When Capitalism Fails

The basics of free market capitalism as proposed by luminaries like Adam Smith in his seminal work, “Wealth of Nations,” Max Weber in his study of the system, “The Protestant Work Ethic and the Growth of Capitalism” and in what still stands as the greatest critique of the system, “Das Kapital” by Karl Marx and Fredrick Engels all depend upon some basic fundamentals. Competition, according to the theory, will improve quality, increase innovation and, ultimately weed out poor products. Supply and demand will set prices for products and, supposedly, the best product at the best price will win in the long run.

With the advent of the 20th century, President Teddy Roosevelt and the economic visionaries of his day saw that the theory needed some tweaking. Companies that became more efficient were able to eclipse smaller operations, acquire them and, through practices like predatory pricing, could steal their markets. Thus, the notion of a free market that would benefit the consumer disappeared into a market where a few giants dominated various industries and, through anti-trust legislation, had to be pulled back and placed under control.

Throughout the twentieth century, free market capitalism has also been frequently disrupted by government intervention. Farm subsidies keep staples at consistent prices, military spending skews the price of everything from steal to chemicals to petroleum to labor. Fixed prices set by national health care systems often keep prices unnaturally high and competition for competition’s sake often works against the good of the consumer. It is these last two items that I will explore in this article as they seem to have the greatest effect on people with vision impairments.

If one performs a survey of the prices set by most Western European health insurance agencies, they will undoubtedly notice that, within a few Euros, the prices equal those charged by AT companies for Braille displays, reading machines, screen readers, magnifiers, CCTV devices and a panoply of other at products. As the majority of Braille displays and some other AT devices are purchased through these European health care systems and these national systems fix a price, what could possibly be the motivation to charge less to make the products more competitive. Certainly, no AT vendor is going to take less than offered by these government programs and the consumers who must pay out of pocket for said products are stuck with the artificially inflated prices that governments are willing to pay. If the European nations were willing to seek bids for such products, the prices would come more in line with reality.

The artificial inflation of prices for AT hardware also relaxes the motivation to innovate. If a national health system will buy the same old technology for the same amount of money, why should the AT vendors try to advance the state of the art?

When it comes to the screen reader wars, the issues become a bit more complex. Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act required that all Electronic and Information Technology (E&IT) products purchased by the US Federal government be made accessible. Unfortunately, there was no definition of “accessible” added to the act but there were some guidelines published. The Access Board, for one, published a set of standards for web development which, for the most part is being followed on Federal web sites. Corporations in the corporate sector had a loophole called the VPAT and would pretty much claim that if their product worked somewhat with a screen reader that it was accessible.

A VPAT or Voluntary Product Accessibility Template, is a form that any manufacturer of any E&IT product can fill out on their own to claim accessibility. There are no guidelines for how a product should be tested, at what level a product can be considered accessible or anything else that can put a impartial stamp of approval on a VPAT.

Some companies who wanted to do something to prove at least a marginal level of accessibility contacted the people at Freedom Scientific, GW Micro and likely others. First, these mainstream companies, often with billions of dollars in revenue, would ask for free products from the relatively small AT companies. If one company refused their request, they would run to another and play the AT vendors against each other.

The Assistive Technology Industry Association formed a committee to bring the AT businesses together with the mainstream companies so as to form some ground rules for making products compliant with the spirit of 508. One of the first items to which all companies agreed was that the expense of development should be paid by the billion dollar mainstream companies and not by the smaller and less flexible AT businesses.

Unfortunately, this plan never came to fruition. The big businesses would approach the AT companies separately and offer all sorts of intangibles (co-marketing, publicity, etc.) and make claims like “we have more than 20,000,000 installed units of our product and a small company like yours can leverage that…” Of course, as the software was not yet accessible, zero of these millions of users were also customers of an AT company and the likelihood of many blind people getting Federal jobs that require this specific software was low and would represent few screen reader sales. So, in order to maintain their huge Federal contracts by coming into compliance with Section 508, enormous software companies would try to muscle the relatively tiny AT businesses into doing all of the work and receiving little or no benefit.

If the AT vendors stuck together as agreed in the AT/IT committee, the onus would have fallen on the big software manufacturers and the AT companies would have been paid consulting dollars to make changes to the screen readers and the big software developers would have had to modify their products to make them comply with the standards that screen readers rely upon to deliver information to their users.

So, what went wrong? The screen reader companies, especially those with market shares smaller than JAWS, would take on projects from big mainstream companies simply for the prestige of claiming that their product worked with some major third party application. Typically, upon close inspection, few features of the products with which they claimed compatibility actually worked. Certainly, a screen reader could do something with the mainstream product but rarely enough to actually use it in a job site. The AT company would boast in their release notes that they worked with product X and their competitors would then have to fall in line and provide some level of support as well for competitive reasons. The reality is that, in almost all of these cases (products like Flash and PeopleSoft come to mind) the users are left with a half assed solution that their boss claims is accessible because the vendor’s VPAT says it works with one or more screen readers. Sadly, the poor blink with the job, saddled with the inaccessible software, may get fired because of the inaccurate claims by mainstream and AT vendors alike.

This is clearly an example of how competition hurts the consumer. The competition is not addressed at the consumer but, instead, at some nameless, faceless bureaucrat who makes decisions based upon things like a VPAT without regard to quality.

A Few Exceptions

For the most part, mainstream companies do as little as possible to become accessible. A few companies, though, stand out as leaders in the field and are tremendously cooperative with AT companies and seem motivated to do the right thing. These companies deserve acclaim and the continued business of blind consumers.

To start with, IBM has been on the forefront of making the work they do accessible. Most recently, IBM employee and old buddy, Aaron Leventhal did a terrific job making FireFox accessible. The ATG at Microsoft, under the leadership of Madelyn Bryant McIntyre and more recently Rob Sinclair, have done a great job of helping AT companies work through problems and by evangelizing accessibility throughout the company. Adobe, under the leadership of Loretta Reed is amazing and is definitely the shining light in the e-book business. Oracle, Sun and AOL also do a pretty good job and fairly recently, Citrix joined the good guy club.

I hope that MacroMedia, who always claimed that the myriad Flash authors were responsible for accessibility, will change their tune now that they are owned by Adobe. I hope that one of the GNU/Linux vendors does something other than claim that volunteers are responsible for accessibility and start funding some projects. Finally, I hope the 508 coordinators start truly testing mainstream products for accessibility so the entire E&IT communities will make a sincere effort to move toward a universally accessible world.

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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.

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