by Christopher Gray

When it comes to services that are provided in significant part for the blind, we as a community usually have strong reactions to them. For example, it would be hard to find anybody who really hates library services. We love to read and learn as a community, and in most cases library services help us do just that. On the other end of the spectrum, it's hard to find any blind person who loves their rehabilitation services. While we may believe in the importance and support the continuance of such services, the majority of stories one hears about rehab services are fraught with negativity and unsuccessful outcomes.

In this article, I'd like to explore the relationship of the blind community with adaptive technology vendors, or what many refer to as assistive technology. This is an area no less important than library or rehabilitation services, an area which we as blind people watch and use on at least a monthly basis, and yet it is an area in which we have no overarching organizational policy and little organizational consensus to guide our actions, individually or collectively. The love/hate relationship with which many approach the companies in this sphere of business makes for additional problems in sorting out such policies at the organizational level.

In the past several years, the greatest amount of controversy has revolved around mid-level companies in the assistive technology arena. The two main players that have emerged here are Maxi-Aids of Farmingdale, N.Y., and Independent Living Aids of Jericho, N.Y. For years these companies have sought competitive advantage against one another, and unfortunately, Maxi-Aids has been subjected to unrelenting, vicious and relatively unsubstantiated attacks in magazines similar to "The Braille Forum," but certainly not any magazines related to the work or philosophy of the American Council of the Blind. To any discerning reader, the attacks against Maxi-Aids are in large part propagandistic. For example, it was recently alleged that the president of Maxi-Aids said his company created the game of dominoes. Of course, investigation reveals that what he actually said is that his company owns the molds for the accessible version of the game of dominoes.

So shocking and flagrant are the published criticisms against Maxi-Aids, I feel that a part of this article should be devoted to an actual substantiated claim against Independent Living Aids, the alleged "good guy" within this industry. Read this quote from a recent press release from Assistech, and draw your own conclusions about its content.

Assistech Reports Independent Living Aids to the FTC

Tucson, Ariz., Feb. 27, 2007 -- Today, Assistech reported Independent Living Aids, a former supplier, to the Federal Trade Commission for questionable business practices. Assistech had been an ILA customer since June 2002. In a unilateral move, Marvin Sandler, President of ILA, a New York-based company, decided to terminate Assistech's account earlier this year in response to Assistech's refusal to pay $60 for an order that had not been authorized by Assistech. Sandler's justification for the account termination was a "nasty fax" that Assistech sent Independent Living Aids in response to ILA's insistence in collecting the unauthorized charge.

In his five-page termination letter, Sandler labeled Assistech a high- maintenance customer and suggested that he was not making enough profit off Assistech orders. Assistech purchased nearly $100,000 last year alone, and had been an ILA customer for over four years.

Prompted by years of unsatisfactory customer service, which culminated in the account termination, Assistech found a new supplier and, as a result, had to replace the entire line of low vision products on its web site, which took about two months to complete and cost the company a considerable amount of money.

"I've been a loyal customer, always paid my bills on time, but when I refused to acquiesce to ILA's unjust demands to pay for something I had not authorized, they used the stick, and continue to use it to this day," said Oliver Simoes, owner of Assistech. ILA's latest move was to void the stated warranties on products purchased from them. "ILA-branded items had a six-month warranty, and ILA had a history of honoring such warranties. All of a sudden, they decided to trash the warranty and simply refused to accept any more returns of defective items," said Simoes. ...

Another complaint against ILA is that they withheld a couple of refund checks for items that had been returned to them for credit. Assistech plans on filing a claim with the Better Business Bureau, the New York State Consumer Protection Board, and the New York Attorney General's Office, besides placing posts in strategic consumer protection web sites warning against ILA's unethical business practices. If ILA does not reverse its decision, Assistech may refer this company to the BBB's arbitration panel.

One cannot help but feel shock and amazement at what appears to be such a unilateral and unfair attack by ILA against a major purchaser who is working to help the blind community. How can one believe, assuming the majority of the details are true in this published report, that Independent Living Aids is working from an ethical position? Finally, and here is the most important point, what should be the reaction taken and/or the role played by the American Council of the Blind as the premiere organization working to protect the rights of blind people when such an activity is brought to our attention?

Taking the concept of reaction first, it is my belief and suggestion that ACB's reaction can and should be to print substantiated facts in such matters. In the case of the quoted report above, Assistech has publicly made claims and reported events. ACB covers these events as newsworthy. We should do so in cases where such claims can be substantiated.

What about the concept of our role when such circumstances are brought to our attention? This is a matter that has no easy answer. It's an issue that has been discussed and should continue to be discussed within ACB. To facilitate such a discussion, let me share my view with you. It is that ACB not only SHOULD but MUST remain entirely neutral in such matters with regard to its policy and actions toward any one company in the assistive technology business. Unless there is a specific quarrel between ACB itself and a vendor, we have no business involving ourselves in such matters. We report facts to our members, but our members and guests are completely capable of making their own purchasing decisions. ACB's job is not to hold its members' hands, but to facilitate their independence to do as they believe is most correct.

Let me share a personal example with you. Right now, I'm in the market for an exercise device that can duplicate the functions you see on treadmills and stair climbers. I want it to give my heart rate, calories burned, time spent, and so on. There's virtually no doubt that the two primary choices for purchasing such a device are the rival companies, Independent Living Aids and Maxi-Aids. When checking with them on the phone, sure enough, both have candidates for my money. As expected and as has been the case for me over and over again, Maxi-Aids has the lowest prices on items shared in their and ILA's catalogs, hence the Maxi-Aids slogan: "The Low-Priced Leader." But not all catalog entries are shared between the companies. I find myself in the position of wanting to check out products from each company.

This leads me back to the point about ACB's role in such matters. While I might choose not to do business with ILA based on the above-quoted release, this is an individual choice. It's a matter in which ACB has no direct responsibility and should take no direct action. Let suppliers and agencies work out such difficulties between them. Let those directly harmed seek appropriate redress. This, I believe, should be ACB's underlying policy in such matters, at least for consumer-oriented, relatively low-priced products.

Perhaps, though, a line needs to be drawn between companies such as those discussed thus far and the higher-priced technology companies which sell computer access software, braille displays, and so on. Perhaps the formation of a consumer council within ACB could be a means of addressing issues that arise between our members and such companies. I believe that one way or another, ACB needs to move toward some real policies in this area, and I look forward to discussion from the membership about what you believe might be a sound policy for the future.

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