Information Access, Consumer Independence, and Free Matter for the Blind

By Shannon Brigmon Rinaldo

The author serves as Assistant Professor of Marketing at Rawls College of Business, Texas Tech University.

 

Abstract

Information access is crucial for consumer independence. Advertising provides information, empowering consumers to independently make consumption decisions. Items qualified for Free Matter for the Blind are restricted from containing advertising, which may have unintended consequences limiting consumer independence, creating consumer vulnerability. Results of a survey are presented showing the restriction to be at issue for blind consumers.

Keywords

consumer independence, blind, advertising, information access

 

Introduction

In light of recent passage of the Twenty-First Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act of 2010 (111th Congress, 2010), and promises of similar legislation, a reexamination of past accessibility legislation is warranted. Information access and the development of public policy focused on accessibility of print information has been a topic of discussion for blind researchers and practitioners alike (Dinsmore, 1994). Although most of the literature and proposed public policy related to information accessibility have focused on infrastructure of the Internet, the literature has in many ways ignored existing public policy that restricts consumer information access for blind consumers. The disproportionate attention to accessibility to digital formats has not taken those into account who prefer to read in other formats as well as those who are not using digital technology.

Sighted consumers rarely question whether written information will be accessible in the marketplace. This issue is salient for blind consumers whether the need be restaurant menus, catalogs containing product information, signs announcing sales, or other communications in the physical marketplace. Although public policymakers have introduced a variety of legislation that has vastly improved the likelihood that blind consumers will have access to print and digital information, contexts remain in which blind consumers are penalized as a result of inaccessible text. One such example is access to visual advertising. While many consumers with disabilities are better served with the passage of the Twenty-first Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act, contexts remain in which blind consumers encounter inaccessible text.

Advertising is often viewed as a double-edged sword: consumers report being eager to learn from the information embedded in advertisements on one hand, but they tire of being bombarded by marketing messages on the other (Coulter, Zaltman, & Coulter, 2001). As to the benefits of advertising for consumers, research shows that most consumers recognize the role advertising plays in distributing information (Calfee & Ringold, 1984; Hunt, 1976), stimulating the economy, and raising standards of living (Coulter et al., 2001). These benefits of advertising exposure suggest that an absence of advertising could have detrimental effects. In contrast, other research reports on the negative consequences of advertising. Such research claims that advertising is responsible for increases in materialism, a decline in societal values, and the spread of inaccurate information. Further, some consumers fear subliminal information and manipulation in advertising (McQuarrie & Phillips, 2005; Pollay & Mittal, 1993). This dichotomy suggests that in some circumstances the absence of advertising may be detrimental to consumers’ interests, while in others the presence of advertising may be detrimental.

Advertising’s effects have also been related to consumer vulnerability. Vulnerability in the marketplace is “a state of powerlessness that arises from an imbalance in marketplace interactions or from the consumption of marketing messages and products” (Baker, Gentry, & Rittenburg, 2005, p. 134). Vulnerability is a function of both individual and situational characteristics that arise in various contexts. Individual characteristics contributing to vulnerability can be either physical or psychological, while situational characteristics can be any external condition that disables the individual in the marketplace (Baker et al., 2005). Whenever advertising creates an imbalance that leads to a state of powerlessness for the consumer, it is an element of the environment that has the potential to increase consumer vulnerability. Although some consumers may be more susceptible to vulnerability throughout their lives, “we must keep in mind that all people—young or old, healthy or ill, rich or poor, domestic or foreign—have found or will find themselves, at one time or another, in a position of vulnerability” (Shultz & Holbrook, 2009, p. 126).

Just as the presence of advertising can be perceived as producing vulnerability through deception, the lack of advertising can also increase vulnerability by decreasing consumer independence. Independence in the marketplace is desired by all consumers (Baker, Stephens, & Hill, 2001) and exists when an individual is in control, is aware, can evaluate options, can make decisions, can perform activities, and can generally participate in the process of consumption (Nosek, Fuhrer & Howland, 1992). Individuals may experience varying levels of independence from one experience to the next, as the marketplace may present barriers to achieving autonomy of consumption, particularly for consumers with physical disabilities (Baker et al., 2001). Factors that inhibit consumer independence, like access to visually displayed information, may increase the likelihood of vulnerability for consumers.

