Everett Rogers (1995) characterizes the behavior of consumers in adopting new products as “innovators,” “early adopters,” “early majority,” “late majority,” and “laggards.” Various characteristics of these groups and their interactions with the market characteristics of the products themselves feed into a full understanding of how new products mature in the market.
Consumers with disabilities should be included in this understanding, with respect to their behavior in adopting new telecommunications products. Various factors may be hypothesized as affecting this behavior, as it does for other consumer segments. These factors include income, age, educational attainment, awareness of the product, and experience with the product or similar products.
Consumers with disabilities can be hypothetically assigned to one of two rough groupings. In the first are relatively sophisticated consumers characterized as higher income, younger, disability not acquired by aging, employed, well educated, product-aware, and product-experienced. Their consumer behavior may be innovator or early adopter. Members of the second (and much larger) grouping can be characterized as lower income, older, disability acquired by aging, unemployed or retired, less well educated, product-unaware, and product-inexperienced.
Product characteristics also affect adoption, of course. The primary characteristic is utility: does the person have an actual or perceived need for the product, in order to accomplish an important goal? Consumers with disabilities may have very different answers from their non-disabled peers for some products and product features. For example, hands-free operation or an illuminated display are peripheral conveniences for people without disabilities, but may be the difference between inutility and utility in an absolute, core sense for consumers with disabilities.
The implementation of Section 255 of the Telecommunications Act together with market factors will significantly impact the lives of millions of Americans with disabilities. In order to understand better how the market can play a useful role in making products more accessible we need to consider the actual market experiences of people with disabilities.
Given the growing number and penetration of marketing channels and the dedication to meeting customers’ needs driven by healthy competition, consumers with disabilities should be able to select exactly what they want from an ever-widening range of products. Whether or not this vision of the market is accurate and whether or not the market will be sufficient to meet all needs could be the subject of endless debate. What is clear is that customers with disabilities are part of the telecommunications market, today and in the future. In some ways their participation is typical of any consumers, and in some ways it is different. The market – as a reality, not as an ideological icon – has neither been an automatic cornucopia of accessible products nor a cold and ignoring denier of the needs of people with disabilities.
Since the advent of mass-produced consumer goods, buyers have had to make compromises among competing factors, such as price, features, durability, warranty, size, and appearance. A chair might be a perfect size for the user, but too large for the room. A lamp might shed enough light, but be too expensive for the buyer. And so on.
These conflicts are, if anything, multiplied for consumers of modern telecommunication products. Three decades ago, consumers could choose between table and wall-mounted telephones, and little else. Today, with hundreds of phone models from which to choose, users must sift among models with dozens of features, many of which may be difficult to understand and use.
If selecting appropriate, affordable telecommunication devices is difficult for many people without disabilities users, it can be more complicated for consumers who are disabled. For instance, a blind person who has no need for an LCD display on a cordless phone may have to purchase that particular model in order to get the page feature he or she needs to locate the device. A person with limited mobility may require a voice-activated phone, but find that such a model only comes with a dozen touch-operated features that she cannot use. A person may hear about a desirable product from a city friend, but find that it is not offered in his rural community. Consumers without disabilities also experience these tradeoffs and compromises, but the difference is that they are usually able to use the most important features of whatever device they choose. Consumers with disabilities find more often that they cannot use the device at all unless it has the specific access features they need.
We have identified a set of market criteria that distinguish the market realities faced by consumers with disabilities from those faced by consumers without disabilities. These criteria were largely drawn from the 1999 Market Monitoring Report Consumer Survey results. These criteria all ask the question, “Is the disabled consumer at a disadvantage in the telecommunications product marketplace?” Or, more simply, “to what extent is there parity between consumers with and without disabilities?” We identify these criteria to explain in a systematic manner the differences in how the market works, at this point in time, for these two segments. We hope that as companies incorporate accessibility into their product development processes that these realities will change.
