.

People have used Aira to go shopping, travel through airports and malls, better perform household tasks such as identifying and preparing meals, putting on makeup, visiting places such as amusement parks and Arlington cemetery, assembling items and even running in the Boston Marathon. Aira is limited in what it can do only by your imagination.

If you want to learn more about Aira you are invited to attend a special teleconference call on Tuesday, September 12, 2017 at 2PM Hawaiian time, 5PM Pacific time, 6PM Mountain time, 7PM Central time, and 8PM Eastern time. To attend all you need to do is to dial in with the phone number (605) 468-8004, and enter the access code 329906# when the call is answered. During the conference, you will learn all you wish to know about Aira. We shall be conducting a live demonstration with an Aira agent assisting me, or at least describing to you what I am doing as well as helping me answer your questions.

Should you have questions you wish to ask me before the call please feel free to contact me directly at michael.hingson@aira.io and I will do my best to provide a timely response. This teleconference is intended to be an introduction to Aira and not a call for existing Aira users to discuss their thoughts. Such a forum already exists.

I hope to see you next Tuesday and I look forward to you joining the Aira family. Below my signature are some links you can click on to learn more about Aira. Thank you for your time.

Best regards,

Michael Hingson
Director of Strategic Sales

Never Say “No”: Expand Your TechVision with Dr. Denise Robinson

July 14, 2017 • Darrell Shandrow Hilliker

In this approximately 45-minute podcast, Allison, Allyssa and Darrell Hilliker talk with Dr. Denise Robinson all about her company, TechVision and her thoughts about the education of blind children and adults.

TechVision
Low-cost technology lessons for blind children and adults from a certified teacher of the visually impaired (TVI).
YouTube Channel
Watch videos showcasing the educational possibilities for blind children and adults.

We love hearing from our listeners! Please feel free to talk with us in the comments. What do you like? How could we make the show better? What topics would you like us to cover on future shows?

If you use Twitter, let’s get connected! Please follow Allison (@AlliTalk) and Darrell (@darrell).

In a World Ravaged by Inaccessibility, Aira Brings New Hope to the Blind Community

May 28, 2017 • Darrell Shandrow Hilliker

Do you cringe every time you think about that huge pile of print accumulating in your mail basket? Are you worried you might miss something important to your family or be forced to pay a late fee on a bill for the stupid reason that you missed the print notice that was mailed to you last month? How about all the cans in your pantry? Would you like to be more helpful to your child participating in recreational opportunities outside your home? Would you just like to receive sighted help on your schedule, rather than someone else’s?

Aira, the self-styled “Visual Interpreter for the Blind,” is here to help. Aira really is like OnStar for the blind! Simply open the Aira app on your smart phone, dawn the supplied glasses, press a few buttons and, voila! You have near-instant sighted help! Even better: they know what they’re doing!

It’s almost that simple. There are a few caveats:

  • Aira currently requires you to have a smart phone with a data plan and a decent level of knowledge about how to use it effectively.
  • With pricing starting at $89/month for the most basic plan, the cost is out of reach for most blind people.
  • Although Aira goes to extensive lengths to serve everyone in the United States, including providing a AT&T MiFi hotspot for the glasses, it remains limited by the availability of network infrastructure. Your smart phone must have a good signal to your carrier or you must connect it to WiFi in order to use the service.
  • You must be comfortable talking with people, patient with the need to aim your phone’s camera or turn your head and some prior experience working with sighted readers is helpful.
  • Using Aira is not the same as true accessibility. A sighted person is helping you work around a barrier that might otherwise exclude you or prevent you from enjoying the benefits of full participation.

If you can maneuver past these caveats, though, Aira is amazing!

In the week and a half since our family started using Aira, we have used it to help us:

  • Clean our refridgerator: An Aira agent read the expiration dates of numerous items so that Allison could decide what to throw out.
  • Settle the bill: Aira helped Darrell read a Cracker Barrel receipt so he could separate the items he purchased from those his mother bought.
  • Identify medication: Aira helped Allison read the labels on several pill bottles.
  • Go to baby school: Aira described the motions of the teacher and the overall scene to Darrell as he and Allyssa participated in a music therapy activity.

We know we haven’t even begun to touch the tip of the iceberg of possibilities. Last month, Aira helped a blind man run a marathon!