When consumers focus on the positive aspects of advertising, they highlight the information and entertainment provided. Consumers interviewed by Coulter et al. (2001) said that advertising is an asset when it provides information about new products, educates about product and service attributes, offers product comparison information, encourages pre- and post-purchase assurances, stimulates creativity, and provides laughter and enjoyment. These expressed assets provided by the presence of advertising increase the control consumers have over their own decisions. Further, by means of advertising, consumers become more aware of and are better able to evaluate their purchase options, all characteristics that lead to increased consumer independence. It follows, then, that the absence of these benefits may decrease consumer independence and increase the likelihood of vulnerability in the marketplace. To the extent that the informational content of advertising is withheld from consumers due to situational barriers inhibiting access to marketing messages, independence is impeded. When environmental factors inhibit access to advertising and independence is affected, vulnerability may result.

Free Matter for the Blind or Handicapped (hereafter FMB) is defined as a service allowing individuals who are blind or unable to read due to physical or mental disability to send or receive reading materials and equipment postage-free through the United States Postal Service (USPS). One qualification for items sent through this program states that the items cannot contain any advertising. This paper presents a theoretical argument examining how the Free Matter program may simultaneously increase and decrease consumer independence. Data are reported that offer some insight into this issue. The discussion of information access and vulnerability in general, and issues of public policy in particular are of interest to blind people, parents, teachers, administrators, and researchers.

Background

Formation and Benefits of NLS and FMB

The push to develop tactile and audio text originated with the need for educational materials for blind students and adults. The need for alternative formats has been driven by a desire to remove “another group from the ranks of the ‘underprivileged’” (Library of Congress, 1983, p. 12). In essence, policies increasing the availability of reading material for consumers with disabilities were established to eliminate an environmental factor that appeared to create consumer vulnerability for this specific group.

Massachusetts legislators funded the first school for the blind in 1829 with state funds (Farrell, 1956) and in 1879 Congress passed the Act to Promote the Education of the Blind, which set up a program to provide free tactile books to blind students and further named a central location for the manufacturing of the tactile books. By 1935, Congress had established a national program through the Library of Congress and had designated $175,000 annually to the dissemination of Braille and auditory books to the blind community (Koestler, 2004). By 1966, amendments had been made to include the lending of recorded books and playback equipment from the library service (Congress, 1966). By the late 1970’s, the NLS had become decentralized so that combined state and federal funds were appropriated for funding libraries to serve blind individuals in regional areas. The funding also paid for training local librarians and expanding material format to include large print (Library of Congress, 1983). Since the early 1980’s, the library service has continued to be decentralized and has expanded to lending items such as tactile maps, talking books, digital books, and paperless Braille machines, among other accessible technologies. The NLS estimates current annual expenditures equal $75 million (National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped, 2009).

FMB developed alongside the NLS, which allows the NLS and eligible individuals to send accessible materials through the USPS free of charge. The mail sent through this service is prohibited from containing any advertising, which means that any item received through the program must be stripped of any advertising material prior to mailing (See Title 39 of U.S. Code Sections 3403-3405). Magazines and books that would contain advertising in the most common form cannot contain advertising when sent through FMB. As early as 1904, the language of the law clearly stated that advertising could not be included in materials being sent using FMB (Library of Congress, 1983).

Although the name of the program would suggest otherwise, the USPS does not incur the cost of FMB. Cost of mail sent under this program is reimbursed by the US Congress (Hatch, 2010). Statistics released by the Congressional Research Service report Congressional appropriations for FMB and mail for overseas voters equaling just under $100 million (Kosar, 2010). The NLS reports FMB as comprising approximately 90% of those appropriations, estimating $91 million annually (National Library Service, 2009).