These criteria are:
Availability and Choice
This criterion asks to what extent a person with a disability can use all the functions of a product. Current telecommunications products are usually rich in functions, and a person without a disability can usually use all of them if desired. Not all of them may be usable by someone with a disability. For example, if a product signals users only by sounding a tone, a user without a hearing loss would have full access to the alerting function through the tone feature. But a deaf or hard of hearing user has no access to that feature, and thus none to the function. If that function is important to that consumer, he or she must look elsewhere for its fulfillment, even though he or she presumably paid the same price for the product as a non-disabled consumer did. This currently leads consumers with disabilities to rely on the assistive technology market instead of finding their needs met by a mainstream product.
Although most manufacturers and many retail chains are nationwide, the availability of consumer telecommunication products varies by region, by neighborhood, and by store. Even in a national integrated chain, not all stores stock all products. As another example, wireless carriers may purchase a small set of handsets and market them at their retail locations, even though other handsets may in fact work on their network. Retail space limitations and previous sales records determine what will be for sale in any given location.
Availability and choice for wireless telephones is further complicated by the different service platforms (AMPS, GSM, CDMA, TDMA, etc.) that are available in different parts of the country and the products that can operate only on specific platforms. So, for example, a particular phone made to operate on a GSM platform may have a variety of access features and be available and usable in many locations, but that product would not be available in a specific user’s location because there is no carrier using a GSM platform there. If analog becomes largely replaced by digital, the access features found in some analog phones and on the analog platform in general, such as non-interference with hearing technologies, will no longer be available unless an interference solution is found for digital phones.
This patchy distribution may negatively affect customers with disabilities. They may have to wait longer, travel farther, or simply go without a particular product or type of product that suits their needs. They may not even find out about the existence of a product; information about accessibility has always been a principal challenge. Catalog and Internet-based shopping are mitigating this situation for some consumers.
Beyond simple availability – even if all products were available everywhere – consumers with disabilities face reduced choice. For example, there may be twenty models of a particular type of product on the market but only three may have a specific access feature. The consumer who needs that feature due to a disability will not be as autonomous as a consumer without a disability, and may not feel that there is sufficient choice. The person without a disability will also be selecting among them on the basis of preferred features, but in his or her case the features may be optional, and not as necessary as the access feature is to the person with a disability.
The problem is compounded in work settings. An employer typically selects a telecommunications system and may equip all workstations with identical products. Unless these are selected for flexible accessibility, it may be difficult to meet the needs of any given disabled worker. Many workers with disabilities have an even narrower range of options than they would with residential products.
A consumer with a disability may need to know more about the subtleties of the product’s operation (force requirements, size of keys, whether menu items beep, etc.) than a consumer without a disability. As we found in our small survey of retail experiences, these product information needs are not reliably met. Few salespeople or customer support people have received the kind of training that allows them to deliver this kind of information. After all, even consumers without disabilities, asking simple questions about a product’s features, may find that they cannot get clear and correct answers. Packaging and user’s manuals may also lack the details that would adequately inform the consumer with a disability whether or not she will be able to use the product.
A user who is hard of hearing:
have found that I cannot go into places like Office Depot and buy a phone off
the shelf and expect it to be hearing aid compatible.
None of the clerks know anything about hearing aid compatibility, and
there is no information displayed anywhere about hearing aid compatibility.”
This forces the disabled consumer to become more of a technical expert, having to delve deeply into technical manuals or consult expert users. This situation may be compounded by the need to be sure that the product is compatible with the user’s assistive technology or hearing aids. The consumer with a disability may not know enough about the usability of a product until he or she has made the commitment to purchase the product and take it home to try out. Returning a product because it turns out not to be accessible or compatible (for that consumer) places an additional burden on the customer, as well as the retail store, distributor, and manufacturer. Web-based product information and technical support are mitigating this problem for those who have access to that medium.
