David Andrews (19446 bytes)
David Andrews

Consumers and Vendors of Technology for the Blind: an Underserved Multi-Million-Dollar Market

by David Andrews

From the Editor: David Andrews served for several years as Director of the NFB's International Braille and Technology Center for the Blind. He is currently Director of the Communications Center at the Minnesota State Services for the Blind.

With the decrease in prices of computers and access technology, the growth of the Internet, the increased use of computers at work and at home, and other factors, we are seeing more and more blind and visually impaired persons becoming involved with computers. Further, many blind people still wish to get on the Internet. This represents a large, untapped, multi-million-dollar market for developers and vendors of assistive technology for the blind. However, in order to tap into this potential market, companies will have to do a better job of communication, product development, technical support, and training. It seems to me that, as things currently stand, some customers of assistive technology are becoming increasingly dissatisfied with the products and support they are getting.

To explore this thesis, I first did what any good Net-savvy user would do, I went to the Internet itself. I posted a message seeking input to some two dozen listservs or Internet mailing lists. I also talked to many of my long-time contacts in the assistive-technology field.

While I received many thoughtful and useful messages, there were also quite a number of responses which either didn't say much that was useful or that weren't well thought out. This may be representative of part of the problem: it is easy just to dash off a response to something you read on an e-mail list without thinking it through or considering the consequences. People write things that they wouldn't say in person or over the telephone, make accusations, spread rumors, say silly things, jump to conclusions, call each other names, question motives, etc. All of this noise effectively widens the gap between consumers and vendors of technology. The Internet represents a vehicle for two-way communications flow, and we are still learning how to use it and integrate it into our lives.

One developer said that he thought that all the Internet ruckus might be a tempest in a teapot. I don't think that is true; I see a lot of pent-up frustration on the part of some users. Yes, there is some product- and company-bashing, and there are some people who need to get a life and not pick apart every statement made by every company, but the level of Internet noise also represents some genuine problems. Yet another developer of adaptive software products called for cooler heads, particularly on the Internet. He suggested, with some merit, that consumers need not engage in personal attacks or name-calling when disagreeing with a company. He further suggested that it would be constructive for people not to engage in rumors, speculate about motives, question people's lineage or intelligence, and the like, when discussing issues or problems.

After conducting my informal survey and talking to many people, I am convinced that there is a wide gap between consumer expectation and what is delivered to us by developers and vendors. It could well be that this gap has always existed; however, I think that improved communication offered by the Internet, increased media hype, elevated expectations on the part of employers and individual users, and the increased use of technology by everyone have inflated expectations and increased this gap.

First, vendor sales personnel have the most power to affect and change perceptions. There is a good deal of overselling, both in the general marketplace and in the adaptive-technology field. Many people now have the notion that technology will solve all the problems of blind and visually impaired people. Sales people anxious to close the sale may consciously or unconsciously feed those inflated expectations. The media have also created the impression that technology has knocked down many barriers to employment and personal independence.

A number of respondents said to me that adaptive computer software should work with all applications used by sighted persons, should be inexpensive, should have unlimited 24-hour-a-day technical support, should have free or cheap upgrades and more. Some people also stated that companies should reduce prices dramatically; offer unlimited toll-free support; buy back old hardware and software; offer grants, payment plans, and rentals; offer money-back guarantees, etc. While all of this would be desirable in an ideal world, it is not economically feasible in today's marketplace. Further, these inflated expectations came from somewhere; they did not emerge in a vacuum; they were fueled by something. That something, in part, comes from developers and vendors. You need to temper the marketing hype some of you generate in order to decrease people's frustration with you and your products when they don't work as expected.

Many rehab agencies, employers, and reporters seem to think that, if you give a blind person a computer, he or she can do anything, and there are any number of vendors who are willing to sell us that computer and software, whether or not it is appropriate for a given task. We have seen, time and time again, that mastery of basic skills, like the use of Braille and a long white cane, is the most important factor in coming to work competitively and living independently. People also need to understand that not all assistive technology works with all software applications and that, to use it optimally, a person is going to have to make an effort to learn about the technology he or she has obtained. Further users will have to keep updating their skills, knowledge, hardware, and software. Vendors can help by being more realistic about how they portray their products and their benefits.

