Who Has the Power?

I have never felt too strongly about political correctness or the language of disability. I don’t find anything wrong with “blind person” as a label. I am, after all, a person and I am blind. I do, however, find the language of empowerment important and will devote today’s blog entry to the language of blindness and of empowerment.

I started thinking about this subject while working on a grant proposal I need to submit soon. One part of the proposal required that I make up a table of notetakers and PDA solutions that can be used by people with vision impairments. Thus, I spent some time reading the web sites offered by Dolphin, Freedom Scientific, GW Micro and Humanware. Linguistically, I found the FS site far less offensive than the others. This is due in large part to Ted Henter’s legacy but I wonder why the concept of who possesses the power hasn’t spread throughout the industry.

If one reviews the Freedom Scientific web site and compares it to the others, one major linguistic difference jumps out. FS always says that they will sell a blind person a product which the customer can then use to do their job, access computers, enjoy the Internet or do whatever it is that the consumer wants to do. FS, therefore, does not claim that they are doing their customers some kind of favor by selling them some software or device. I commend this approach as it puts the power into my hands and not that of the manufacturer.

JAWS, Window-Eyes and HAL are all tools. If we take a metaphoric look at a different kind of tool manufacture red and sold by a mainstream company, we will see how silly the language used by most AT vendors actually sounds.

Let’s use a chainsaw from Sears as our example tool. Could you imagine an advertisement claiming that Sears “enables” a person to cut down a tree? Would Sears ever suggest that Craftsman tools “empower” you to perform your yard work? Would they even go as far as saying that their chainsaw “helps” you do your job?

Why, then, do most AT companies use phrases like, “Our product enables its users to read web pages?” Or, “We empower users with the most easy to use…?” Why do these companies believe that they should be so condescending to us blinks? They do not “enable” me nor do their products “empower” me to do anything.

Products from AT companies, just like chainsaws from Sears, serve as tools for their users. If I buy a copy of JAWS and never learn to use it, I have spent $900 and am not “enabled” or “empowered” to do anything. If I buy a BrailleNote and leave it in my study to collect dust, I have less money and no more power. This is true for the chainsaw as well, if I buy one and leave it in the shed, Sears will happily collect the money from my credit card and my trees will remain untrimmed.

On the other hand, if I buy Window-Eyes and learn all of its cool features, browse the Internet, learn to use the MS Office applications and apply my new skills to find a job or get an education, I will be using the tool to empower myself. If I use a PAC Mate with a wireless modem to get the train schedule before I go out in inclement weather, I am helping myself by using the tool that FS sold me.

So, to all of the AT companies who believe they are helping, enabling or empowering their customers, please take a look at your own egos and ask whether you are doing someone’s job or providing a tool with which they can do it themselves? Once you have answered this question, go back and change the language on your web site.

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If someone can send me instructions as to how to turn on the footer in a BlogSpot Template, I will put the link to the RSS feed there and it will show up at the bottom of each post. I don’t know HTML well enough to figure out how to do it myself. If it was C code, I’d be fine. I guess I’m turning into a dinosaur.

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I'm an accessibility advocate working on issues involving technology and people with print impairment. I'm a stoner, crackpot, hacker and all around decent fellow. I blog at this site and occasionally contribute to Skepchick. I'm a skeptic, atheist, humanist and all around left wing sort. You can follow this blog in your favorite RSS reader, and you can also view my Twitter profile (@gonz_blinko) and follow me there.

One thought on “Who Has the Power?”

  1. One of the side effects of this focus on “enabling” the user, is that people tend to focus on the benefits offered to the user by a particular feature. The signs of this are fairly visible from all AT vendors, although Freedom Scientific and Dolphin are starting to change, with the latter making the more significant progress.

    This focus on the benefits offered by a particular feature actually leads to features that no one uses, as it leaves out a significant part of the motivational theory behind why people do things, including use screen reader features. Process theories of motivation, such as the Equity theory of motivation proposed by J. Stacey Adams, place equal importance on the costs of something, not just the benefits. Theories such as the Equity theory state that for someone to do something the benefits they derive from it must equal or outweigh the costs of that task.

    It’s this lack of focus on costs that has led to the relative failiure of some screen reader features. Features such as settings packager and sounds manager are good examples of this relative failiure type of feature. Whilst both settings packager and sounds manager offer the user some benefit, Freedom Scientific implemented them in a manner that sets the cost of using these features beyond the level of benefits that most users will derive from them. Therefore, the majority of users don’t use these features… but, hey! At least they “enable” or “empower” me to do something, even though I, along with many other screen reader users, are unlikely to ever use them.

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