Although Aira is not perfect, they’re off to a great start. We are looking forward to Aira’s continued evolution as an important part of a blind person’s toolbox of alternative techniques, skills and technologies used to enjoy a full life on terms of equality with the sighted.

Are you using Aira? Would you like to learn more? Please feel free to tell us about it in the comments.

We love hearing from our readers! Please feel free to talk with us in the comments. What do you like? How could we make the blog better? What topics would you like us to cover in future articles?

If you use Twitter, let’s get connected! Please follow Allison (@AlliTalk) and Darrell (@darrell).

Teaching and Testing iOS App VoiceOver Accessibility Webinar

August 5, 2016 • Darrell Shandrow Hilliker

This approximately one-hour podcast is an audio recording of a real-world demonstration for following a systematic plan that explores, evaluates and tests iOS apps for accessibility with Apple’s built-in VoiceOver screen reader for blind and low-vision users. The August 3, 2016 webinar was presented by Darrell Hilliker and hosted by the Arizona Technology Access Program. A video, including closed captioning, is also available.

Teaching and Testing iOS App VoiceOver Accessibility Webinar Notes

Introduction

Webinar Purpose: introduce and demonstrate a step-by-step plan that provides a straightforward way for advocates, developers, educators and others to quickly explore, learn and improve the accessibility of all apps in Apple’s iOS ecosystem.

What is a Screen Reader?

  • A form of assistive technology
  • A Software program that turns information shown on a screen of a computer or mobile device into Braille or speech
  • Screen readers and accessibility enable blind people to learn, work and live in a technology-based world alongside sighted people.

VoiceOver

  • One type of screen reader that was created by Apple
  • Has been a built-in feature on all iOS devices since 2010
  • Enables Braille and speech access for users who are unable to see the screen
  • Speaks screen elements aloud or enables them to be displayed in braille

Accessibility

  • True accessibility means that all parts of a platform’s features, benefits, information, policies, procedures, products, responsibilities, rights, services and technologies are developed and implemented in ways that are usable by people with disabilities.
  • VoiceOver and other screen readers work best when apps are deliberately developed in ways that ensure compatibility.
  • Important for blind/VI individuals to be considered during development and included in the testing process.
  • Apple provides developers guidelines for making apps work with VoiceOver.

The Benefits of a Plan for Evaluating and Testing AppAccessibility

  • Advocates may use the plan to identify the accessibility issues they report to developers.
  • Developers may follow the plan to test their apps.
  • Decision makers may incorporate the plan into their user-acceptance testing and other procedures.
  • Educators may use the plan as a framework for evaluating the non-visual accessibility of iOS apps.

Starting VoiceOver

  1. Press the Home button on the iOS device. (round button located on the bottom middle of the screen)
  2. Tap Settings.
  3. Tap General.
  4. Tap Accessibility.
  5. Tap VoiceOver.
  6. Hold the VoiceOver switch and swipe to the right to turn it on.
  7. (Recommended) Hold the Speak Hints switch and swipe to the right to turn it on.
  8. (Optional) Triple tap the screen with three fingers to enable the Screen Curtain. This feature blanks out the screen, resulting in a more realistic environment for nonvisual accessibility testing.

Use Any of These Techniques To Activate VoiceOver Without Sight.

  • Press the Home button three times quickly. (Works if the Triple Click Home option in the iOS device’s accessibility settings is configured to use VoiceOver)
  • Hold down the Home button and ask Siri to “turn on VoiceOver”
  • Connect the iOS device to a computer running iTunes and turn on VoiceOver under the accessibility configuration screen.