While a majority of blind and visually impaired people don't want something for nothing, I think there is still a sizable minority that do. They seem to have a chip on their shoulders about being blind and expect to get reduced-cost or free products and services simply because they are blind. Ultimately we must pay for what we get, or we will get nothing.

In the beginning, or at least in the 1970's, adaptive technology companies tended to hire their own sales staffs. Many of them also tried to offer a range of products so that any customer could meet a variety of needs with that one company. With some exceptions this model held true until the mid 1980's. It is generally accepted in the adaptive-technology industry that the cost of selling and marketing a product is 15 percent of the retail price. This percentage includes the support of an internal sales staff. If a company finds itself spending more than this percentage, drastic action is usually taken.

In today's world we generally have fewer in-house sales staff; companies now use independent dealers. These dealers represent a wide variety of products, often competing product lines. The industry standard for dealer discounts is 25 percent for hardware and 30 percent for software. So you can see that, in theory at least, the current system has added 10 to 15 percent to the prices we pay.

In its favor, however, the system does allow a consumer to purchase a wide range of products from a single dealer, a convenient enticement for many. But what are we getting for this extra money? A number of consumers and vendors have raised the question: does this price difference represent a commission for sales or the cost of after-sales support? The developers of technology would hope the latter, but this is not always the case. We often go back to the developer for technical support because the dealer can't or won't offer it. This then drives up the price yet again. While some companies would like to have a two-tiered dealer system with larger discounts for those who offer good technical support, the effort and cost of setting up such a system and policing it make this an unlikely model.

Another disadvantage of the current system arises from the fact that a vendor may offer one or more products that compete with each other. For example, it is not unusual for a dealer to sell three or four different screen-review programs. How good will his or her support for all these products be? No one can be an expert in everything. Developers should consider being more selective about their dealers.

State rehab agencies and other large purchasers of adaptive technology often exacerbate the dealer technical support problem by buying from the low bidder to save a dollar or two. They often don't go with vendors local to their areas or vendors known to provide good after-sales support. This is short-sighted because their customers will turn to the agencies themselves when they cannot get adequate support from their dealers.

Rehab agencies and other funders of technology should also be willing to purchase training courses and materials for their customers. Lack of training and unwillingness to pay for it is a major problem in the assistive-technology field today. This lack of training is a major contributor to the expectations-versus-reality gap. People think it will be easy to use their new systems, and when it isn't, they get frustrated.

As consumers we should take some responsibility to minimize technical support costs and efforts. We should first seek support from our dealers and patronize those dealers who are able to help. We should be familiar with our products prior to calling for help and eliminate as many possible problems prior to calling. Is that computer really plugged in? We should not ask a company for help with another company's products.

Further, consumers will have to make some ongoing efforts with their technology. It is generally a good idea to upgrade software, both screen-review programs and general applications. The technology does improve, and developers can't support legacy systems forever; such support will drive up their costs. On the other hand, companies should respond to requests for assistance promptly and politely, should return phone calls within a reasonable amount of time, and shouldn't automatically point the finger at other companies.

The overselling of adaptive technology raises another issue. Simply put, all of this stuff is extremely complicated. Barbara Pierce, editor of the Braille Monitor, propounded a good analogy to me. In the early 1900's people who drove cars always took a tool kit with them, knew something about how their cars worked, dressed appropriately, and expected to have to do some work on their cars on occasion. Now things have progressed with cars to the point where a driver doesn't have to know anything about how the car works. As a friend once told me, "I just put gas in it, and it goes!" Computers will get to this point, but they are not there yet.

The overselling of technology has convinced us that computers will solve all our problems with little or no effort on our part. Unfortunately, this isn't true. It will take a good deal of effort on our part, and some knowledge of the computer and its software will also be useful. Few systems are automatic; things don't always work as expected or may not work at all. We should be prepared either to do some learning or to have a techie available to us on occasion. This stuff is quite complicated, and it is probably a miracle that it works as well as it does. Some day computers will be powerful enough that we can just concentrate on the task, not the process. However, until then we will have to become somewhat involved in the process.