FMB, as it is presently called, began in 1899 as “an act regulating the postage on letters written by the blind” (Library of Congress, 1983, p. 425). Although Canada had developed a similar program the year prior, this was the first postal law in the U.S. benefiting blind consumers. In 1904 the law was expanded to include materials on loan from public libraries and other public institutions in an effort to relieve the financial burden for libraries serving the blind. Magazines, periodicals, and other regularly issued publications were included in the service in 1912, but only when consumers were not charged a subscription fee for the materials. By 1937 the restriction on subscription fees had been lifted and companies were able to send materials free of postage while charging subscription fees for the material (Dixon & Hagle, 1982).

Other changes saw the language move from materials “on loan” to materials “furnished,” stating that recipients could purchase materials at cost and the organizations furnishing the materials would pay one cent per pound for postage. Further, audio formats, large print, Braille writers, and audio equipment were included as items that could be sent postage-free and any person or organization could send these items using FMB provided that the materials would be used by blind consumers (Dixon & Hagle, 1982). Physically handicapped consumers who cannot manipulate traditional books and people with cognitive impairments who may struggle with reading and comprehending were added as eligible recipients in 1966 (Koestler, 2004).

Reports from the Federal Depository do not document the reasons advertising was excluded from eligible materials in the 1904 version of the law, but the following evidence suggests an aversion to using taxpayer dollars to assist firms’ search for profits. First, the Senate Report 1016 accompanying Senate Bill 3129 contains a statement from the postmaster general, Mr. H.C. Payne, which recommended against increasing the weight limit for materials sent free of postage to or from blind consumers. Mr. Payne wrote that the passage of the bill would “establish a doubtful precedent” (58th Congress, 1904). Second, it was not until 1937 that organizations furnishing magazines and periodicals were permitted to charge subscription fees. The decision to include materials for subscription was somewhat controversial (Dixon & Hagle, 1982).

Although no report details precisely why advertising was restricted from materials ordered through the program, the preceding suggests that the impetus for the restriction may be cost, while other evidence suggests it may have been a general distaste for advertising. This explanation for restricting advertising could center on the paternalistic belief that consumers with disabilities required protection from the evils of advertising (Library of Congress, 1983). Advertising of the time was perceived as wrought with persuasive content that manipulated consumers, particularly those whom Congress viewed as “underprivileged” to begin with. At the turn of the 20th century, little oversight for advertising existed in the U.S., which resulted in misrepresentations and exaggerations in advertising claims. In 1906 the first federal charges were brought against companies for false advertising and the “Truth in Advertising Code” was established by the Associated Advertising Clubs of America in 1911 (Bauer & Greyser, 1968).

In 1904 there were only 80,000 blind consumers in the U.S. (58th Congress, 1904). Today an estimated ten million people in the United States are considered blind or visually impaired and 1.3 million Americans qualify as legally blind (Kaufman-Scarborough and Childers 2009). Like all consumers, blind consumers are shopping both in retail outlets and online (Baker, 2006). The 1904 report that accompanies the bill states that the population of blind consumers was in need of relief due to being poor and likewise dependent on outside assistance for education. The report goes on to say that making postage free would allow blind consumers to exercise and cultivate their minds, leading to contentment and happiness (58th Congress, 1904). At the turn of the century persons with disabilities were quite limited in their independence. According to the report previously cited, legislators felt that the new postal allowance would increase independence for the blind consumer.

At the inception of these programs, this demographic of consumers was isolated and effectively ignored. Specially formatted books opened a world and provided mental stimulation previously unknown to most blind and handicapped people at the time (Koestler, 2004). NLS sent approximately 25 million copies of audio and Braille books and magazines in the year 2007 to its 822,596 readers. The service houses 446,000 titles (19 million physical copies) in audio, Braille, and large print (National Library Service, 2009). Given the low likelihood that local libraries could provide space for these reading materials, the ability to house centrally and mail the items using FMB has proven to be the most successful method for providing eligible readers with reading material, facilitating reading for both pleasure and education (Library of Congress, 1983). Blind and physically handicapped consumers have benefited from both the development of the NLS and the ability to receive reading materials and equipment using FMB (National Library Service, 2009).

