The Letter A

Depending upon which person, company or organization involved in disability issues publishes something regarding At, we can assume with near 100% confidence that the “T” in the abbreviation means technology.  But, what does the “A” stand for?


This morning, when on a telephone call with Mike Calvo, CEO of Serotek, authors of the increasingly popular System Access screen reader among other things, said, “Adaptive Technology.”  AIA, the new accessibility organization that claims it will harmonize standards (something difficult to impossible without Freedom Scientific, Serotek, IBM, Humanware, Mark Mulcahey, Apple or Sun involved) and ATIA, the technology industry association, use the word assistive to precede technology in their expansion of the abbreviation.  Finally, I have used and read others suggesting that the “A” stands for access as the technology can be used by an individual to access something otherwise out of their reach due to their specific disability.


Of the three, I dislike “assistive” the most and like “access” the most.  Of course, I am a word nerd and I probably spend too much time thinking about such things but contemplating semantics makes me happy so I do it a lot.  Such contemplations also help in word puzzles which I find to be a lot of fun.


Many years ago, when I first met Ted Henter, he taught me what he feels is the appropriate use of language surrounding technology targeted toward people with disabilities.  In brief, at HJ, we never used the phrase, “JAWS Helps blind people do…”  In fact, we never claimed that anything we produced “helped” anyone.  Ted’s choice of words tells more about the difference between a blind CEO and one who actually believes his work “assists” a person in any way shape or form.


AT products are tools.  Thus, one should think of a screen reader in the same manner as a Craftsman chain saw from Sears.  If I, as a person with a number of fruit trees in my yard, use the Craftsman tool to prune my grapefruit, fig and orange trees, Sears has done nothing to “help” me; they just sold me a tool at a profit and happily continued along in their business.  If I had brought home the same chain saw and left it in my shed to rust, Sears would not have hindered my gardening but, rather, they would have profitably sold me a chain saw that I elected not to use.


If a person with vision impairment buys a copy of JAWS, Window-Eyes, System Access or HAL, they have paid a company making a profit for a tool that they can use to access information on a computer that they can use for whatever purpose they like.  Some will use JAWS to perform computing tasks involved in their job; others will use Window-Eyes to send emails and enjoy instant messaging with their friends and family; another might use HAL to write reports and other tasks involved in getting an education, etc.  Another group of blind people may get a computer and any of these popular screen readers and let the machine sit in their house collecting dust.  Thus, AT companies don’t help anyone but themselves by making a profit.


Sighted people feel good when they can claim that they help we pathetic blinks accomplish something.  AT companies run by sighties use this concept of helping desperate blind people as a marketing tool (read any of their web sites (except FS) and you will find language suggesting that these companies “help” us) and will try to leverage our need for their help to sell more product.


The reality is that blind people can use a screen reader like any other tool.  They can use it to perform the tasks that will get them a good education that will then lead to a good job.  They may use the same to play games and screw around with their friends online and, in most cases, blinks will use screen readers for home work and play.  In none of these cases does the screen reader help them; they help themselves and any organization that thinks otherwise can kiss my bony white ass.


— End

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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.

4 thoughts on “The Letter A”

  1. Howdy Comrades!
    BC is right on with this help us poor blind folks crap. When I was a VR Counselor, I cringed when my colleagues explained that they were in “a helping profession.” My response was “sort of like a prostitute, right?” Needless to say, I was immediately informed that I was being “unprofessional.” I prefer working in precious metals. I can honestly say that I’m helping myself when I do it right.
    Chairman Mal
    Power to the Peeps!

  2. I think your article has a lot of merrit, but telling us what you really feel at the end did not make your case stronger but brought it down to a level that you would have been better off sticking out your tongue

  3. I’m definitely with this one, BC’s got it right. My only real problem with FS is the fact that they have this thing of charging extra for certain versions, or additions or whatever you like to call it, of JAWS, and it’s based on the OS you use. If you start out with XP home, and then you find that you need to change your priorities or just wish to use another version of XP like Media Center or XP Professional, guess what? That’s $200 more bucks you have to spend for an authorization for that version. There’s really nothing different about the code base or the OS itself, but they set it up so it only works on PC’s running XP Home, or Vista Home Premium if you chose to go that route. Personally I’m not upgrading to Vista until I can be assured that it’s absolutely essential that I do so. If all the programs I use under XP home don’t work anymore, then yeah, it’ll be time to switch. But for now, I’m sticking with this.

  4. You never hear a paraplegic complain that a company that produces wheel chairs claims that their product helps it’s users become mobile. Tools are designed to help people. Tools assist their users.

    As for tool companies, I’d argue that they help me quite a bit, as I’m incapable of producing tools by myself. Craftsman assists me in my tree pruning activities by providing me with a pruning tool.

    The real complaint your making, it seems, is about being treated differently. You object to the words “help” and “assist” because they remind you of times that you’ve been treated like a helpless wretch by some moron who doesn’t understand that it’s your eyes, not your brain, that doesn’t work.

    And because of a few of these poor ignorant people, you now assume that because someone feels good about helping you that they consider you to be a “pathetic blink”. This is perfectly ridiculous. When you help someone, I’m sure you feel good. I also doubt that you pity or look down on someone you’ve helped. Why should you assume this is the case for others?

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