by Susan Mazrui

Somewhere along the line, developers of assistive technology got the wrong impression of me. For example, although I'm college-educated, I never received an advanced degree in computer science and do not consider creating either profiles or patches a life-enhancing experience. I do not welcome a steep learning curve and translate that phrase as "something that will transport me to the brink of insanity." Call me jaded, but I simply do not view learning curves as some therapeutic means for delaying Alzheimer's.

Perhaps the same person who created the Daredevil comic strip character came up with the theory that when a person loses vision, he or she gains special abilities. I am not sure. I am certain, however, that many manufacturers of assistive technology actively subscribe to this theory.

Apparently, there is the general acceptance that devices that talk should require a high degree of prompting. To get the desired response from many of these devices, the user must employ investigative skills usually found only among the very best psychotherapists and fictional sleuths. Other "specialized" products require the development of mnemonics that even a person with a degree from Harvard would have trouble generating or remembering. I think that some manufacturers were trained at the MS School of Extermination and entertain a devout belief that bugs are an essential part of the computer ecosystem. Of course, it could be worse. AT manufacturers could think of us as young mutant reptiles with karate skills. I'd hate to see those products.

I know for the highly evolved Blind, that is blind with a capital "B," it is nothing short of heresy to want something that is easy to use. After all, were we not conditioned as self-supporting blind people to view problems as challenges? We smile in the face of oncoming traffic and view discrimination as an opportunity to advocate for our rights. But something happened to me in the two decades since I entered into adulthood. I began to see crossing high-traffic areas, even with excellent mobility skills, as potentially life-altering or life-ending experiences. I still cross all sorts of streets, perhaps an even greater number than I did years ago, and sometimes with more abandon than I should. I generally advocate effectively -- albeit with less patience these days. But I cannot accept the notion that as a person with a disability I should be willing to accept technologies that require my brain to run an intellectual gauntlet each time I want to save an address or read a note from a friend. My hats are off to beta testers, who try to make products easier for us to use. But have you noticed that most of the testers seem to be unusually technically savvy?

So maybe more folks without extensive backgrounds in computer programming or advanced degrees in electrical engineering or computer science should also be recruited when testing the user interface, do you think? A representative sample that includes us mere mortals would be nice. Just a thought ...

There is another common misconception that most AT manufacturers seem to have of me, and I think blind people may reinforce this. When we finally find a product that meets a particular need, often after many, many years of searching and coveting, we are willing to pay several times more for a product than our sighted peers would dream of paying. Techno lust is a powerful thing.

Like hungry people in food lines in Russia in the 1980s, at conferences and conventions some even use moves usually reserved for professional hockey players to be first in line to purchase an overpriced (in my opinion) product. All I ask is that AT manufacturers understand that I was not handed a six-figure salary when I lost my vision, nor did a rich, childless couple adopt me.

To be fair, I understand there are times when high research and development costs spread across a small market necessitate a higher price tag. For example, units that have refreshable braille displays have unique challenges, are more costly to develop and maintain and have a very small market. However, I do not believe this is always the case. I have also heard an assistive device developer pitch a product to a mainstream company, saying the company can charge whatever it wants, since the need for access is so great. While this was not a developer of technology for the blind, in the for-profit world "what the market can bear" is a serious consideration when pricing a product -- and this is not limited to assistive technology. When we let the market decide, it often decides that specialized products are not profitable enough to develop without a very high profit margin. So, those with limited or even moderate incomes often do without products commonly purchased by sighted peers because accessible versions are just too costly.

Just as the Americans with Disabilities Act made the statement that the cost for making public places accessible should not be visited solely on the shoulders of people with mobility disabilities, the cost for making accessible products should not be solely borne by people with sensory disabilities. As a society, we need to develop a means for developing affordable accessible products, especially in the areas of information technology, and making these available to people with disabilities. In theory, Section 508 should encourage the development of more accessible electronic and information technologies. With increased sales to the federal government to accommodate both employees and the public, the cost for research and development should be spread out across a larger market. In theory, more products should be available and prices on assistive and accessible technologies should drop. Did I miss something or am I just shopping in all the wrong places? The best outcome of Section 508, as far as I can tell, is a slight increase in the employment of blind specialists in the area of accessible Web design and computer-related technologies. With the unemployment rate of blind people as high as it is, despite how critical I may be, I am very happy that we have Section 508 and grateful to those advocates who made it happen.