It seems to me, and to many of you out there as well, that there are some basic things which consumers of technology should expect and which developers and vendors of this technology should provide as a matter of course. First, all representations of a product, whether in writing or orally, should be honest and truthful. The vendor should talk about what he or she can deliver now or in the next version--as long as that version is due in the near future. Promises shouldn't be made unless they can be delivered. If a vendor doesn't know whether his or her screen-review program works with a certain application, for example, he or she should say so and not assume that it will work.

Documentation should be provided in a number of formats, including Braille, regular or large-print, cassette tape, and computer disk. Vendors, you are serving the blind and visually impaired market; accessible documentation is part of the price of doing business with us. Clear, easy-to-follow instructions must be available in a variety of formats on how to get the software or device in question installed and working. The user shouldn't have to use the software or device in question to read the installation instructions or manual.

An easy-to-use installation program or routine must be available. A blind user shouldn't need sighted assistance to install software or devices on the computer, unless unaided installation just isn't technically feasible. Although installation routines are getting better, we still have a way to go in this area. Remember, provide instructions, don't require sighted assistance, and make it bulletproof.

Companies should offer reasonable warranties and a money-back guarantee when a product does not work as advertised or when it just doesn't work in a given situation for a specific user. If things go the way they have in the general computer market, we are likely to have to pay for technical support after an initial period. I hope this isn't so, but it probably is.

As computers become more powerful, they are likely to blur the line between assistive technology and the applications that others use. We are likely to talk to our computers, and they will talk back. In this case specialized developers and vendors who serve us now will have to do things to differentiate their products and services. This could include tutorials, training, and more substantial technical support.

Vendors and developers should get involved with the blindness community. If we are good enough to sell to, we are good enough to associate with. Quite a number of people who responded to my survey commented that developers should use blind persons when designing and testing their products. While this doesn't always happen, I believe that it does for the most part. However, the view that it doesn't happen seems to be fairly widespread. So developers need to be more public about seeking and using feedback from customers.

A couple of people commented that some vendors seem to attend professional conferences but not state and local conventions of organizations of and for the blind. I would urge you to become involved with us. Look at Deane Blazie and Blazie Engineering. He has publicly supported the National Federation of the Blind for many years, and it seems to have helped his business. Vendors have often told me that they don't want to become involved in politics. However, ultimately most things eventually boil down to politics and relationships, so get involved.

Developers don't always do a good job of testing their products with other assistive-technology products or with general-market products for that matter. While it has gotten much better recently, most of us have watched screen readers fight for control with self-voicing applications like PW Web Speak, An Open Book, or the Kurzweil K1000. In addition, people with multiple disabilities often have problems getting products such as speech-recognition packages and screen readers to work together.

Judged by many of the responses I received, a lot of consumers underestimate the work involved in developing and supporting adaptive technology. This is particularly true for screen-review programs. People glibly ask for these programs to work with all software on the market, to include more configurations or scripts, not to require configurations or scripts, to work on all possible platforms, and more. The days when one guy, working in his basement or garage, could write a screen reader are over. Today it takes lots of effort and a sizable staff. This means that we are starting to see a few strong products in the market, supported by companies that have the necessary resources, followed by a number of also-rans. I expect that we will see several products drop out of the race in the next couple of years.

Unfortunately, this diminished competition will not benefit consumers. Microsoft and other major companies can help out here. Now developers must do a lot of work to make their products work with standard operating systems and applications. Microsoft could, and is trying to, do some of this under-the-hood work to relieve developers of doing it. Why should every company have to develop its own off-screen model?

On the other hand, developers have to be willing to use the tools created by Microsoft and others. They haven't always been. They believe that their main advantage over their competition is their proprietary technology. Hopefully common sense and service to customers will prevail, and everyone will work together to improve products and increase competition.

From the people I talk to, I would say that very few developers and vendors of assistive technology are getting really rich, although some are making a good living. As consumers it is in our interest for everyone to make good money so that they can develop new products, improve the existing ones, and be around tomorrow to support us. If consumers, developers, and vendors of assistive technology will take some of the steps I have just outlined, it will improve the marketplace and general environment for all of us. These improvements will lead to stronger companies, better products, and happier, more productive customers.