1 Introduction

The F123 Consulting team has developed F123Light, the world’s most affordable fully functional talking computer for the blind. The project’s objective is to enhance access to education and employment for the blind through the use of low-cost competitive technologies, training, and technical support. The strategy is to scale-up through the use of mass-produced and easily assembled hardware kits, as well as freely distributed and cooperatively developed open source software.

The first version of F123Light will be launched in early 2019 and will be available in English, Brazilian Portuguese, Spanish, and Arabic. Contributors to F123Light come from countries as varied as Algeria, Brazil, Egypt, Germany, India, Latvia, Russia, the United Arab Emirates, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

2 Defining the Problem

Improving access to education and employment opportunities for the blind is, as is the case with most social challenges, a complex problem which involves a variety of social, economic, and technological factors. The following are some of the problems we have identified as important and which we hope to address through our F123Light initiative.

2.1 The Typically High Cost of Assistive Technology

Most companies which develop and market sophisticated assistive technologies, such as screen reading software, are based in developed countries where they depend largely on government purchases to sustain their work. As a result, their business model is not optimized for affordability, as tends to be the case with any corporation that sells primarily to governments. As an example, the cost for Jaws for Windows, a screen reader which is quite popular among wealthy governments, is about US$2000 per license.

In addition, there are other factors, such as the high complexity of some of these technologies, the high level of specialization required of developers, and the high marketing and distribution costs for assistive technologies. High marketing costs are particularly the case among the blind, who tend to be widely dispersed geographically, as well as in all social classes, ethnicities, nationalities, and age groups.

In addition, the cost of hardware products for the blind also tends to be very high, relative to their features and overall technical characteristics. The reason for this seems to be that, in addition to reduced competition due to the small market size, custom-made hardware is always more expensive when its production volumes are smaller than those reached by mainstream products. This is the case, because even though persons with disabilities are an estimated 10 to 15 percent of the overall population, within that group there is great diversity. For example, persons who are blind are estimated to be only about two to three percent of the overall population in the United States.

Finally, cost is a relative concept, as it depends greatly on the income level of the potential customer. In this regard assistive technology tends to be very expensive given that the prevalence of poverty, i.e. the percentage of visually impaired persons living below the poverty line in the United States is roughly one third. World-wide the problem persists, with persons with disabilities being the poorest among the poor.

2.2 Social Impact and Value Versus Price Confusion

The high relative and absolute cost of most assistive technologies negatively impact the blind at multiple levels. In addition to restricting immediate access to software and devices, it can also have negative consequences even when funding is obtained to purchase the needed technology.

The classic model in most non-profits is to request funding from government agencies or foundations, purchase equipment and software, hire a teacher, and then offer training for the blind. This approach quickly fails in its greater goal of improving access to education and employment for the blind, since as soon as the training is finished, it becomes abundantly clear that neither the blind person, his or her family or school, nor local companies are able to afford the technology in which training was offered.

When nobody in the local community can afford to purchase the selected technology, it also means that even the rare donation is not usually maintained or replaced when necessary. As a result costs with virus protection, backups, and physical upgrades, as well as maintenance and security cannot be absorbed, and the donated technology becomes progressively less useful and the users increasingly less productive. Since talking computers can have such a substantial impact on the productivity and competitiveness of the blind, their malfunction can also close the doors that might have been opened with great effort.

In sum, the “best” technology is a relative concept, and the choice of the most expensive options rarely if ever substitute for a careful analysis of local circumstances. This is the reason why so many pilot projects are never scaled-up and so many initiatives fail as soon as external funding ends.

3 The F123 Strategy

Many traditional businesses attempt to centralize control over as many aspects of the production, distribution, and maitenance processes of their services and products, even when such control is not strictly necessary for the proper operation of the product nor optimal in increasing overall efficiency. In other words, there are costs which are imposed artificially, which go above and beyond what would be necessary to provide the product or service, but which are imposed exclusively as a means to increase short-term profits. Sometimes these business choices are called market failures), since they restrict market competition and increase prices, However, F123 Consulting takes a different approach. Many of our choices tend to be a conscious reversal of these choices in order to ensure low cost, high efficiency, and great longevity for everything we do.

3.1 Mass-Partnering for Software Development and Maintenance

The use of free and open source software has always been at the core of the F123 strategy to achieve as much as possible with scarce resources. The greatest advantage of open source is not its short-term pricing advantage, but its licensing structure and community of developers, which makes it possible to achieve massive and widespread cooperation without the need for specific partnership contracts between all organizations or individuals. Even industry leaders who have traditionally attempted to undermine advancements in the adoption of the open source development model, have changed their approach to working with this large segment of the software world.

In the context of digital accessibility for the blind, there is already ample evidence of the widespread use of free and open source software. F123 supports projects such as NVDA, yet, the F123Light initiative seeks to address a different set of needs among the blind who live in developing countries.

3.1.1 Cost Revisited

While an initiative such as the free and open source NVDA screen reader is extremely valuable, the F123 team is pushing the envelope of what is possible to accomplish with ultra-low-cost computers. NVDA enables blind persons to save thousands of dollars, as they are no longer forced to buy expensive traditional proprietary screen readers such as Jaws for Windows, but it still requires them to absorb the cost of the Windows operating system, hardware which is powerful enough to run it, and related costs such as antivirus software. In other words, the blind are still forced to deal with and find funding for the planned obsolescence strategy of various companies, in addition to the natural wear and tear of hardware and overall technological change.