Nature and Sources of Consumer Independence

Consumer independence is “a state or quality of being free from subjection or from the influence, control, or guidance of individuals, things, or situations” (Caruana, Crane, & Fitchett, 2008, p. 254). Although complete self-sufficiency is unlikely for any consumer (Baker et al., 2001), decreases in perceived independence has been linked to decreased life satisfaction (Good, LaGrow, & Alpass, 2008). Most studies addressing consumer independence have focused on the importance of choice (Caruana et al., 2008; Baker, et al., 2005; Squillace, Mahoney, Loughlin, Simon-Rusinowitz, & Desmond, 2002; Baker et al., 2001; Wagner, 1999). The essence of independent judgment and choice is a crucial benefit of advertising and often taken for granted (Manning, Bearden, & Madden, 1995).

Baker et al. (2001) brought marketplace barriers for visually impaired consumers to the attention of consumer researchers by identifying factors that are likely to decrease independence and increase involuntary dependency. More recently, Baker (2006) interviewed twenty-one consumers possessing varying levels of visual impairment. The interviews revealed that the individuals were interested in a sense of independence through consumer experiences, seeking a sense of individuality, competence, and control. Further, those interviewed stated a desire to shop for themselves rather than to have someone shop for them, suggesting a specific desire for consumer independence (Baker, 2006).

The role advertising plays in assisting independence has been largely overlooked. The disabilities research literature provides four factors comprising the domain of independence: perceived control, psychological self-reliance, physical functioning, and environmental resources (Nosek & Fuhrer, 1992). To be considered independent, individuals must show competence in each of these areas, although any one consumer is likely to be more or less proficient across each of these areas.

Consumers with physical, learning, or other disabilities have gained resources—and potentially more consumer independence—because of policies like the ones enabling the NLS and FMB. Several methods and strategies are used by consumers to gain information about the marketplace and serve as sources to gain independence. First, blind and handicapped consumers may simply ask family and friends for information otherwise contained in advertising (Baker, 2006). Although all consumers to some extent must rely on others for information some of the time, the level of dependency felt depends on whether the individual has a choice in asking for help. Second, sighted readers are often hired to read direct print mail and other advertising material to blind individuals, although this has an associated monetary cost (Baker et al., 2001). The employment of readers may also be inconvenient and a risk to personal privacy. Third, blind consumers have found that the Internet affords them the ability to shop independently and expose themselves to advertising liberally, where 43% of visually impaired consumers are shopping online (Kaufman-Scarborough & Childers, 2009), although not all Internet sites are fully accessible. The fourth tool for gathering advertising information is radio reading services, broadcasting on airwaves as well as online. Volunteers read information from newspapers and magazines that would not be put into Braille or audio including traditional advertisements, classifieds, current events, and sales flyers (International Association of Audio Information Services, 2010).

Conceptual Summary

Independence in the marketplace is a basic need for all consumers, but those consumers who experience restriction due to disabilities or other situational factors have been a focus of the consumer literature (Baker, 2006). Past literature has offered evidence that vulnerability arises from physical, logistical, and interpersonal factors due to both external and internal mechanisms that interact extensively (Baker et al., 2001). Although the FMB program has elevated the quality of life for countless individuals with disabilities who have limited ability to read traditional print, its underlying public policy may also serve as an example of policy that has unintentionally hindered consumer independence, effectively placing the group in a vulnerable position.

The extent to which advertising is informational depends on the consumer and the type of information that is desired (Hunt, 1976). Advertising introduces a freedom for individual choice in consumption (Meyers, 2009) and makes consumers aware of new or existing products while communicating how competing products differ (Soberman, 2004). By limiting the likelihood of exposure to new products and product availability information, the FMB program may hinder blind consumers’ control and independence in selecting products suitable for fulfilling needs. For example, a sighted consumer may be exposed to five advertisements for cosmetics in a single issue of Rolling Stone magazine, whereas a blind person reading the same magazine in Braille ordered through FMB would not have access to the advertising. Therefore, a blind consumer with a skin condition would remain unaware that one of the five advertisements she missed is for a product that would potentially solve a skin-rash, thus inhibiting her from fulfilling a personal need. The inability to solve her particular personal need could have impact on social relationships. She then becomes increasingly dependent on other methods of collecting product information, including reliance on others for help (Baker, 2006), which has the potential to decrease power to direct her own life (Nosek & Fuhrer, 1992). A forced deprivation of advertising information could serve as an environmental catalyst for consumer vulnerability.