Consumers with disabilities note with concern that when they can find products that meet their needs, these are too often the “deluxe” models. Often only the high-end version of a product has the additional features that they need, sometimes bundled with features that they do not need. For example, speech recognition telephones are more expensive than regular telephones, and speech output Caller ID displays are more expensive than visual-only models. The result of this disparity is that people with disabilities may be paying more overall for their telecommunications products than do people without disabilities.
Consider the situation of a hearing aid user who wants to get a digital wireless phone: he may have to replace his hearing aids with new ones that have greater immunity to interference. Here the additional cost is not for the telecommunications product, it is for a piece of personal medical equipment without which the telecommunications device is useless, and for which health insurance coverage is typically not available.
Even the search for information may be affected by price. In our research on retail stores, the wireless stores did a better job of providing customers with access feature information than the electronics stores. It is reasonable to expect that specialty shops will always know their products better and provide better customer service, but this advantage may be accompanied by higher product prices.
It is important to state, however, that several respondents noted that the price differential between a standard model without the needed feature and a deluxe model with the needed feature was often less than the price differential between a standard model and an assistive technology device. This reinforces the general conclusion that universal design, whereby mainstream products address the needs of more and more users, can be a valid market solution.
The four criteria discussed above should serve to deepen the discussion about the status of consumers with disabilities in the telecommunications marketplace.
Operability (and the Guidelines that cover it) relates to what might be called a principle of “familiarity.” That is, the operation of the product may be difficult for a person with a particular disability to learn, but once learned, there is no barrier to use. Thus a product could be considered inaccessible to an unfamiliar user, but accessible to a familiar user.
For example, many blind respondents who are users of wireless telephones claimed to have learned the order of all the items in all the menus of their phone. Their lack of access to the display no longer stymies their ability to use the phone, although the additional cognitive load, the learning time, and the need for assistance while learning are all true disadvantages to them. Compare this situation – the personal device – with that of a public telephone. If the interface of the public telephone is unfamiliar to the user, lack of access may be an absolute barrier because there isn’t the time for learning nor is every public phone the same.
Telecommunication equipment exists at all points along the public-personal continuum. A wireless handset is most often used as a personal device; a public phone is clearly meant to be used by anyone. In between, both residential and business phones are often shared or exchanged among several people. Users themselves do not have any impact on the selection of public devices, and usually only one type of public device is available in a given location. Users of public devices are “stuck” with them; the accessibility of public devices should receive the focused effort that respects their choiceless status.
The functions of a product may be more or less important, in at least two ways. First, functions vary in their centrality to the designed purpose of the product and in how they are perceived by an individual user. Many wireless phones allow the user to change the sound of the ring. For most users, changing the ring is not an essential function; as long as it rings, it works for them. But a user with high frequency hearing loss, or a non-disabled user who is often in an environment in which many wireless phones ring may find this function to be very important.
Second, there are differences in frequency of use. Some functions are needed throughout each usage of the product, such as a keyboard used for text input. Some are needed once every time the device is used, such as the “on” button. Some functions are used less frequently, such as editing a speed dial list. Some may be used only once, when the product is first installed or configured.
Although it is not equitable to expect users with disabilities to seek and obtain help in a one-time set up, it is clearly less equitable for someone to need help with a product throughout each use. This is especially true if the assistance needed breaches the privacy of the user. Respondents made comments to this effect.
A user who is blind:
“I didn’t mind [needing help when setting up the
device] because I knew when it came to using it every day that I could do it
A user with a manipulation impairment:
“I just usually get someone to help me put it in the
charger whenever it’s low and take it out and it’s no problem.
I can make phone calls and answer calls by myself.”
The Guidelines do not distinguish between “core” and “marginal” functions, but this distinction could be considered central to the determination of the accessibility and usability of a product. Manufacturers should not ignore the need for all functions to be as accessible as possible, but it might be possible to establish a process, internal to a company or part of external review, by which the accessibility of the core functions and the more frequently used functions receive greater attention.