Communication: The Key to Innovation

Being in attendance at a scholarly conference like ICADI reminds me that those of us who design and deploy technologies for people with vision impairments can improve the efficiency with which we communicate our ideas.  I’ve identified a number of groups who, for all intents and purposes, operate in isolation from each other and, therefore, do not benefit from the discoveries made by those in the other groups.  All inventors stand on the shoulders of giants and build on the cumulative body of knowledge.  This, unfortunately, doesn’t happen too often with efforts for people with vision impairments.

The distinct groups I’ve identified include: AT companies, businesses like FS, GW Micro, etc. who make the commercial AT products;  academics who do a lot of great research that rarely gets incorporated into AT products;  audio game developers who make what might be the most interesting advances in UI for people with vision impairments but are mostly ignored by those outside their community and, finally, the lone hackers who come up with cool ideas and spread them around their collection of friends but end up seeing their ideas fade into obscurity without the funding of a university, corporation or small business.  One other group that stands out as oft ignored are the huge companies that manufacture technology hardware, for the most part, hardware companies have some kind of accessibility group but the rate of technology transfer is so slow that many concepts never find there way into AT products.

I have an article coming out in next month’s Access World which addresses one of these issues but I think we blinks need to start pushing for summit meetings that include representatives of all of these groups plus other stakeholders.  Blind people make up a small minority of the population at large.  Thus, the ratio between research dollars and return on investment may scare a lot of people from heading down this path.  Thus, maximizing the efficiency with which this research can happen will make each dollar spent go much further.

Compared to mainstream technology companies, Freedom Scientific and Humanware, the two biggest in the blindness biz, seem puny.  Microsoft makes in less than a week what the entire collection of companies making products for people with vision impairments make in a year.  Microsoft can, therefore, more readily afford to support research efforts and, in fact they do.  So does IBM, Sun Microsystems, Hewlett-Packard and other civic minded corporations.  Unfortunately, the AT companies rarely have the time to read the results of the research and tend toward reluctance when it comes to making radical innovations.  The AT industry, even with its millions of dollars, really has little ability to afford long term projects and a lot of forward thinking that may not pay off later.  The can, however, spend more time listening and learning from those who do innovate and incorporate the items perceived to be marketable into their products.

The audio game hackers live in a world all their own.  The AT people ignore them with the thought that no one can make money building $30 products for blind people.  The academics ignore them more out of lack of knowledge of their existence than anything else (it is hard to have a large presence when you make $30 products for blinks) and the hardware companies tend to think of the workplace first and don’t want to spend time looking at a niche within a niche.

How then can we get all of these groups talking?  I’m hoping this blog gains some more popularity and such things can be discussed here.  I also think that industry organizations like ATIA should look past mere compatibility and start working toward an economic model for innovation that all of these groups will buy into.  Innovation is the key to success in the future and cannot be ignored, let’s all work together to find a way that both competition and innovation can co-exist comfortably.

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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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