A Threat to the One-on-One Training Model
The JAWS Training Bundle
By Tony Swartz
For those unaware, JAWS is a screen reader software product providing access to the visual display of a Windows-based PC through synthesized speech. In June, Freedom Scientific announced the release of the JAWS Training Bundle, a collection of audio files based on previous JAWS-related webinars gathered into a single fifty-hour DAISY audio book. The marketing flyer lists the following areas of training: learning JAWS from the beginning, JAWS with Microsoft Windows 7 and 8, JAWS with Microsoft Office 2010 and 2013, how to use JAWS with the Internet, how to read PDF files with JAWS for Windows, and more. The training product may be purchased together with a DAISY player (Pocket DAISY or Victor Reader Stream) for $995.00, or on a 4GB SD card for $750.00.
Upon its release, a number of technology -based blind podcasters were quick to issue criticism. Much of the criticism concerned the fact that the training bundle was little more than a collection of previously aired webinars reformatted in the daisy format, and sold for an exorbitant price. How could Freedom Scientific dare to charge such a price for a training product whose sole purpose is to instruct individuals on how to use their screen reader product?
While there may be some basis for the criticism, in my opinion, it fails to capture the potential threat behind the marketing of Freedom Scientific’s training product. In our free market economy, a for-profit company may develop, price, and market a product. The value of the product will determine whether it sells, and the market will determine whether the product is properly priced. That is in theory how it is supposed to work, correct? But theory has a way of distorting reality when it is applied in the real world.
Beyond marketing to individuals, Freedom Scientific has been particularly successful in marketing their product line to public and private agencies serving the blind, and in particular, state agencies providing vocational rehabilitation services to individuals with vision loss. As a result, bureaucrats responsible for procurement of assistive technology, in many instances with little technical knowledge of the assistive technology field, have all too often based their purchasing decisions upon Freedom Scientific’s product marketing claims. Yet, a for-profit company cannot be blamed for a successful marketing strategy. To paraphrase PCB’s 2014 testimony in response to the Combined Agency State Plan for Vocational Rehabilitation Services for the Bureau of Blindness and Visual Services, it is the responsibility of each agency to evaluate and determine product efficacy and cost effectiveness.
What I find troubling with the JAWS Training Bundle is not its price, and not the fact that, for the most part, it is little more than recycled training material, though in a highly accessible format; rather, it is with a single claim made in the products’ promotional material. In the JAWS Training Bundle flyer, under the section “Agency Benefits,” the first claim, “Less expensive per hour than one-on-one training,” I find alarming, for it is built on a marketing strategy with the potential of disrupting, if not destroying, the current assistive technology training model. In my opinion, the claim that a fifty-hour highly accessible audio-based training product could be an adequate substitute for one-on-one training is both insidious and irresponsible.
Over the last several years, with funding of many voc-rehab state agencies either having been reduced or flat-funded, it is easy to imagine how attractive such a cost-cutting alternative might appear. In my opinion, it would be very tempting to ignore the issue of the effectiveness of one-on-one training, for years may pass before measured outcomes would invalidate such a decision. By then, the infrastructure that currently supports one-on-one training may be dismantled. A bit alarmist, you say? Should agencies find the JAWS tutorial an economically attractive alternative, would other assistive technology vendors follow suit?
Furthermore, assistive technology training has provided individuals with vision loss a career opportunity as instructors. Many of us believe that the most effective instructors are those who work and live daily with the technology. Wouldn’t it be an ironic twist if the vendor of JAWS (Job Access with Speech) would, through their product marketing strategy, assist in dismantling a viable employment opportunity for a subset of their customer base?
Ultimately, while it is tempting to scorn the marketing strategy of the big, bad for-profit company, honesty compels me to admit to my real concern. A lack of funding continues to plague both private and public agencies for the blind. Individuals within those agencies charged with the responsibility of determining program costs against revenues often have little background in determining the efficacy of training programs and products. As an advocacy organization, it is our responsibility to argue the case with agencies that there is no substitute for one-on-one training, but are we willing to speak out to make the case?