The Plan

  1. Open the app to be tested.
  2. Tap the top of the screen with four fingers.
  3. Flick to the right through all elements on the app’s home screen.
    1. Are all controls labeled in a way that makes sense when you listen to VoiceOver without looking at the screen?
    2. Are you able to choose all buttons and other controls by double tapping them as you hear them spoken by VoiceOver?
    3. Does VoiceOver stay focused throughout use or does it become jumpy and read items out of order?
    4. When one or more items in a list is highlighted or selected, does VoiceOver say “selected” or provide any other indication of its status?
    5. If a list typically enables a sighted user to pull down with one finger, is a VoiceOver user able to update the list by swiping down with three fingers?
    6. Are all elements available to VoiceOver or are some items not spoken?
    7. Are there features that require the use of custom gestures that are not available to VoiceOver users?
    8. If visual cues, such as color, are important, does VoiceOver speak this information?
    9. Are all elements presented in a logical order as you move around the screen? If the relationship between elements is important, is it clearly conveyed nonvisually?
    10. Listen for special hints, such as “double tap to play,” spoken after the name of each element. If these hints are never heard, make sure hints are enabled in VoiceOver settings.
    11. If audio is playing, does its volume decrease, or duck down, while VoiceOver is speaking?
    12. Does a two-finger scrub (Z-shaped gesture) activate the escape function of the arrow in the upper-lefthand corner of the screen?
    13. Does the app offer accessibility enhancements such as direct touch, keyboard shortcuts, magic tap or specific support for Braille displays, switches or other forms of assistive technology?
  4. Flick to the left through the same home screen. Make detailed notes of anything that does not seem to function as expected with VoiceOver enabled.
  5. Tap the top of the screen with four fingers.
  6. Flick to the right, one element at a time, and double tap the first item where choosing it should lead to another screen.
  7. Repeat steps 3 through 5 on every screen the app contains, testing and noting any issues found with all elements.

Reporting and Resolving Accessibility Bugs

If you are a developer, using the notes obtained from testing, make all bug fixes necessary to deliver a fully accessible experience for users who rely on VoiceOver. Consider prioritizing the correction of accessibility bugs according to the order suggested in the plan. See the resources at the end of this presentation for details.

If you are reporting accessibility bugs to a developer, consider using the following format:

  • Description: A few concise words explaining the accessibility issue.
  • Steps to reproduce: Write down the exact steps you followed to cause the accessibility bug to happen.
  • Current behavior: Summarize the incorrect or unexpected behavior you are observing.
  • Expected behavior: Summarize the behavior you expect to observe once the accessibility issue has been resolved.
  • App and hardware information: Include a statement concisely providing as much information as possible about the version of the app being tested and the iOS device on which it is running.

Example Bug Report

The following accessibility bug was recently filed with Facebook against an important feature in the company’s iOS app.

Description: The details of event invitations are inaccessible to VoiceOver.

Steps to reproduce:

  1. Make sure VoiceOver is turned on in Settings > General > Accessibility > VoiceOver on the iOS device.
  2. Open the Facebook app.
  3. Open any event invitation.
  4. Tap the top of the screen with four fingers.
  5. Repeatedly flick to the right through the event invitation, pausing after each flick to listen to the information provided by VoiceOver.
  6. Note that important information, such as the event’s date, location, time and other details, are not spoken.

Current behavior: In its current implementation, event invitations are inaccessible and virtually useless to blind people using Facebook’s iOS app.

Expected behavior: Blind Facebook users should be able to access event invitations on terms of equality with their sighted friends.

Facebook version 60.0.0.37.141 is running on an iPhone 6 with iOS version 9.3.3.

Accessibility Testing

  • If you are a developer, check your work using blind alpha testers, followed by a select group of beta testers from the blind community.
  • If you are an advocate, thoroughly test the app according to the plan,then provide detailed feedback to its developer along with your accessibility request.
  • If you are an educator, test the app against this plan and any additional laws, policies or regulations your institution may have in place before recommending its use for your blind students.
  • If you are a decision maker, test the app against this plan and any additional laws, policies or regulations that apply to your agency, company, organization or personal conscience, then do not recommend or purchase the app if it is not accessible. Provide feedback about your decision to the company that owns the app.

Resources

We love hearing from our listeners! Please feel free to talk with us in the comments. What do you like? How could we make the show better? What topics would you like us to cover on future shows?

If you use Twitter, let’s get connected! Please follow Allison (@AlliTalk) and Darrell (@darrell).

Lawsuit Leads to Reconsideration of Patent

October 9, 2009 • Darrell Shandrow Hilliker

The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office has re-examined a patent held by the maker of a screen reader for blind computer users in connection with an infringement lawsuit filed against a competing company. Reliable sources hailed the move as a significant victory for the defendant.

The Document Placemarker patent, held by Freedom Scientific, Inc., covers a specialized screen reading capability that allows a blind person to save their position on a Web page and return to the same place at a later time. The company’s Job Access With Speech (JAWS) screen reading software incorporates this feature.

In a July 15, 2008 complaint filed in the United States District Court, Middle District of Florida, Tampa Division, the self-proclaimed “world’s leading manufacturer of assistive technology products for those who are vision impaired” accused GW Micro, the maker of the competing Window-Eyes screen reader, of deliberate patent infringement, claiming their placemarker technology is the same as that described in the patent. According to court documents, Freedom Scientific is seeking an injunction requiring GW Micro to stop including the placemarker feature in their product, asks for significant unspecified financial compensation for the infringement and requests recovery of legal fees.

