Why is technology and software for people with visual impairment so expensive?
Anyone who has browsed the costs for software or hardware commonly used by those who are blind or visually impaired has certainly suffered sticker shock at the prices associated with this useful tech. Why does it cost so much to buy products that can make people’s lives easier, and the world more accessible? Let’s talk about it.
When a company like Apple develops a new product, there are numerous costs associated with delivering the device to market that you may not be aware of. There are teams of people to design the unit, develop innovative technology that will go into the gadget, manufacture the product, and let’s not forget about packaging, delivering, marketing, and finally sales. The entire operation also needs management, and all these players do not count the support staff. Depending on the size of the company, these roles can be a massive team of people, or multiple jobs can fall to one person. In the case of a new iPhone, these costs are offset by the millions of units that Apple will sell once the new product has been released to the market, but companies who develop hardware or software for the blind or visually impaired market, are supporting a significantly smaller user base than a larger company would.
According to a 2016 study from the National Federation for the Blind, adults with mild to severe vision loss make up only 2.4% of the U.S. population. A report by the American Federation for the Blind shows that only 40% of the students who need assistive technology are given the chance to do so, this number should translate to adults who have experience with and actively use assistive hardware and software technology. Taking the overall numbers of U.S. citizens with significant vision loss, into consideration illustrates the significantly smaller potential install base for assistive technology when comparing to a mainstream product like a new iPhone. When you compound the numbers with the estimated 40% of those people having access to the assistive technology they need, the number of people who will use the technology developed by companies like Freedom Scientific, the developers of the JAWS screen reader, it begins to become clearer that these companies need to charge more for their products to break even on their development costs because they are aiming at a significantly smaller target customer base.
Companies who develop assistive technology can often receive subsidies from government agencies because their products are utilized in many rehabilitation programs. This can help these companies but where does it leave those who are visually impaired and not working with a rehabilitation agency but still need assistive technology like a screen reader?
Until recently, the cost of a license for JAWS was in the 1200 USD range, and closed-circuit television (CCTVs) which are used to magnify printed material range in the many thousands of dollars depending on the features of the unit. Recent changes in screen reader pricing and a move to an annual subscription-based model have eased things a bit, but for most people who are visually impaired and on a fixed budget, these costs are oppressively high, which is why many turn to free or low-cost alternatives.
A free and open-source screen reader called NVDA is available and does have many of the features that enterprise-level options like JAWS has. Similarly, there are a multitude of magnifier apps for iPhone and the Android operating system which offer “good enough” functionality when it comes to reading text. The problem with low cost and free alternatives is that the customer benefits from a short-term solution, but each time someone uses the free NVDA screen reader, it takes a potential paid customer away from the developers creating paid versions of the software. Likewise, free or low-cost software solutions often lack the support and training that a program like JAWS can offer.
Reducing the support for the companies making this software and hardware means less income. Less income means less innovation for those who are paying for the program and less innovation for the industry. I’m not saying that everyone should go out and pay for these programs, I’m just pointing out that there is a reason why the accessibility industry is evolving and innovating slower than other industries.
Hopefully this has given you a bit of an insight into some of the reasons why accessible technology is so expensive compared to other products in the same market. What do you think? Do you use paid or free options for your accessibility needs? Which screen reader do you prefer? Feel free to drop me a message on any of my social media links below and let’s chat.
If you would like more information about the statistics cited in this article feel free to visit the links below.
National Federation for the Blind statistics report
American Federation for the Blind statistics report
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About the author
Ted Tahquechi is a blind photographer, travel influencer, disability advocate and photo educator based in Denver, Colorado. You can see more of Ted’s work at www.tahquechi.com
Ted operates Blind Travels, a travel blog designed specifically to empower blind and visually impaired travelers. https://www.blindtravels.com/
Ted’s body-positive Landscapes of the Body project has been shown all over the world, learn more about this intriguing collection of photographic work at: https://www.bodyscapes.photography/
Questions or comments? Feel free to email Ted at: email@example.com
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