Independence is affected by the extent to which an individual’s external environment enhances or hinders the ability to achieve personal goals (Nosek & Fuhrer, 1992). The absence of advertising may act as an environmental barrier to consumption goals. Shopping and consumption serve as contributors to self worth and identity in a multitude of ways (Baker, 2006). Because of the restrictions placed on materials sent through FMB, magazines and other items that typically contain advertising related to new products and other promotional materials are withheld from consumers who may already suffer from a lack of independence (Baker & Kaufman-Scarborough, 2001).

The benefits of FMB are well documented (For a complete discussion of benefits see Library of Congress, 1983; Koestler, 2004). The preceding discussion provides theoretical arguments that the program’s restriction on advertising could unintentionally hinder consumer independence for blind consumers and, in effect, lead to consumer vulnerability. In order to investigate whether these unintended consequences exist, data were collected to examine the frequency with which FMB is used among a sample of blind consumers, whether those consumers felt a need for advertising in that context, and whether they feel they have experienced negative consequences as a result of this restriction on advertising. The next section discusses survey data in which blind consumers were asked about their use of FMB, their interest in receiving advertising, and their reports of negative consequences as a result of restrictions on advertising when using FMB.

Method

Participants

An online survey was sent to 105 legally blind people on a research panel, which was maintained by the author. The panel had been constructed via word of mouth associated with previous research participation and a national organization of blind people. Recipients of the email were also asked to forward the email request to blind friends in social groups to which they belong so that other individuals could have an opportunity to participate. The sample was not randomly selected and was not selected with the intention of forming a stratified sample. Participants were entered into a raffle to win one of two commemorative Braille silver coin education sets in return for their participation. This method of data collection yielded 39 men and 61 women (n = 100) from 19 different states throughout the U.S. The mean age of participants was 46 years old with an age range of 18-76 years old. The mean age reported of becoming legally blind was 14.79, the mode equaled 0, indicating fifteen (n = 15) were blind from birth. Participants also selected categories describing their highest level of education and household income. Sixty-two percent of respondents reported having at least a four-year degree, while 21% reported having completed at least some college. This sample was more educated than average, as the American Foundation for the Blind (AFB) reports only 21% of people with severe vision loss have completed a four year degree. Despite respondents’ education, household income was low. Thirty-eight percent reported total household income as being less than $30,000 and 52% reported household income below $39,000. Household income of this sample is consistent with that reported by AFB, which reports 43% of those with severe vision loss having a household income of less than $35,000 (American Foundation for the Blind, 2010).

Questionnaire

Nine questions for measuring frequency of use of FMB, individual desire for advertising, and consequences of restricted advertising were asked of respondents. The items were derived from specific statements made to the researcher by blind consumers in previous interactions. Specific questions asked can be found in Table 1. Reliability of measures are given in subsequent sections.

Table 1: Survey Items

Frequency of Use

Do you receive materials sent through the mail using Free Matter for the Blind?

 

What types of reading material do you order through the mail using Free Matter for the Blind?

 

How often would you say you receive materials using Free Matter for the Blind?

Desire for Advertising

I wish I could have more access to advertisements in magazines when I read them in non-visual formats.

Negative Consequences

I feel cheated or left out when I find out that I’ve missed an advertisement because the information was presented in a visual format.

 

When I hear ads on TV that interest me, I often do not get all of the information.

 

I have at least once missed a sale at my favorite retailer because I did not have access to the information in a visual format.

 

I often have to rely on others to read advertisements regarding new products, sales, or promotions.

 

I sometimes feel like I am behind the times because I don’t know about new products that are on the market.