“I believe that this technology shouldn’t have been patented to begin with,” said Doug Geoffray, Vice President of Development with GW Micro, Inc. “It obviously was around way before what they’ve done. We have stated that our version, Window-Eyes 3.1 back in 1999, had previous position capability.”

The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office agreed. In a re-examination of Freedom Scientific’s patent, at the request of GW Micro’s attorneys, the office rejected all claims to the invention.

“A person shall be entitled to a patent unless the invention was patented or described in a printed publication in this or a foreign country or in public use or on sale in this country, more than one year prior to the date of application for patent in the United States,” stated a published document describing the re-examination as the basis for the patent’s rejection on the grounds that the technology had already been invented.

The document also cited two existing patents and the availability of IBM’s Home Page Reader, a product employing place marker technology prior to the Freedom Scientific patent, in its reasoning behind the decision.

“We take that as a positive sign,” Geoffray said.

“It’s a victory,” said Dennis Karjala, Jack E. Brown Professor of Law, Faculty Fellow, Center for the Study of Law, Science, & Technology at Arizona State University’s Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law. “There’s no question that, if the re-examination decision is upheld, that’s the end of it. There is no patent.”

He said Freedom Scientific may still have some cards to play in this case.

“The patent owner in a re-examination proceeding may appeal,” Karjala said. “It goes to an appeals board within the Patent Office and then they can later seek judicial review. This thing could go on for awhile.”

According to the re-examination document, the Patent Office must receive a response from Freedom Scientific by Oct. 28 if it wishes to appeal the decision.

Karjala said the legal trend points to a probable GW Micro victory.

“Because the Supreme Court has been reviewing so many of their cases with an obvious eye to overturning them, the Patent Office is pretty sensitive now that they’re being accused of being too patent friendly,” said Karjala. “My guess is once you got a ruling by the examiner that the patent is invalid, I’d say the chances are pretty good it will be upheld by the board in the Patent Office. If it’s upheld by the board, the chances that a court would overturn it in this atmosphere are pretty slim.”

Freedom Scientific representatives declined to comment, citing the ongoing litigation.

Notes:

  • The examiner cited Patent 6085161 describing the invention of a system for assigning and playing specific sounds when a Web page changes or the user encounters a specific Web page element such as a header or list. All of the claims in Freedom Scientific’s patent were rejected based on the positioning techniques described in this “sonification” system.
  • The examiner also cited Patent 7058887 describing a means of determining the position on a Web page according to user-defined settings, including the page’s domain. This IBM patent was referenced in the re-examination as clarification for the rejection of the sixth claim.
  • The examiner also referred to the IBM Home Page Reader Version 2.5 Manual.
  • Ex Parte Re-examination, Control Number 90/010,473, Central Re-examination Unit, U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. Visit the Patent Application Information Retrieval Web site and enter the specified control number to obtain this document. The Patent Office provides this document only in scanned image PDF, which is inaccessible to blind readers. An accessible copy of this document has been made available using Kurzweil K1000 Version 11.03 optical character recognition software.
  • An accessible copy of Freedom Scientific’s complaint was made available in the July 24, 2008 article about the lawsuit.

The Heart of Accessibility Evangelism

September 8, 2007 • Darrell Shandrow Hilliker

I think we all recognize that, in many cases, there simply is not a strong bottom-line business reason for companies (either assistive technology or mainstream) to work hard on making sure their technologies function in ways that are in the best interests of all users, including those of us whom happen to be blind. There are, thus, only two major levers available to us in our advocacy efforts. The first involves the fact that, in our society, accessibility is simply the right thing to do. This approach involves the “heart” of accessibility evangelism. The second approach involves making a business case for accessibility based on the application or presumed applicability of one or more disability rights laws such as the Americans with Disabilities Act or Section 508 of the Federal Rehabilitation Act. In this rather rough approach, accessibility is ultimately forced as an alternative that is less expensive than continuing to ignore our needs.