Our choice of computers based on ARM processors such as the Raspberry Pi stems from the fact that they tend to be dramatically more affordable and still offer sufficient computing performance given our needs and design choices. Specifically, despite the fact that we are using an extremely affordable computer, our device boots-up faster than most conventional laptops and still allows our users to be productive and competitive in their use of e-mail, text editors, spreadsheets, and web browsers. In this regard, our most interesting decision was to emphasize text-based interfaces over the traditional graphical user interface (GUI).

Graphical interfaces tend to demand a lot of computing power for visual effects that are entirely irrelevant for the blind. In fact, the only advantage of GUI’s for the blind is the use of menus, which present the user with multiple choices instead of requiring that he or she type complicated-sounding commands on the command line interface (CLI). However, there are text-based menus which allow us to make our text-based environment as friendly or more friendly than any graphical interface we have ever tested.

3.2 Software Choices and Universal Design Considerations

In a perfect world, all software companies would adopt “universal design” principles, and other than our need for more efficient and fast computing, there would be no need for us to work with text-only menus. However, both in desktop and web interfaces, the blind are not a priority, even for the most powerful and resource-rich companies. This was the case in the 1990’s and is still the case on the 21st century, even in companies which are supposed to be the gold standard in accessibility.

Many organizations and companies claim that they do not have the resources or expertise to offer fully accessible software or web pages, but if even the most successful companies fail to deliver consistently accessible products, lack of resources seems to be at the very least, an insufficient explanation. At other times it is claimed that legislation should be better, but it is impossible to correctly regulate technologies which have not yet emerged, and dangerous to establish too many restrictions for companies which then may lose their leadership in the marketplace to foreign competitors without such concerns. This probably explains why many large companies seem to launch accessibility campaigns only after they have established themselves as leaders in their industry and need to look for expansion in what they consider niche markets, in order to try to sustain growth.

In our view, the blind, their friends, and their organizations must keep their pressure and advocacy efforts to ensure continued progress (or at least prevent regression), but we do not expect such efforts to, on average, be more powerful than the competitive pressures companies face every day nor the influence from so many groups which governments also must respond to. In other words, the overall patterns observed in the last 30+ years are likely to persist and the blind community better have a “plan B” for its most basic computing needs, if it wants consistent, productive, affordable, stable, long-term digital accessibility.

3.3 Software at the Core of Our Strategy

Since our team does not have any truly innovative means to pressure for new and more effective legislation nor better compliance with existing accessibility laws, we will focus our energies and creativity on ensuring that basic computing functionality will always be affordable, effective, and efficient for our community. The objective is not to find a perfect solution nor break new ground in artificial intelligence or any other fashionable area, but to utilize that which is proven, accessible for decades, and ensure that non-technical persons also have the luxury of resilience in the face of ever changing priorities and fads among industry leaders and governments.

3.4 Our Hardware Choices

Two important challenges faced by projects who want to make it easy for non-technical persons to enjoy the benefits of free and open source software are distribution and installation. The F123 team is addressing these obstacles by helping technically-inclined blind persons support other less-technical blind persons, and by standardizing our work around specific hardware platforms. At this time, our software is designed to work with the Raspberry Pi 3 Model B+.

Of course, our software can and has been used in other computers, but the decision to standardize on the Raspberry Pi 3 Model B+, which is sufficiently powerful for productive use of text-based applications, saves a lot of time and effort for both the development team and our users. Issues with software drivers are resolved more easily, testing is simpler, efficient distribution is already taken care of, and potential help from sighted users of these devices already exists around the world.

Since extreme affordability is absolutely essential, every part selected for use in our project is both produced and distributed world-wide in mass. In addition to the Raspberry Pi computer, we also use:

  1. A Micro SD memory card.

This is the computer’s hard disk.

  1. Heat sinks and computer case.

Parts which protect the circuit board and help cool it.

  1. AC Adapter.

Allows you to connect the computer to the electrical outlet.

  1. Power Pack or Battery Pack.

Many versions of this part exist. These are usually used to recharge cell phones, but we can use it to power the talking computer for many hours.

  1. Standard USB keyboard.

  2. Standard headphones with 3.5mm audio jack.

There are of course, Bluetooth keyboards and headphones, with a wide variety of prices and reliability, but in our experience, none of those are as affordable, durable, and easy-to-find and maintain as the traditional wired originals.

Actually, there is one exception to the rule of only using widely available parts and that is the computer carrying case. This part is very helpful, but at the same time, in a worse-case scenario, importing it across continents can be considered somewhat optional. Any person or organization with experience working with textiles should be able to put together a carrying case, and we have heard of users carrying their talking computer even in plastic shopping bags.

Finally, what brings it all together and makes this device so helpful is our F123Light software, which combines a wide variety of free and open source software, many developed, maintained, and used by organizations big and small for purposes which often have nothing to do with blindness. In other words, we have designed the entire project to minimize costs, and maximize productivity, sustainability, decentralization, and longevity.

This document is version number: 19.02.26