Results

Frequency of Use and Materials Requested. Ninety percent of the respondents reported that they currently receive materials sent through FMB. After discarding participants with missing data, eighty-eight respondents were used for the analysis (n = 88). Eighty-seven percent said they use FMB once or more per month. Respondents indicated that they are using FMB to order a variety of reading materials and adaptive technologies, and were asked to report all of the materials that they order through the program. Of the respondents who said they use the program, books were the most frequently ordered materials, both in Braille (51.1%, n = 46) and audio (81.1%, n = 73). Magazines were the second most ordered items in Braille (47.8%, n = 43) and audio (55.6%, n = 50). This finding is consistent with reports from the NLS, that the average reader borrows 30 books and magazines per year (National Library Service, 2009). Newspapers were the least frequent item received through FMB, where Braille and audio newspapers were combined to make up 18.8% (n = 17) of materials reported. Although books contain few advertisements, approximately 50% of content in traditional print magazine classifies as marketing (First Research, 2007). Given the number of respondents who indicated that they order magazines and newspapers through FMB, the amount of advertising that these consumers are not exposed to via this venue is significant.

Desire for Advertising. The desire for receiving advertising through FMB was measured on a seven-point scale. Respondents indicated how strongly they agreed or disagreed (1= “strongly disagree,” 7 = “strongly agree”) with the statement, “I wish I could have more access to advertisements in magazines when I read them in non-visual formats.” The respondents who reported being users of FMB tended to agree with this item (M = 5.14, SD = 1.726). Sixty-six percent (66%) rated this question with a value higher than or equal to 5 on the scale. Only 24.4% disagreed or strongly disagreed and the remainder responded neutrally.

Negative Consequences of Restricted Advertising. Negative consequences of restricted advertising were measured on a seven-point scale where 1 indicated “strongly disagree” and 7 indicated “strongly agree.” The five items measuring respondents’ reported negative consequences of restricted advertising are listed in Table 1. Cronbach’s alpha calculation showed high reliability among the five items (α = .84).

Three items were asked regarding circumstances in which respondents may have experienced negative consequences due to missed information or opportunities when unable to view visual advertising (α = .73): “I feel cheated or left out when I find out that I’ve missed an advertisement because the information was presented in a visual format” (M = 5.04, SD = 1.96), “When I hear ads on TV that interest me, I often do not get all of the information” (M = 5.3, SD = 1.725), and “I have at least once missed a sale at my favorite retailer because I did not have access to the information in a visual format” (M = 5.34, SD = 1.921). Percent of those surveyed who rated each question greater than or equal to a rating of 5 on the scale were 64%, 75%, and 75%, respectively. Percent who disagreed or strongly disagreed for each question equaled 20.5%, 15%, and 18%, respectively.

Two items were asked regarding social implications of missing advertising messages (α = .78). “I often have to rely on others to read advertisements regarding new products, sales, or promotions” (M = 5.43, SD = 1.683) reflects dependency on others, an element of the physical functioning as well as psychological self reliance and perceived control. Seventy-four percent (74%) rated this item higher or equal to a value of 5 on the scale. Only 16% disagreed or strongly disagreed. “I sometimes feel like I am behind the times because I don’t know about new products that are on the market” (M = 4.7, SD = 1.869) reflects a hindrance of social identity, a major component of psychological self reliance. This item was rated 5 or higher by 59% of those surveyed. Only 24% disagreed or strongly disagreed. Taken together, responses to these five items suggest that this sample of blind consumers has experienced negative consequences due to missed opportunities related to a lack of exposure to advertising.

To check for differences in responses to questions from the survey based on education or household income differences, a one-way ANOVA was conducted. Both variables (household income and education level) were transformed into groups of the same approximate size. This analysis revealed no significant differences across household income or education level on any of the questions asked with the survey, indicating no unique answer patterns among different groups.

Discussion

This paper has examined whether restrictions on advertising limit freedom of consumption and consumer independence in some circumstances by limiting advertising exposure that would otherwise provide valuable marketplace information. Access to marketing information regarding sales at local retailers, product availability, and the like increases independent living. Access to examples of marketing strategy used by potential employers increases knowledge that may be helpful in vocational training. Omitting advertising from the FMB program as a paternalistic gesture to protect blind people from the dangers of advertising is unreasonable, as blind people are as capable of making decisions as any other consumer. Excluding advertising for financial reasons, although far less offensive, also deserves further consideration.