In the case of screen readers, the economic incentive is simply to ensure the product works with Internet Explorer, Microsoft Office and the Windows operating system. Any additional capabilities, especially with respect to custom job related applications like Salesforce.com and Siebel, is viewed as icing on the cake. Precious little effort is expended on the part of assistive technology companies to ensure the usability of many customer relationship management (CRM) and other similarly critical application infrastructures required in today’s workplaces. How many jobs do you know about where use of e-mail, spreadsheets, web browsing and word processing are all that’s required in order for a qualified employee to conduct the duties of the position?

Most mainstream technology companies claim there’s little or no real business incentive to make their products and services accessible to us. After all, blind people represent less than a percent of the world’s population and there’s just not enough money in it for companies to justify the expense. Only the possibility of legal action or the presumed applicability of some Federal laws make the expense of accessibility less than the potential loss of business from government agencies.

As we all can see, the current state of affairs remains bleak. It has been this way for a long time now, yet the problem may accelerate due to the ever-widening gap between the capabilities of increasingly sophisticated and visually oriented mainstream technologies with respect to the rather limited nature of current screen reading technology for the blind. My apologies if this offends, but it is, ultimately, the truth against which I would invite any credible challenge.

As we continue to advocate for mainstream technology companies to reasonably accomodate our needs for equal access to the technologies in our daily lives, on the job and in the classroom, we must also simultaneously advocate for our assistive technology companies to focus on innovation, rolling out screen readers that can meet the challenge of the current and future world of technology, much of which continues to be developed by people who have absolutely no inclination toward accomodating us. It is wonderful when assistive technology and the mainstream computer industry can work together, meeting one another halfway in order to provide access, but the days of screen reader developers relying on this approach have been numbered for quite sometime in all but a precious few cases.

As we insist on innovation which will permit us to continue learning and making a living, we are going to have to devise new methods of accessibility advocacy. Our approaches must convince the decision-makers in the technology industry that at least one of the following statements is true:

  1. Conscience dictates that delivering accessibility is simply the “right thing” to do.
  2. The presence or absence of accessible technology often makes the difference between whether or not a blind person is able to fill a particular position in a company or take advantage of an educational opportunity.
  3. It is better to help blind people than it is to hurt, ignore or otherwise leave us out in the cold.
  4. Accessibility is a good thing to do from a media or public relations perspective.
  5. Accessibility can represent an “interesting” project to undertake from a development point of view.
  6. A small increase in the customer base will result when products and services are made accessible to blind computer users.
  7. Blind customers of companies who take the effort and time to address our needs tend to be among the most loyal portion of the company’s overall customer base.
  8. Sighted people who care about what happens to their blind colleagues, friends and relatives may prefer doing business with companies who do the “right thing” with respect to accessibility.
  9. Religion may indirectly dictate that blind people should be afforded equal access to information.
  10. The laws in several nations of the world directly or indirectly mandate a certain level of accessibility for people with disabilities.

It is important to note that only four of the items (customer loyalty, increased customer numbers, laws and public relations) on this “accessibility evangelism top ten” list can be said to relate directly to business considerations. The rest relate to the heart. What does a person believe to be the “right thing” to do with respect to their emotional make up as well as their logical mind? Should we devise ways to shame those who would ignore us into doing the right thing? Would a person ignore the needs of their spouse, relative, close friend or colleague should they become blind? How would such a person want to see their blind spouse treated? Wouldn’t they insist on reasonable accomodations? Should we place a bit more emphasis on the “heart” of accessibility evangelism? Your thoughts are welcome as always in the form of a comment to this article.

Freedom Scientific and Serotek Reach Agreement to End Lawsuit

June 7, 2007 • Darrell Shandrow Hilliker

We here at Blind Access Journal are very glad this matter has finally been settled in a manner that permits both Freedom Scientific and Serotek to continue their business operations and retains the ability of innovators in the field to provide the products and services we must have in order to participate in the world of technology alongside our sighted peers. This news calls for celebration!

(St. Petersburg, Florida, and Minneapolis, Minnesota – June 4, 2007) Freedom Scientific and Serotek jointly announced today that they have reached an agreement whereby Serotek has agreed that it was inadvertently infringing Freedom Scientific’s federally-registered trademark.

“It is unfortunate that we had to take this action,” said Lee Hamilton, President and CEO of Freedom Scientific, “but trademarks are valuable corporate assets, and they must be protected, or they are lost. This agreement accomplishes that, and we have agreed to dismiss the lawsuit. As part of this agreement, Serotek has agreed not to use our trademark or any other trademark that is similar.”

