Ninety-nine percent left behind
In 2003, Microsoft Corporation engaged Forester Research to take an in-depth look at the accessibility market. Much of the research deals with accessibility tools currently embedded in the operating system and with levels of need that might be considered minor by many people. But within the research are a couple of numbers that are shocking and which should make the established Assistive Technology Industry and the many organizations that serve the blind and low vision population ashamed.
According to Forester (and these numbers are generally higher than reported by the U.S. Census) there are 18.5 million people of working age in the United States who have a severe visual impairment and are very likely to benefit from visual accessibility technology. More than 11 million of these people are potential computer users. But only 1 percent use screen readers; less than 1 percent use Braille displays, and 5 percent use screen magnifiers. In other words, 99 out of 100 blind people who might use a screen reader, do not. That by any measure is a gross failure of the industry and infrastructure that is supposed to be leveling the playing field for the nation’s blind citizens.
How can this be? The first screen readers came into being more than three decades ago. Every state in the union has organizations whose sole function is to help the blind and visually impaired live independently. Huge national organizations like the NFB and ACB advocate for the blind at every opportunity and yet the greatest tool for independent living – the computer – remains inaccessible to the vast majority of blind people.
The point of Forester’s research is that accessibility tools have a huge potential market. But the stunning fact is that despite the huge potential, the AT industry is barely measurable in size – the largest player, Freedom Scientific, generates well under $100 million in revenues per year in worldwide sales. Everyone else is significantly smaller. And this at a time when two guys in a dorm room can create an Internet business valued at $15 billion in a matter of a couple of years.
Free market advocates will point the finger squarely at government subsidies and they won’t be wrong. Today the vast majority of AT industry revenues arise as government subsidies, passed through various state and local agencies, and eventually used to purchase very high-priced accessibility tools and fund training for these complex tools. It is a closed system. The accessibility products are too expensive for blind people to purchase on their own and too complex to learn on a do-it-yourself basis. Thus, the blind are trained to look for the government funded purchase and resist any effort to get them to spend out-of-pocket for their accessibility ware. Traditional accessibility tool producers charge outrageously for their products and spend as little as possible to improve them. In fact, if they weren't dragged kicking and screaming into the future by the mainstream digital technology industry, they would likely spend nothing.
Unfortunately, by training the market to purchase only when subsidized, the AT industry has effectively short-circuited the free market. Innovative products that cost less, do more, and are easy to use simply don't sell because those who manage government funds won’t buy them. And the potential looks so small that no venture capitalist will fund the marketing it would take to break open this effective monopoly.
The losers are, of course, ordinary people who haven't the patience or the need to learn a complex screen reader. These people simply go without and thereby miss being part of the emerging digital lifestyle. And, by the way, they also lose the significant independence that access to digital information and the Internet can bring. As a result, they likely consume more subsidized services than they would consume if they could operate independently.
But they aren't the only ones who lose out. Corporations that might benefit from the skills that many blind and low vision people have, also lose out. If they wish to employ blind people they are hit with an enormous tariff in the form of very-high-priced screen readers and training. They may require major applications to be customized for accessibility. Thus a blind employee might cost his or her employer more than twice the wage paid, when the support systems are counted. For large corporations this may not seem too significant; but for small employers – the people who employ more than 60 percent of all workers – the costs can be prohibitive. The result is evident with blind people everywhere underemployed both in total numbers and in positions held.
There is a cultural impact as well. Because sighted citizens don't regularly encounter blind citizens in responsible positions in business and commerce, they have a tendency to think of the blind as not competent and that shows up in patronizing attitudes. For the blind person there is a continuous war being waged against his or her self esteem. They have to work hard not to think of themselves as second-class citizens.
Why is there AIR?
The AIR Foundation believes that it is time to change this shameful situation where a tiny minority of blind people have accessibility tools available to them. We are doing it by making a truly powerful accessibility tool available to anyone connected to the Internet at no charge. The tool is Serotek Corporation’s System Access, a da Vinci Award-winning tool that delivers all the functionality of a conventional screen reader, but is configured to be highly intuitive. Many people find they can use it with no formal training at all. AIR makes System Access available in a unique Web-based application called System Access To Go or SAToGo. Any person connected to the Internet can use it by simply typing www.satogo.com into their Internet browser. The software becomes active immediately and continues to run on the System until the user disconnects from the Internet.
SAToGo delivers all the functionality of a normal screen reader. It provides access to the Web, to common productivity tools like Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Outlook, Adobe Reader, Internet phone services, and much more. There is very little that a person using a conventional screen reader can do that any person using SAToGo cannot also do, easier, and with little or no training. We offer SAToGo so that the next time Forester does this survey the percentage of people using a screen reader will climb until it nears 100 percent.
We offer it because we believe access to information available on the computer and over the Internet is every person’s right and because we believe a level playing field benefits everyone. We believe we can create a world where no blind person is left behind and we have taken the first step to make that world a reality.
You can help.
Use SAToGo. Tell your friends. Encourage your schools, businesses, and organizations everywhere to make sure their computers provide instant access to SAToGo. You can make a donation to The AIR Foundation and your dollars will be used to educate, inform, and deliver accessibility worldwide. Together we can change the world.
© 2008 Accessibility Is a Right Foundation