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Access technology versus mainstream technology

This topic is very near and dear to my heart.  To put things into perspective:

  • Access technology is much more expensive than mainstream alternatives, and much less available on the market.   
  • It is extremely challenging to have access technology repaired as opposed to its counterpart.
  • There are few manufacturers of access technology hardware and even fewer developers of access technology software.
  • The profit to be made for those who develop and sell access technology is much less than for those who do the same for mainstream technology.
  • Access technology has to be developed in such a way as to adapt to the mainstream world.

So there is the picture.  Now where do we go from here?

About 18 months ago, I bought a PDA that was developed for blind persons; a real find for me and one that I found to be really forward-thinking because of its features.  A few weeks ago, I was told that this PDA will no longer be manufactured, and as of June 2012, no more hardware maintenance agreements will be available.  Accessories will still be available as long as supplies last.  Quite a shock and now we are all left holding the bag so to speak.

I am not going to identify the manufacturers of this wonderful product, but suffice it to say, the whole episode has made me rethink how I go about choosing my mobile devices.  Do I continue to buy access technology that is extremely expensive when I am not sure it will be around for long?  Or do I move towards the Apple world of mobile devices such as the iPad, iPhone, and so on?

Do I expose myself to heartbreak if I continue to buy these pieces of access technology only to learn that, in a short space of time, they are off the market, with no more supplies or accessories, or that support is no longer available?

Should we as blind persons continue to put up with such factors as high prices, unavailability, and inadequate support?  Or is it time for us to start embracing the world of Apple and thank the late Steve Jobs for having taken that big step to make all of his iDevices accessible to us?  The Android smart phones are also out there for the exploring and taking, and of course, there are other tablets and mobile devices out there that are becoming more accessible to us.  In short, there are now more choices to help us join the mainstream technology world.

The landscape is rapidly changing and who knows for how long the manufacturers of JAWS, WindowEyes and other types of access technology will be able to hold on to their respective turfs.  Only time will tell the story.  


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I think specialized technology is going to continue being useful in the sense of hardware. Mainstream companies like Apple are not going to start manufacturing braille displays or video magnifiers anytime soon. But the actual computers and mobile devices that connect with things like braille displays is where, hopefully, mainstream companies will start to step up. I don't think we are quite at a place where we can abandon specialized technology completely. Promoting braille literacy is one area where I would not want to see specialized technology disappear quite yet; I don't know many people using braille with iDevices, and I don't think using braille with iDevices is the most pleasant experience when compared with notetakers like the BrailleNote, from what I've tried. I'm also not convinced the touch screen is the best interface for blind users, but for sighted users it's definitely the way of the future. It's a good thing Apple found a way to make them accessible, or we'd be facing a serious problem. Still, for blind users, being able to use first-letter navigation and keyboard commands makes a huge difference in terms of speed. Ask me if I'd rather sit in a meeting and keep up with sighted people reviewing multiple documents using a BrailleNote or an iPad with braille display and I'd pick the BrailleNote. Using something like the "find" command is a process on the iPad, while on the BrailleNote it takes seconds.

As for what motivated Apple to make their products accessible ... I wonder if the surge of seniors coming in the not-too-distant future, many of whom will be more technologically savvy than any generation of seniors in the past, had anything to do with it. People might ask why they would cater to such a (relatively) small user group now, but in another 10 years when there are millions of seniors running around using iPads (and seniors make up a vast majority of those with visual impairments), it might make more sense.

I think things are slowly moving in the right direction, and Apple has set the standards. It's now a matter of whether other companies (Microsoft, Google, Amazon, etc.) will follow their lead. I hope these other companies do, not only because it would give us choice, but because if one of the advantages of mainstream technology is longevity, Apple is not the best example. Apple is notorious for making their own products obsolete and dropping support for them within a couple of years after release. Buy an iPad now and in two years it will no longer be supported by new versions of iOS, and upgrading iPhones and iPads is not cheap. It's also interesting to note that, while the iDevices are great for people with visual impairments, they are relatively inaccessible to people with some other types of disabilities (notably those with physical disabilities who have trouble manipulating the touch screen). And while Apple has dedicated a lot of time and effort into VoiceOver, their low vision features (on both Macs and iDevices) are quite limited and cumbersome to use in comparison to products like ZoomText. So, Apple has made a very impressive start, but even they could do more to increase accessibility with their products, and other companies definitely need to step up and start building accessible products. If Apple is to be the start of a paradigm shift in accessibility and not just a momentary spark, other companies really need to on board. But I think specialized products like braille displays and other hardware will still have a role to play in accessibility for a long time to come.

