To Read Post, Tip Over Computer

Michelle sent this my way. Aside from passing on the story of yet another entirely useless and equally ridonculous blind person world changing gadget, it makes an extremely vital point that everyone who invents these sorts of things needs to hear. Basically, if we don’t like your idea, it’s because your idea, in it’s current form, is probably dumb. And the reason it’s dumb is that you’re basing it on what you think you know about blind people through what you’ve picked up from movies or TV or some guy you talked to once rather than taking your time, putting in the work on some actual research that includes a good number of blind folks and then asking yourself some hard questions about the true value of what you’re doing. There are a lot of gadgets electronic and otherwise in a blind person’s life that are essential, and the last thing anyone wants to do is discourage you from inventing the next great one. But what we do want to do is discourage you from wasting your time, money, energy, talent and creativity on stupid crap that no sane person is ever going to use and that even the insane among us don’t need.

In particular, I noted a recurring type of disturbing phone conversation. Once or twice a week Bill would field a call from a complete stranger sent by one of his adoring connections, or possibly self-propelled through sheer doggedness or religion. It would start with Bill calmly, if tiredly, saying something like, “That’s interesting, but blind people don’t really need that,” or “Actually, that already exists,” or “Have you talked to any blind people about this?” The conversation would generally turn into a long discussion about the fundamentals of Braille reading, how screen readers work, cane technique, or some other incredibly basic aspect of the routine conduct of blind life.
It turns out that there is a type of person — usually a retired sighted guy — who has invented something that’s going to really help blind people. Unfortunately, guys like this don’t usually know any blind people, and they don’t generally have any idea what needs doing in the blind world, technologically or otherwise. They seem to be inspired mostly by pity, which is a powerful motivator, but poor preparation for addressing real problems. They are reasonably well-meaning, but they generally show little interest in learning anything about the field or doing any kind of market research. You see, they’ve already invented the thing that blind people need, and they just need a little help — usually with obtaining funding — to get it into the hands of the needy blind.
One guy had invented a special telephone that would call 911 if you gave it a hard bump or knocked it off the table. He was convinced that it would be perfect for blind people because if you needed help you could just… knock it off the table. I guess he thought blind people couldn’t dial 911. Or maybe he just figured we were really good at knocking things off tables. Either way, Bill had a hell of a time convincing him that it was not only a thing that blind people didn’t need, but would also constitute a serious problem for responders in the event of an earthquake. He did not even mention how offensive the idea was.
Throughout these conversations Bill was always polite and friendly, but firm and instructive. The calls always seemed to drain him. It was as if the thankless task of dashing the hopes of these poor old guys was exhausting physical work. Inevitably, the calls would conclude with Bill offering to send some information, make a connection, or help in some other minimally committal but magnanimous follow up.
When the call would finally end, Bill would put the phone down and lean back in his chair. He’d emit a long sigh followed by a laugh. “That guy has it all figured out,” Bill would say. He’s going to invent a new Braille system with three extra dots and it’s going to solve everything.”

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