Yesterday marked the release of a product which, according to Intel, would revolutionize the way the blind and others with reading disabilities accessed printed materials. During those few fleeting moments between hearing of the announcement and reading the actual press release, I had high hopes that a mainstream company would demonstrate its dedication to accessibility and innovation at an affordable price. And with backing from companies and organizations such as Humanware, Lighthouse International and the Council for Exceptional Children, I felt certain that the device I was going to read about would be very impressive indeed.
The Intel Reader, a device about the size of a paperback and weighing approximately 1 pound, is equipped with a camera and text-to-speech allowing print documents such as newspapers, menus, and signs to be converted in to a readable form by the blind and others with print disabilities. With the addition of a capturing station, sold separately, the device can be used to scan and convert more lengthy materials such as textbooks and novels. It can also read existing etexts in Daisy format as well as play standard MP3 and Wav files. This feature set reads quite a bit like other mainstream and custom-built solutions on the market. In fact, the only jaw-dropping aspect of this product is its price. The device itself can be had for a mere $1499, and you’ll pay an extra $399 for the privilege of using the capturing station.
After the initial shock, I and many others in the blind community began looking more closely at the information available about the device, just to ensure that we hadn’t overlooked anything truly awe-inspiring. After all, for its price, there had to be something which set the device apart from existing solutions such as the KNFB Reader for performing OCR on documents on the go, the forthcoming free e-reader from Kurzweil to read existing Daisy documents, off-the-shelf solutions like a PC, scanner, and ABBYY FineReader for more involved projects like scanning textbooks, or even the $259 Amazon Kindle, which isn’t currently accessible but could be made so with a little effort and encouragement from the community.
As we learned more about the Intel Reader, there was plenty to make this device unique. First, while most portable scanning solutions like the KNFB reader for mobile phones or a scanner/Netbook combo are equipped with wi-fi access, the Intel Reader can’t make that claim. In this article from VentureBeat it is stated that wi-fi is absent from the product because web-connected devices aren’t allowed in some classrooms. Far be it from us to suggest including wi-fi and leaving it up to school IT professionals to handle whether or not to grant wi-fi access, as they must do for all other wi-fi-equipped mainstream devices.
In addition to having no wi-fi capabilities, the device is also unable to handle HTML content natively. Rather, a user must first convert the HtML document to plain text before it can be read. This doesn’t bode well for a device whose major goal is purportedly to take the hassle out of reading for the blind and print-disabled.
Given that this device appears to boast no significant features setting it apart in a positive way from existing solutions, we must ask why the device was created in the first place. Ben Foss, the Intel representative spear-heading the project, has a lot to say on this. Foss states in a press conference: “A metaphor for this are the ramps that make buildings wheelchair accessible. This reader is like a ramp.” Unfortunately, this particular metaphor is far from apt. While wheelchair ramps are an example of smart universal design principles in action because they’re just as useful to a walking mother with a stroller as they are to a person in a wheelchair, the Intel reader has been manufactured and marketed exclusively for the blind and print-disabled without a thought for universal design. Foss goes on to acknowledge that the price is not cheap, but guess what, folks? It’s ok. You see, the device contains several custom components. Never mind that the essential components are a 5-megapixel camera, flash memory, and Intel’s own low-cost Atom processor which can all be had for under $250 as parts. Are you questioning the price yet? No, don’t do that. Intel can explain. Braille reading devices can cost upwards of $10000, so $1500 is really easy to swallow in comparison to that, isn’t it? Never mind that comparing Braille displays and text-to-speech readers makes little sense.
In essence, Intel is unapologetically asking us to accept this device’s hefty price tag for no other reason than that it was designed specifically for the blind. Are we going to accept being blatantly charged a premium because of our blindness, especially by a company who claims to have a philanthropic bent? Remember Intel’s Classmate PC, whose aim was to provide a low-cost and rugged netbook to students, especially those in developing countries? How can we take initiatives like that seriously when with this device Intel clearly shows it isn’t interested in providing low-cost solutions to the blind students in its own back yard?
Still, Intel didn’t create this device in a vacuum. “Intel has done its homework on the device,”, says Dorrie Rush, who serves as the marketing director for Lighthouse International. This signifies that Intel received input from blind and print-disabled individuals as it designed the product. So why is it that no one from these groups questioned Intel’s decision to reinvent the wheel, and in a completely lackluster way at that. Why did no one from these groups encourage Intel to combine existing components to create an innovative and affordable product that could be beneficial to all?
No matter how stunning a product Intel created, it still needed the backing of influential groups within the blind community in order to be taken seriously. For Humanware, who is among the companies distributing the product, partnering with one of the most lucrative and well-known mainstream companies was a huge accomplishment. Did Humanware leverage this relationship to educate Intel so that at least one mainstream company would design its products with accessibility in mind from the ground up? No! It did not! Humanware thanked Intel for producing yet another overpriced, sub par blind ghetto product, and jumped on the chance to convince millions of blind and print-disabled people that they need look no further than this bulky and expensive device to further their independence. When a mainstream company like Intel employs such tactics it is shameful. But from Humanware, a company who should by all rights have the interests of blind consumers at heart, these actions are nothing less than despicable.
Because of Intel’s status and high visibility, its new product rated mentions in mainstream publications as well as those which are more blindness-oriented. In this somewhat flippant article from Engadget, the authors posit that a device like the Intel reader could be created for under $500, and I suspect they’re right. But the interesting reading isn’t so much the article itself, but the comments. One post says in part: “Sure, you could build something that did something similar for less money, but would you then be able to give it to a nearly blind person to use all day, everyday? Completely implausible for $500.” This same poster goes on to say: “besides, the target audience for this device is disabled -- it should be paid for by 3rd parties because it meets the requirements to be classed as an aide for the disabled.”
And there you have it -- everything that we despise about this product’s existence all wrapped up in a smug, condescending little package and tied with a bow. Essentially, this poster believes that nothing which wasn’t created specifically for the blind could possibly work well in a day-to-day situation. Not only that, but there are apparently an abundance of tax dollars to go around for purchasing overpriced devices. And luckily, the blind person need not ever make a decision as a consumer since there’s a benevolent 3rd-party agency to take care of such things, rendering the process of making choices for oneself unnecessary.
So, are we, as a community, going to let this stand? Are we going to throw our support behind Intel, who spent countless hours and research funds to offer us a third-rate product which is priced out of our reach? Are we going to put our hard-earned money in the pockets of Humanware, who squandered their one chance to truly shape the direction of accessibility in mainstream technology in favor of making a quick profit? Do we want to continue accepting the pronouncement that blind ghetto products are not only necessary, but worthy of our everlasting gratitude? Or are we going to tear down those ghetto walls and demand our rightful place as the smart and savvy consumers that we are!
And before you say that you’re only one consumer, that your voice will never be heard, I will tell you that you’re wrong. You can make a choice to be educated about what you buy before you make a decision. And once you embrace the power to choose, you’ll want to share that power., and you won’t want to stop with just one person. You’ll tell every blind person you know to stop and think before choosing a product which has no claim to fame other than being designed for the blind. You’ll tell the blindness agencies and school systems who already struggle with tight budgets to stop and investigate before accepting the party line and purchasing something which does half as much at twice the price. And to those companies who are banking on your willingness to accept anything less than the best just because it’s been given the stamp of accessibility, the sound of your wallet slamming shut an the realization that you are actually “a consumer” with a functional brain and an opinion will convey your point quite eloquently indeed!