I think the point about braille displays and other assistive tech hardware is a good one. I do wonder, though, how many would prefer neither the braille notetaker nor braille display and iPad in the hypothetical meeting situation, but a good laptop instead (perhaps even some flavour of Macbook).

I think the point about Apple making its products obsolete is slightly exaggerated. I'm running the latest Mac operating system on a machine built in 2008 without any difficulty. I believe it is also still possible to update an iPhone 3G s made in 2009 to the latest IOS software. True, it doesn't run as well as it does on newer hardware, but that's true of tech in general. I agree that Apple doesn't do as much as, say, Microsoft to support older devices; I just don't think it's quite as bad as you imply, and it's also worth noting that Apple devices tend to have a higher resale value, which can help when upgrading.

I think you're right that a growing senior population was one motivation behind creating more accessible products. I also think that Section 508 in the states, which makes it harder for inaccessible products to receive widespread adoption in government-funded institutions, played a significant role, as I argued when Apple made its so called education announcement.

I was a little surprised by the comment about iDevices not being very accessible to people with physical disabilities. This isn't something I've researched, so perhaps I shouldn't have been surprised, but I've read a number of articles that have talked about the iPad being a very useful device for some people with physical disabilities. IOS also includes the assistive feature in the accessibility settings, which assists people with motor control issues. It sounds like you may have done more research on this; I'd be interested in learning more if there are any resources you can point me to.

I was in the same position a few years ago - my PDA was no longer going to be produced nor maintained. I was tired of calling for technical support and being told the problem was on the part of one of the other third party software providers. I did make the switch to Apple and have never looked back. My laptop and my phone sync automatically - whatever I put into contacts or calendar on one device is also entered into the other, I can move documents and information between the devices but best of all I am slowly but surely reducing the size of my "utility belt". My ultimate goal is to carry one device only that will serve as my phone, GPS, PDA, book reader, music player, note taker, recorder, scanner, talking watch, talking thermometer, liquid level indicator, bar code reader, and so on. Apple is close - but the iPhone still doesn't wash dishes!

There was a time when this "mainstream vs specialization" debate was a very contentious one. I suspect some manufacturers, such as Humanware, still stick to their guns on this debate, arguing that the only "efficient" way for a blind user to work is to use an interface designed specifically for the purpose. Such was a selling point of the BrailleNote over the PacMate in years gone by, anyway. I've never used a BrailleNote, so I can't comment on how true this claim was. I suspected there was some truth to their claim, because the PocketPC interface used by the PacMate really did seem somewhat foreign, or perhaps just unnecessary, to a device with no screen.

But the flip side is what you describe here. The advantage of having mainstream technology which is inherently accessible (ala the iDevices) is that (a) it is more widely supported, (b) it is cheaper, (c) it tends to be more reliable (because the average consumer simply will not tolerate a product that, for instance, loses all of your information should the battery run too low one day), and so on.

I wish there were more options. We can hope that Apple will lead the way to providing people with more options. Some still are not convinced that a touch screen interface is necessarily the best way, and it is truly ironic that this touch screen interface is in fact the most accessible. Why can't other phone manufacturers do the same? I believe, though others may correct me, that Android's accessibility features just aren't quite ready for prime time. Why not?

I tend to look at Apple and think, "If they can do it, what's everyone else's excuse?" I don't know what drove Apple to do it in the first place. I don't know that Steve Jobs had any particular connection to the blindness community. But whatever their motivation was... it's a good thing for us all.