Friday, January 9, 2009

Out of the Ghetto and in to the Digital Lifestyle

A ghetto is a portion of a city in which members of a minority group are coerced to live through social, cultural, legal, and/or economic pressure. Ghettos are often separated from the city at large by a wall or other natural barrier. But the real barrier is fear: fear of outsiders by those within the ghetto and fear of ghetto-dwellers by those outside the ghetto.

If you’ve read this article in AFB Accessworld, you’ll know I have firsthand experience with a ghetto. When my parents came to Miami from Cuba looking for new opportunities, they joined a community of other Cubans who were here for the same reasons. Our community was a place where we proudly celebrated our Cuban heritage and where the Cuban culture remained alive and well. But it was also a place that trapped us in poverty; a place where expectations were low; and ultimately a place which isolated us from the rest of society. It was a type of ghetto.

Did we prefer being poor, stereotyped, isolated and hopeless? Of course not! But there was an unspoken sentiment that leaving the ghetto would also mean leaving an important part of yourself behind, and that you would sacrifice the culture that made you who you were if you tried to blend seamlessly with mainstream society.

Over time, I came to realize that my cultural differences didn’t need to isolate me from those outside my community. In fact, those differences are a part of what make me interesting. I learned that there was a whole world full of people who had their own interesting differences to celebrate, and that despite all our differences, we were exactly the same in many ways.

This is a truth I had to learn not only as a Cuban American, but as a blind person as well. I spent much of my life listening to the stereotypes about blind people. We were socially inept. We were unemployable. We were to be pitied. We had to be provided with basic necessities to make our insular world habitable, but we were too different from the rest of society to ever be a part of it in any meaningful way.

I knew that I didn’t fit any of these stereotypes. I was sociable, I had talents, and I certainly didn’t want any pity. I didn’t need anyone to take the liberty of creating a world for me which contained only the things they thought I might need. I was perfectly capable of thinking for myself, and I wanted the freedom to choose what I would and would not do. I needed to bridge the gap between the blind ghetto the world thought I should live in and the place I really wanted to be.

Early on I understood that technology would play a huge role in bridging that gap, not just for me, but for the millions of other blind people like me. It isn’t just about bridging the gap to employment, which is certainly important. It’s about providing a way for blind people to have fun, to be entertained, and to communicate with the rest of the world without any geographical, social or economic barriers.

Over the years, I have watched mainstream technology evolve from something available to only an elite few to something completely ubiquitous. I have seen technology emerge from complex, bulky gadgetry comprehensible only to geeka to user-friendly, pocket-sized and smaller devices which can be enjoyed easily by those who have no tech savvy whatsoever. And during this time the price of mainstream technology has plummeted so that even the most budget-conscious consumer can pick up a state-of-the-art computer for $400 or less.

But has this trend carried over in to the assistive technology arena? Is there a push to provide compelling access to off-the-shelf products? Are AT companies designing easy and affordable products that don’t require hours of training to operate? The answer is a resounding no!


But why not? Is it because blind people are content to remain in the blind ghetto? Are we content to continue paying thousands of dollars for access to proprietary products which provide only a fraction of the functionality of mainstream products? Is it because we are content to remain a niche market rather than insisting on being seen as viable consumers who share the interests of our sighted counterparts? Is it because blind people simply don’t want access to entertainment or social networking? The answer to these questions is also a resounding no!

Ghettos, you see, not only keep insiders in, they keep outsiders out. The blind ghetto discourages mainstream technology companies from making their products accessible. A select group controls the sales to the ghetto and like it that way. The ghetto barriers protect their market share even though those walls can deny their customers access to the riches available to everyone outside the walls. It takes gutsy companies to build and market products that tear down the walls and it is these "disruptive" technologies that excite me.

Finally, in the past couple of years we have begun to see products that break down the ghetto walls. And each time a “ghetto-busting” product is introduced, its success enriches us all. Look at some of these products: Packmate from Freedom Scientific, runs on the Windows Mobile platform, and allows users to install their own software rather than depending on a specific group of preinstalled proprietary applications—exactly like mainstream PDAs.. Mobilespeak from Codefactory, puts blind cell phone users on a par with their sighted friends; and maybe the most fun “ghetto-buster” is the exciting Apple 4th generation Nano which, for the first time, gave blind folks the same accessibility to their “tunes” that every sighted teenager has enjoyed for years..

My company, Serotek, is a big participant in “ghetto-busting.” Today, Serotek introduced the Socializer, an application which provides access to instant messaging services such as MSN and AIM, as well as easy access to social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter. The response has been overwhelming and runs the gamut from tech savvy users clamoring for MySpace to be added to the application, to technical neophytes who have no idea what Facebook and Twitter are, but are anxious to find out. In a world that is becoming ever smaller with instant and ubiquitous one to one communications, Serotek tore down the ghetto wall and invited blind folks everywhere to be full twittering members.

The response shows clearly that blind people do want to live the accessible digital lifestyle. We do want to share photos on Facebook and Flicker and keep in touch through Twitter and MSN. We do want to chat with friends and family about how cool the iPod is, instead of waiting for an AT company to produce something half as good for twice the price. So let’s be loud about it! Let’s make our voices heard. Whether you create a petition, write an email, twitter to your new social network, create a group on Facebook, or just pick up the phone, let it be known that you want to tear down the walls to the blind ghetto and proudly live the accessible digital lifestyle.

1 comment:

Jake said...

Mike, well said. This is the sentament I've been feeling my entire life. This "ghetto-busting" attitude is why I companies like Apple, who are making their products accessible and basically ignoring those organizations that are telling them to stop. Further, they are following a different approach to accessibility--they have the courage to try a their hand at their own ideas and not just duplicate what the Windows products have done. That's why I use them, advocate them, and do what I can (even if it's just reporting my findings) to make them better. I support Serotek for the same reason: your access solutions are affordable and innovative, and you continually push the boundaries.
Yes, the "big guys" in the blindness field don't like this. They'd prefer to keep us dependent on them. I just wish more blind people realized this situation. If they did, it might change faster than it is now.