To upgrade, or not to upgrade: Factors that influence user’s decisions

Technology has drastically improved the lives of disabled people over the past few decades. It has changed the way we communicate, access information, travel, and perceive the world around us. It has increased our independence, provided jobs, and enabled us to come together as a global community to share advice, lived experienced, and support. But despite these undeniable benefits, accessing and maintaining a positive relationship with technology as a disabled person isn’t as easy or straightforward as you might think.

Every disabled person has a slightly different relationship with technology. Some embrace it, some are wary of it, and still others face barriers that prevent them from accessing or owning technological staples, such as a personal computer, that our non disabled counterparts take for granted. Factors such as age, access to quality training and support, fear of change, financial status, and disability history all play an integral role in how these relationships play out. For many of us, keeping up with the latest and greatest isn’t as feasible as it might seem. Let’s take a moment to consider each of these factors to understand how they might influence a person’s decision whether or not to upgrade their technology.

Illustration: Profile shot of user with headphones

Elizabeth, Fable Community Member

“Factors such as age, access to quality training and support, fear of change, financial status, and disability history all play an integral role in how these relationships play out.”

Access to training and support

Access to quality training and support isn’t a universal experience for all disabled people. Programs and services vary across the globe. People living in cities might be able to obtain such services more easily than those living in rural areas, but this certainly isn’t true for all countries.

Training also ties in with the financial factor. Some governments or organizations may fund all or a portion of training costs, but many people have to pay for training out of their own pocket. They may only be able to afford a few hours of training at most, and then they are left to figure the rest out on their own.

Cost and financial barriers

Many disabled people live well below the poverty line, even in wealthier countries where financial support should be more readily available. Someone who is living on a low income, can struggle to afford the basic necessities (e.g., food, clothing, rent, etc), and they don’t have anything left over to buy a computer or a software program, such as a screen reader. Some programs, such as the Assistive Devices Program in Ontario, provide a certain amount of money for a disabled person to buy a computer, screen reading or optical recognition software, or other devices such as hearing aides or motorized wheelchairs. These programs are limited to a certain amount of money per applicant, and they can only apply once every few years. If the person has more than one disability, the money allocated to them may not be enough to cover all of their technological needs.

Disability-specific technology, such as Braille displays and screen readers, is a small niche market and thus quite expensive. Most Braille displays will cost thousands of dollars, whereas a decent monitor will only cost a few hundred bucks. Until about fifteen years ago, if you wanted a screen reader, you had to pay for it, you had no choice. I paid over $1500 for my copy of Jaws for Windows when I purchased a computer through the Assistive Devices Program in 2001, and that only allowed me to install the software on a limited number of computers, and receive a limited number of software upgrades.

The release of NVDA in 2006, a free, open-source screen reader for Windows, was revolutionary for Windows users. In 2005, Apple released OS 10.4 Tiger with voiceover baked right into the operating system. Unlike Windows Narrator, this was a fully-functional screen reader that enabled blind Mac users to set up, configure, and use their Mac computer without any sighted assistance. In 2009, Apple made voiceover available on its flagship iPhone series, opening up the world of touch screens to blind users.

While things are changing in the disability technology landscape, cost is still a huge barrier. iPhones are expensive to purchase outright, or they come with expensive contracts. NVDA is a wonderful screen reader with a large user base, but it isn’t as robust as Jaws. Google has also developed their own screen reader for Android phones, however, in my personal experience, it isn’t as responsive on the cheaper smartphones. So even though there are more options to choose from, if you want high quality assistive technology, it’s still costs a lot of money.

Fear of change

We’ve all had a favourite pair of jeans or shoes that we became attached to. As the years went by, they weren’t as fashionable as they once were, and they probably didn’t look as good either. But, despite the admonitions of family and friends, we just can’t help but wear those comfy shoes because, well, they’re comfy. Each time we slip them on, we know the how they feel beneath our feet, but if we buy new shoes, we have to break them in,