While not required by Section 508, I have recently seen a change in the approach to talking devices that makes me happy -- well, almost happy. Talking Solutions Corp., a company owned and operated by blind people, recently demonstrated a prototype device, called the AVIVA, that seemed to take into consideration that my IQ remains in the three digits -- despite my intelligence-enhancing loss of vision. A combination of a talking Internet radio, electronic book reader, and CD/MP3 player, it is also designed to access the menus of most DVD movies. The company says it should be marketed for around $500. What makes me happy is that it is easy to use and it appears to be, dare I say it, intuitive.

In the field of assistive technology, phrases like "easy to use" and "intuitive" are few and far between. Most AT manufacturers, while often highly intelligent, do not seem to understand that a device that is stressful to use will at some point become an expensive paperweight. This is why I am intrigued by the approach Talking Solutions Corp. has taken. First, the company seems to have looked at what I would want in an entertainment unit and what I have only thought about purchasing to date because of my concerns about the accessibility of the user interface. Second, they have promised a product that, while not cheap, will not require me to take out a second mortgage to own. Certainly, this unit is more expensive than a single CD player, Internet radio, book reader, etc., but as a combined unit, it seems worth the expense. Moreover, I truly look forward to having a device that will allow me to use its every capability -- not just specific accessible features. As Martha Stewart might say, if she were blind, "Accessibility. It's a good thing." Of course, if Ms. Stewart were involved, the product would probably come in all sorts of colors I have never heard of and coordinate perfectly with bedding offered at K-Mart.

Still, Talking Solutions Corp. cannot receive my "Not-So-Bad" seal of approval (my highest rating) just yet. The company faces some major challenges. The first is to actually produce a product that is attractive to our sighted counterparts and the second is to maintain this product over a period of time. One thing I have noticed about AT manufacturers is that they seem to live a variation of the theory that "if you build it, they will come;" that is, "If you talk about it long enough, it will be produced." While hype produces anticipation during our hopeful 20s, by our 30s and beyond, it only evokes skepticism and an occasional yawn. Embittered though I may sound, I want to relax and watch a DVD or listen to ACB Radio without booting my computer. Let's hope Talking Solutions is doing more than just talking.

Now, having said some positive things about a product that doesn't officially exist on the market, for this article to maintain any credibility, I must state that should the AVIVA get off the ground, I will in no way benefit financially. I have no financial agreements with Talking Solutions Corp. or any other AT manufacturers -- other than to pay through the nose for things like screen-reading software and the like. Once marketed, I may or may not purchase the AVIVA, depending on personal finances and my own neurosis regarding my daughter's looming college bills. I do plan, if I cannot purchase it, to at least visit the Talking Solutions booth at each convention, longingly. (Despite the fact I am a late adopter of new technologies, I am not entirely void of techno lust.) I will eagerly sign up for drawings that will benefit good causes, at least those at the under-$10 level, that have the AVIVA as a prize. I will continue to ask a number of annoying and sometimes stupid questions, and treat them no differently than any other AT manufacturer.

It seems to me that Talking Solutions, at least in theory, has been able to overcome perhaps the biggest misconception about blind people. The fact that we want simple-to-use devices does not mean that we are simple. While some of us might actually have advanced degrees in computer science, we may not want to exercise our programming skills in all aspects of our lives. We may not want to program a toaster to make bagels. Nor do we want to have to enlist sighted assistance to program a VCR because the sequence of commands needed would challenge the memory of the likes of Big Blue. We only want something that is intuitive to operate, not unlike our sighted counterparts. Using simple-to-operate products will not hurt our self-esteem.

I am not advocating for eliminating more complex and powerful devices. A product like the AVIVA may not be ideal for those who live to program. Sometimes more complex devices are needed to be able to perform more complex tasks. Sometimes they just keep techies out of the kitchen and that, in some cases, may be beneficial to society as well! Nor am I advocating for all talking products to shout, "My owner likes me because I am easy." That, too, is open to a range of far too many interpretations. Devices that allow for customization are needed in some situations and for some people. However, I do wish that more AT manufacturers understood that the concept of being user-friendly is more than a meaningless advertising claim. The benefit of making intuitive and affordable products is easy to understand.

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