“We are pleased with the settlement agreement,” said Mike Calvo, CEO, Serotek. “We will be renaming the FreedomBox and other affected products and services in a separate announcement in the near future.”

   

See the Freedom Scientific and Serotek Agreement press release for public confirmation of this wonderful news.

My Thoughts on the Relationship Between Vocational Rehabilitation Agencies, Consumers and the Blindness Assistive Technology Industry

June 1, 2007 • Darrell Shandrow Hilliker

It seems to be the unfortunate truth, at least here in the United States of America, that there exists a relationship between the blindness assistive technology industry and the system of state Vocational Rehabilitation agencies that does not usually include the consumer. The Vocational Rehabilitation agency is the customer, so the industry listens by and large to the agency rather than the consumer receiving the products or services they need in order to live, learn and work. The assistive technology companies have no business incentive to do anything contrary to the desires of their high-dollar agency customers. The Vocational Rehabilitation agencies, with perhaps a handful of small exceptions, do not tend to listen to their clients and put their recommendations into practice. It is ultimately up to the consumers of assistive technology within the blind community to make a positive difference. Here are some thoughts on the hard decisions that need to be made and the things I believe need to happen in order to radically change the relationships between assistive technology companies, consumers and the agencies:

  • Consumers need to fully research and take full responsibility for their assistive technology acquisitions, whether that be accomplished through relatives, service organizations, Vocational Rehabilitation or their own financial resources. This research could be conducted through Tech Act centers, the International Braille and Technology Center and other blind community resources. We must exercise due diligence to determine which technologies will meet our needs and desires. Even when the funds being spent are not our own, we must do all we can to responsibly act as though it is our money on the line. After all, isn’t the purpose for obtaining and learning to use assistive technology to better our lives through education, business ownership or gainful employment?
  • Vocational Rehabilitation should ultimately help only with aspects of education and employment that impact the person’s disabilities. For example, VR should not fund the individual’s tuition, which is a cost shared by people with and without disabilities. VR should, however, fund expenses such as the hiring of readers and the purchase of duplicate books required in order to reproduce them in accessible formats. From an assistive technology point of view, VR should not purchase computers, but should purchase Braille displays, note takers, screen readers and other items specific to the needs of the blind or visually impaired consumer.
  • The ability to receive Vocational Rehabilitation services should be based largely on the severity of the disability and its relationship to their perceived functional limitations in employment rather than on income. Even people with high incomes combined with disabilities pay taxes into this system and, thus, should be able to receive the same service levels.
  • A lifetime amount of funding should be set aside for the individual receiving service to be spent by that individual in a responsible manner. The individual should do the spending themselves, which could be capped at a maximum annual rate. Once the funds have been spent, there should be no more funding granted to that individual, without exception. I am essentially advocating a voucher program. The Vocational Rehabilitation agencies could devise a comprehensive, vendor-neutral list of suppliers through which consumers could contact in order to directly spend their VR funds. If a Vocational Rehabilitation client wanted to purchase JAWS, they could contact Freedom Scientific or an authorized dealer to make that purchase against the remaining funds in their VR account. Similarly, they could contact a Code Factory dealer to directly use their funds to purchase MobileSpeak Pocket for their Smart Phone, or contact Serotek to acquire RIM for use on their new job. The bureaucracy would be totally removed.
  • The Vocational Rehabilitation counselor’s role should switch from one of ultimate control to one of advisor.
  • The success of counselors and other Vocational Rehabilitation “professionals” should be based on much more than just entry-level employment. For example, their case closure scores should be higher if they help a consumer earn a job that pays significantly above minimum wage. This would serve to encourage these professionals to do more than the bare minimum for their clients.
  • Consumers should also be held accountable. If a consumer is receiving assistance with college related expenses, but that consumer is consistently earning poor grades, then there should come a point where that college related funding is suspended.
  • Services ought not always be provided to the “lowest common denominator” of consumers. If a consumer is deemed incompetent (unable to manage his or her own affairs) by a qualified entity such as a court of law, then that person’s legal guardian should be involved in their Vocational Rehabilitation case. In all other situations, consumers should always be treated as competent adult individuals.

If some of these ideas were implemented, I’m rather certain I could guarantee the relationship between assistive technology companies, consumers and Vocational Rehabilitation agencies would change radically for the better. After all, despite the agencies, it would ultimately be the consumer making the purchasing decisions, thus compelling those companies to listen to us directly.

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.