Adding advertising and other marketing information to this government program may be controversial, as cost to mail and translate these materials into Braille and audio could be a source of contention. At least two options are possible. Either the government could cover the cost of mail and translation or the advertisers could pay a fee for the opportunity to reach blind consumers with their message. Further, blind consumers using FMB and NLS could have the option of reading materials with or without advertising. Asking the government to pay postage on mail that contains only advertising may be unreasonable. Therefore, store catalogs, direct mail ads, promotional flyers, and the like should not be included as qualified material to be sent through this program unless advertisers are paying for these materials. However, consistent with research on consumers’ vulnerability and independence, advertisements should be an option for blind consumers using this program.

This change would allow audio, Braille, and large print versions to contain advertising, but the costs associated with postage would not affect all formats. Postage for audio magazines, books, and newspapers would only require an extra audio track be added; the total weight of material mailed would not increase. Translation costs for these items would increase. The bulk of additional cost would be attributed to the additional pages in Braille and large print books, magazines, and newspapers. While books contain relatively few ads, the content of the average magazine devotes 50% of the pages to advertising (First Research, 2007)—but as advertisements are generally shorter than text pages, this would not translate into 50% more volume. Although the cost associated with mailing Braille and large print books, magazines, and newspapers through the NLS and the USPS is unknown, the NLS indicates that the total costs for all handling Braille materials approaches $5,600,000 annually (D. Stitzel, NLS Researcher, personal communication, 2010).

Survey results presented here offer some evidence that the current FMB program may unintentionally exclude users from having a full consumer experience and serve as an external factor contributing to consumer vulnerability. This study is not without limitations but preliminary data suggest further investigation is warranted. Future research should examine consumer beliefs about the negative consequences of advertising and weigh the positive and negative effects of advertising for this consumer group. Limitations on exposure to advertisements in magazines and books limit knowledge about sale or store events, new product information, and other information in which any reader of the traditional print version would have access. This limitation decreases product and brand awareness for blind consumers. A reexamination of FMB is warranted.

This study is somewhat inconclusive due to the descriptive nature of the statistical findings. The findings do, however, suggest a need for additional research in this area. The concept of consumer vulnerability and its relationship to consumer independence is not yet well understood by researchers. Consumer vulnerability is said to “arise from the interaction of individual states, individual characteristics, and external conditions within a context where consumption goals may be hindered and the experience affects personal and social perceptions of self” (Baker et al., 2005, p. 134). Differences in individual characteristics, individual states, and external conditions among consumer groups may contribute differently to a loss in consumer independence, leading to a state of consumer vulnerability. Knowing which factors contribute more or less to vulnerability and independence in different groups of consumers across situations will help guide public policy in improving these factors for consumers.

Conclusion

It has been more than 100 years after the “Act to Promote the Education of the Blind,” which led to the development of the NLS. Since then generations of blind civil rights activists had worked tirelessly to ensure independent living for blind individuals, couples, and families. Dr. Kenneth Jernigan made the following statement in his presidential address at the July 4, 1985 convention of the National Federation of the Blind (NFB): “We want freedom—jobs, homes, the chance to succeed or fail on our own merit, access to places of public accommodation, interdependence with our neighbors, and full participation in society” (Jernigan, 1985). In many ways blind consumers have gained some of the freedom that Dr. Jernigan discussed in his many speeches as president of the NFB. This paper argues that “full participation in society” includes equal access to consumer information, most notably print advertising. FMB limits access to consumer information and this issue should be reconsidered.

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Figures

Figure 1: Timetable of FMB and NLS Development

Timetable of FMB and NLS Development

1829: First school for the blind.  Massachusetts legislators
1879: Act to Promote the Education of the Blind.  U.S. Congress
1899: Act Regulating the Postage on Letters Written by the Blind.  U.S. Congress
1904: Postage regulation expanded to include library materials
1912: Postage regulation includes magazines without subscriptions
1935: NLS established by Congress
1937: Postage regulation includes subscription-based materials, Braille equipment, and audio
1966: NLS furnishes recorded books, playback equipment, large print through FMB; persons with disabilities eligible
1979: NLS decentralized
1980-present: FMB and NLS continue to furnish tactile maps, talking books, digital books, and Braille equipment in addition to readable materials


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