On January 31, 2008, the Accessibility Is a Right (AIR) Foundation was launched. The foundation’s first initiative is to provide a free screen reader to all blind computer users, or those who would like to be able to access computers, around the world. The blind still suffer at least a 75 percent unemployment rate in the United States and the other developed nations, and it is much higher in the rest of the world. Though initiatives do exist to get computers and even Internet connectivity into the hands of the less fortunate, these well-intentioned efforts almost always leave blind people behind. The result is that, though many blind people may be able to acquire a computer, it would be totally useless to do so without the needed access technology to read the information displayed on the screen. In the vast majority of cases, the less fortunate members of the blind community are not even able to afford $1,000, $600 or even $24 per month for the privilege of using a computer. This statement is not intended as one of complaint regarding the plight of a miserable, poor, small minority, but simply one of fact for tens of millions of blind people living outside the confines of the United States, United Kingdom, Western Europe and Japan.
The current assistive technology industry is based almost exclusively on the status of people with disabilities in the developed world. Blind and visually impaired people here in the United States have a number of ways to obtain expensive assistive technology products costing thousands of dollars. If they are children, parents and the school system work together to ensure the necessary hardware and software is made available. If they are working toward a career goal, Vocational Rehabilitation agencies may purchase all or most of the equipment. If they are employed, they may be able to afford some of the costs outright, arrange a payment plan with the assistive technology company directly or even purchase it on credit. Finally, in some cases, service organizations such as Lions International may step in to cover the costs. The availability of all these pools of funding helps to set the price of assistive technology. Companies in the field determine their research and development, overhead and other costs, then make wise business decisions concerning the price they can charge according to the basic economic principles of supply and demand.
With a 75 percent unemployment rate in the developed nations, most blind people simply can’t or won’t make their own assistive technology purchasing decisions. This means the “demand” for such technology is not ultimately coming from the blind consumers who will use it, but from schools, Vocational Rehabilitation Agencies and others. The result is that most of our current crop of assistive technology companies charge the prices they can get in the developed world, while they listen to those who “demand” the technology by spending the money. The people who spend the lion’s share of the money on assistive technology are not those who use it on a daily basis. The incentive on the part of businesses in this field is, thus, to listen to the stated needs of agencies, schools and other organizations rather than to the individual when determining the capabilities, enhancements, pricing and all other attributes of their product offerings.
Outside the nations known as the “developed” world, the situation remains bleak for the blind. In addition to barriers imposed by poor social attitudes regarding the capabilities of blind people, there is almost no access at all to the expensive assistive technology we enjoy here in the USA. While sighted people in these nations also don’t tend to own computers, they are often able to visit Internet cafes, libraries and other public places where computer and Internet access is made available at a reasonable price or no charge at all. Sadly, with very few notable exceptions, these public computers do not feature the necessary access technology to permit use by a blind person. Once again, blind people are left behind with respect to their sighted peers.
The AIR Foundation is here to change this bleak state of affairs for the blind all around the world. Serotek has donated the company’s System Access To Go (SAToGo) screen reader to the foundation for the purpose of making it available to the blind completely free of charge in as many languages as possible. Now, any blind person who can get their hands on a computer with Internet access running either the Windows Vista or Windows XP operating system can also read the screen using a free screen reader provided by the AIR Foundation. A blind person visiting an Internet cafe, public library or any other public computer access facility can now use that computer right alongside their sighted peers, without the need to have a specialized piece of software installed. Any blind person who needs to access web sites, exchange e-mail, write letters, work with the computer’s operating system or perform other common computing tasks will substantially benefit from the free screen reader offered by the AIR Foundation in partnership with Serotek. The foundation is also working with companies such as Lenovo to make the free screen reader available in mainstream computers right out of the box.
Will System Access To Go replace all other screen readers? Certainly not. Many blind people will continue to need the configurability, scripting and other advanced features found in JAWS or Window-Eyes to access complex educational software and the applications used in today’s busy modern workplaces. We can only hope that innovations such as the AIR Foundation and solutions such as Serotek’s Remote Incident Manager will serve to turn the blindness assistive technology industry upside-down, breaking the stranglehold of the agencies and organizations who often want to make our technology decisions for us, making accessibility available to the less fortunate, and compelling the currently entrenched players in the field to stand up and really listen to the needs and desires of those in the blind community who use their technology on a daily basis.