Why we need better and other assistive technologies for digital Accessibility
It must have been a paradise: not so long ago, you could apply for a medical aid at the health insurance company and they would pay for it after what they considered a reasonable waiting period. Today, rejection letters seem to be firmly anchored in the printers of the health insurance companies, but the waiting time is still reminiscent of the Soviet Union.
At the same time, the pool of aid has expanded incredibly. In large part, we owe this not to the industrious aid industry, but to the mainstream computer and technology economy, which is busily downsizing, making more efficient and developing better software.
The cost trap
The assistive technology industry picks up on such developments - also with a reasonable time lag - to craft its own products. The first navigation systems for the blind came a few years after GPS had already become part of many drivers' everyday lives. After Google Glass and other wearables, the first devices for the blind are now appearing, e.g. the OrCam, which is currently haunting the media landscape. Unfortunately, they forget to mention the steep price of 3,500 dollars. But that's a bargain compared to Hyperbraille, a large-screen Braille display that is said to cost between 40,000 and 50,000 euros - if it ever reaches the market. Update: It never saw the market
I can already hear my health insurance company throwing their hands up in horror. The price is not the decisive point, they also pay for much more expensive things. The decisive point is that the health insurance fund and other providers only want to pay for what is absolutely necessary. What is necessary, however, is something that health insurance funds, social welfare offices, employment agencies, pension insurance, accident insurance and so on know better than we do. At least they reject on principle everything that goes beyond the absolute basic need.
The aid industry is at a loss
All the more strange, then, are the tempers of the aid industry. Most of these companies were created or grew in the old times described at the beginning of the article and have discovered a goldmine for themselves. They should also have realised that times have also become increasingly difficult for the disabled. In many federal states, for example, the allowance for the blind has been cut, so that many blind persons have to save up in order to buy aids that go beyond their basic needs. Since many blind persons are unemployed, they have hardly any more funds available than the basic allowance.
Nevertheless, the aid industry keeps throwing new expensive aids onto the market. For example, a small, mobile twelve-digit Braille display already costs well over 1000 euros. The aforementioned OrCam is a real luxury item at 3,500 dollars, for which one can buy five iPads of the latest generation.
Two aspects in particular are used as arguments: Firstly, the manufacturing costs are too high because the quantities are so small. The high price of braille displays is attributed to the expensive modules required for braille display. The second aspect is the high development costs, which also correlate with the low number of units. It naturally costs more to develop a new smartphone than, for example, a screen reader, but since more devices of a smartphone are sold, the development costs per device decrease.
There is some truth in both arguments. However, open-source projects like Orca or NVDA show that the high costs of commercial screen readers can hardly be justified any more.
The argument with the number of units is also no longer entirely conclusive. If the costs were lowered so that persons could buy the devices themselves, more devices could be sold, ergo the manufacturing costs would go down and so on. My impression is that the aid industry sees the payers as customers rather than the disabled.
A new paradigm
It is extremely unlikely that we can return to paradise. The opposite is to be feared, the health insurance companies are turning off the tap, the federal states are reducing blind benefits and the social welfare offices have never been permissive when it comes to participation benefits. That's why we have to find new solutions so that everyone gets what they need.
One solution, of course, is to snatch the monopoly out of the medical aid industry. We've already done that to some extent with NVDA and Orca. The iPhone already replaces a whole fleet of tools from Product readers to color recognition devices to monoculars. With 3D printing and modern production methods, it should soon be possible to cost-effectively produce smaller quantities, for example of Braille displays or similar products. Of course, soon is relative, maybe it will take another five years, maybe ten, but maybe less. Smarter persons than me worry about how to pull this off.
Another step is the mainstreaming of disability technologies. The assistive technology must be integrated into normal devices, as we have already experienced with the iPhone. To do this, however, the disabled persons must become more active than they have been up to now.
Last but not least, we need new ways of using tools. There are certain things that you need all the time or that you don't want to share with others for various reasons. Other things are rarely needed, such as a navigation system or a accessible car. It therefore makes sense to be able to either borrow such things from a central location or to share them, for example in a cooperative. It lowers the acquisition costs significantly, it reduces the hassle with the authorities and it avoids many of the problems that ownership would bring. In Marburg there is already a Pool for the blind.