In today’s entry, I had planned to continue with the boundaries thread I started yesterday. However, my topic for today’s entry changed abruptly as I battled my way through the process of trying to officially add myself as one of Blind Confidential’s authors. It would be an under statement to describe the user experience I was subjected to when trying to accept an invitation from a pre-existing blog owner as a pain in the ass.
In theory, all I had to do was click on the link in the email from Chris, sign in to Blogger, and voila. Easy, right? Wrong. The reality proved to be far different and more difficult, thus inspiring my post (or rather rant) for today.
Can I just say that I am so incredibly tired of mainstream companies (especially ones with substantial financial resources) who seem oblivious to the needs of customers with disabilities? (Not mentioning any names–Google, Apple, and Yahoo!.) I mean, it’s not like these corporations are garage-based start-ups with 2 employees who work around the clock just to try to turn a profit. These are organizations with annual revenues in the billions, for God’s sake. So you would think they could scrape together a few bucks to hire an accessibility consultant to advise them that iTunes is not particularly easy to use with a screen reader; that requiring someone who is blind to be contacted by a customer service representative when they want to do something as simple as set up a Yahoogroup is … um …stupid at best; and that designing web sites with links that have no labels or text-based alternatives is not part of the list of accessibility best practices. I would like to suggest that the technology industry institute a mandatory “leave your mouse at home” day. Or perhaps we could orchestrate a large scale coup that involves painting over every computer monitor we can find with a lovely impermeable shade … like black. The scary thing is that the companies I named above (at least to my knowledge) have all attended the CSUN conference. I’m wondering, did they learn anything while they were there? Do they know that there are 54 million Americans with disabilities, and that this number is growing steadily with the aging of the Baby Boomers and returning war veterans? Have they thought about the fact that if anyone is going to use online services, it’s probably going to be a population with transportation or mobility issues? I know there are companies out there that have established accessibility divisions, but how many of those have done so without first being threatened with legal action?
Talking about this reminds me of Chris’ Monday morning post. The one where he talked about the need to have more than one screen reader installed on one’s computer, and where he mentioned the inaccessibility of applications that are essential in management-level jobs? I whole heartedly agree with his observations, and have 2 screen readers on my computer as well. Not to mention a braille display.
However, I also wonder if there is a connection between the growing number of usability and accessibility issues we are encountering, and the increasing number of non-disabled executives in the assistive technology industry. Of course I know that there are many people with disabilities who design, sell, and market AT products, but how many of them are in management positions? In the old days (prior to all of the mergers that have given us the larger AT manufacturers of today), there were a number of small companies who were led by individuals who actually used the products they created. I think this is happening less and less often in the industry’s current incarnation, and I think it is generating a number of very large problems for computer users with disabilities. Not that I think every executive position needs to be filled by someone with a disability, but I think that it’s odd that people who don’t know braille are often making key decisions about the design and production of products like braille displays and embossers.
A small but poignant example of the growing distance between some of the people in the corner offices and their consumers was brought to my attention in a conversation I had with a visually impaired peer. This individual observed how strange it was that so few braille notetakers are sold with protective cases; particularly given how expensive they are. When you think about it, practically every mainstream product out there (cell phones, PDA’s, laptops, etc.) is released with its own line of accessories, so why not their AT product equivalents?
There are definitely some positive aspects to the growing similarities and the blurred lines between the assistive and mainstream technology industries. Mainstream devices are often less expensive (simply because of the whole supply and demand thing). In addition, familiarity with mainstream technologies is often more impressive to potential employers. I mean, it makes more sense to someone if you tell them that you are proficient with Windows Mobile, rather than a proprietary AT interface. Finally, I think it is a very good thing that more and more people are becoming educated about the strong overlap between accessibility and usability. On the other hand, one of the biggest drawbacks from my point of view, is that we are now purchasing products from more mainstream companies who are unfamiliar with the importance and implementation of good accessibility principles, and we are also purchasing products from assistive technology companies who seem increasingly out of touch with what we (their consumers) actually need day to day.