Will Universal Accessibility at Libraries Even Be Possible in 10 Years?

Libraries pride themselves on their ability to provide access for all.   We do not care how much money you have, what you look like or what you choose to have for breakfast — you can access information for free, most times.

In comes the Internet and the world of information becomes even more free.     Then all the value added provided by Web 2.0 tools.    And computers are getting cheaper as well, so we’re looking at a golden age for technology.

Then we look at what we can do for accessibility.   Ideally, we should offer accessibility software on all public access terminals.  You should be able to go to terminal, click a button and have the screen sized the way you like without difficulty.   Alternately, if you have no vision at all, you should be able to press a button and have a piece of software tell you what is on the screen.   Sounds like common sense, right?    It does to me.   Text-to-speech software has been around for quite a while actually, the production costs should be minimal.

But what does it cost really to make this happen?    Well, let’s use the industry standards — and by this I mean the products that are most supported by the agencies that provide services to people with low or no vision:  Zoomtext, Jaws and Kurzveil 1000.   Now first, I’ll admit I’m going to use retail prices — institutions can sometimes swing a deal with companies when they order in bunches.   But put it this way:  take the cost of your current PC, include a computer desk and chair, maybe an education license for a productivity package like Word, then triple it.   That money might provide a station with the minimum accessibility using the industry standard software.    Add the equivalent of that new number and you might be able to include a Braille embosser in the mix.

Clearly, assistive technologies are not gaining the same value to the consumer that the rest of the industry is enabling.    Faced with choices about hard numbers, libraries offering free public internet access try to be accommodating by having special accessible stations to provide the same access to people with visual impairments that the rest of us take for granted.  Of course, while appreciated, these stations can be less than appealing, since they single out persons with disabilities as in need of “special” stations, when in fact this does not have to be the case.

Singled-out Demand Equals Overpriced Equipment

In fact, it is this “single-out” factor that enables such exorbitant prices for these products.    If we all demanded that our operating systems had screen-sizers and readers as part of the suite and refused to buy the products without them, they would be available universally for perhaps only a little more than what we pay now for them.

But a “singled-out” software line for persons with disabilities creates a market where the price elasticity of demand is very low.   For those of you who were not tortured through microeconomics like I was, elasticity of demand refers to the impact a change in price has on the quantity of demand for a product.   A highly elastic product means that a small change in price will cause a large change in the quantity of demand for a product.   Products with elastic demand tend to have satisfactory alternatives.  Take for instance apples and pears.   If the price of apples goes up, people may just choose to buy pears instead.   That means the quantity of demand for apples goes way down with the change in price.

Not so with software to support accessibility.   Despite the price, the quantity of demand for the products is likely to remain pretty stable.   Why?   Because there are no viable alternatives.   If you want to access the internet, you have to buy the software.   That means that suppliers have no incentive to reduce their price.   If they raise the price, the quantity of demand for the product stays the same and they make more money.   If they lower the price the quantity of demand stays the same as well, and the supplier makes less money.   There’s no reason to reduce the price, so why would you bother — especially when the added money perhaps can help you build a better product and stay ahead of the competition?

Now you may say that there are government grants available for accessible stations, right?    No doubt the intention is fabulous and who could blame libraries for wanting to take advantage of these services?   But there is a bigger picture here.  Remember — we are dealing with inelastic products here.   Adding money to the accessibility software demand pile will artificially increase the overall demand for the product — which in turn will artificially increase the price of the software even more!   In the end, there’ll be more software out there, but the demand will be stratified — those who get the grants will have the software while those who do not will not.

In short, there are broad societal issues associated with the accessibility problem, and I haven’t even begun to discuss accessibility as it relates to website design.   It seems hopeless — what can libraries do?   Here are some things:

  • Look at open source — For instance Ubuntu offers a screen reader as part of the package.     If you offer an Ubuntu station, you very likely are also offering an assistive technology station — except without ever calling it that.    While there is a lot of work to be done in this realm still, I think libraries should start thinking about offering Ubuntu and then letting the linux community know about the experience.     If you are interested in Daisy readers, you may also like to hear that there is a product called AMIS that will read Daisy format on a Windows platform.
  • Partner with community groups so to insist that all OEM software includes a viable and easy-to-use accessibility system, including a one-click screen resizer and a screen reader.
  • Try your best to make existing accessibility stations seem the same as any other station.
  • Fulfill your obligations for free access, but do not forget about the big picture.   We can “should” at each other until the cows come home, but the reality is that our budgets are limited enough already.   We cannot afford to dump money into products with such high margins.   We need to start innovating our own ways to serve our visually impaired clients if we truly want to maintain our reputation of offering “Access for All.”
  • Look carefully at the development of surface technology (ironically, low accessibility warning for the link).   There is a lot of potential here for low vision clients.
  • As much as ethically and technically possible, refuse to purchase any product unless it is accessible for everyone.   The more we consider accessibility a “special” add-in, the more the costs of “specialness” get born on those with disabilities.