Moving beyond market dysfunctions: Towards community-based AT development
The number and variety of Assistive Technologies (AT) available to people with disabilities have grown steadily in recent years. However, for users of AT, two issues remain fundamentally unchanged: the high cost of the technologies they require and the lack of appropriate training and technical support. In fact, it is not uncommon for AT users to pay many times the original price of a device designed for average users, just to acquire AT that makes such device only partially accessible. In terms of support, I have thought of writing a horror story book compiling the anecdotes AT users have shared with me over the years.
Entrepreneurs who attempt to make a living from the development and commercialization of AT also face a myriad of challenges that force them to drive up their prices. One of the main challenges in the transfer of AT to the disability market is the reduced size of the latter. Furthermore, this market is also highly heterogeneous since it is composed by individuals with very distinct needs from one another’s. The first challenge (i.e. market size) impacts the production cost of AT since it is typically not possible to take advantage of high-volume production savings. The second (i.e. market diversity), reduces the profit margin of AT developers since significant resources must be spent in tailoring particular products to individual needs or providing personalized support.
In response to such challenges, AT developers invest heavily on proprietary technology and intellectual property (IP) protection in order to secure a competitive advantage. Unfortunately, it is the end user who bears the cost. Moreover, AT developers are often hesitant to offer appropriate technical support, training or maintenance services for the AT they produce since most of their investments can only be recovered through sales and IP licensing. Thus, although traditional market-driven schemes for AT development have provided powerful economical incentives to make significant strides, the same financial motivations also constitute the main limitation of the free market model in the context of AT development: regardless of the context, AT developers will always be better off when focusing on wider, more numerous and more mainstream markets. This creates a natural environment for the abandonment of those with the most pressing, unique and challenging needs.
In short, the straightforward application of traditional market-driven schemes, which would normally represent the gold standard in the commercialization of any other good or service, has significant limitations in the context of AT development, and tends to discourage, rather than encourage innovation, effectively limiting access to AT.
There is however an alternative resource that has been for the most part either ignored or insufficiently considered: that is, the AT users themselves and their immediate communities. After all, it was people with disabilities who advocated for the elimination of government-sponsored sterilization programs for the “unfit” in the second half of the 20th century and it is them who have since taught us how to design goods, services and environments that have allowed us to become a more inclusive society. So why not support them in directing their own AT development initiatives? In fact, many already do, and, in many cases, all they need to succeed is for the rest of us to remove some of the barriers that we have put in their way.
With the help of communication and information technologies, many community-based organizations leverage personal and collective interests to actively engage in the development and transfer of AT around the world. Consider for instance the Open Prosthetics project (http://www.openprosthetics.org) which aims to create affordable prosthesis by publishing every design, specification and technical drawing they can get their hands on, and inviting anyone with an internet connection to copy, modify, build upon and prototype any of their published ideas. Another example is the Instructables AT group (http://www.instructables.com/group/Assistive_Tech/) created by AT users in North America to address needs that cannot be addressed by traditional AT development models.
These open initiatives for the creation of value in niche communities, which follow the wikinomics model (http://www.wikinomics.com/book/) as defined by Tapscott and Williams, pick up where traditional market-driven approaches break down. In most of these cases, the incentive is not financial but personal, deriving from AT users themselves (Open Prosthetics was created by a robotics engineer who lost an arm in Irak, while the Instructables AT group was formed by the husband of a little person).
Another alternative is the open source licensing model (http://www.opensource.org/) for software development that we use at the Adaptive Technology Resource Centre, which allows us to focus on what we do best – to develop inclusive web and mobile technologies for people with disabilities – by eliminating the need and resources required to pursue IP protection. Through this licensing model we can also establish service-based revenue models and thus, simultaneously address both the high cost of AT (which can be distributed for free) and the technical support needs of AT users (which may be addressed for a fee). Moreover, the local support capacity of remote communities in Canada and abroad may also be improved since open source licensing, in contrast with traditional approaches, completely eliminates the practice of prosecuting those who attempt to use or adapt the technology for their own benefit. In fact, open source licensing rather encourages derivative works.
The challenge of AT development and transfer is a complex one and requires the exhaustive and critical exploration of conventional and unconventional AT development models. In particular, the development of non-standard and proprietary technology, although beneficial to AT developers in the short term, may significantly hinder our long-term ability to provide a sustainable environment to fulfil the needs of all members of our society, resulting in higher overall costs. Innovation in AT development should not be limited to the devices and applications people with disabilities employ, but can also expand into the design of technology transfer models that respond more appropriately to the users needs, preferences and concerns.
|Author :||Jorge Silva
Adaptive Technology Resource Centre