Crowdsourcing Access Technology

All around the world, especially in cities where many people work in or study technology, people highly skilled in making new concepts become real have formed communities often called “Hacker” or “maker” spaces. Motivated by a desire to change the world and to have fun working on cool technology projects, these people have created locations where they and other like minded individuals can gather, share ideas, hardware and work on projects they find important.

People with disabilities use access technology (AT) (sometimes called assistive or adaptive )technology) to work, learn and participate in the digital environment that is pervasive in our culture today. The author of this article has a total vision impairment and employs AT to, among nearly everything he does professionally, enjoy the Internet, craft computer programs and write items like this one.

Microfinance is a way to fund small projects with a small amount of money. Typically, microfinancing works to lend poor people very small sums (under $100) so they can start tiny businesses in impoverished parts of the world. For the purposes of this article, microfinance means dollar amounts between $50 and $500 to help subsidize projects to design and build access technologies at hacker spaces and other similar communities.

What can be designed and built for so little money?

Not long ago, the CNN web site ran an article about an individual in London who has invented a very low cost device that people with severe mobility impairments can use to control their computer by moving their eyes. This device is built entirely with off-the-shelf video game components and will sell for approximately $32 – commercially available eye tracking devices currently used by this population cost more than $8000.

A hacker at San Francisco’s Noisbridge hacker space designed and built a device with which a quadriplegic friend of his can now use to control a computer with her thoughts. SUch a device, if sold as AT, would probably cost thousands or even tens of thousands of dollars but the Noisebridge hacker made it in his spare time with off-the-shelf parts for less than $200.

Sensebridge, a new small AT company that grew out of San Francisco’s Noisebridge hacker space, represents a great success in how hackers can take ideas developed in a hacker community and apply them to small, commercially viable ways to build and deliver interesting technologies to people with disabilities at reasonable prices.

, There are a number of other examples like these and they beg the question:, If access technology amateurs and a company entirely new to the field can figure out how to save thousands of the end users’ dollars, why can’t the access technology industry and research communities do so as well?

What is the current status of AT?

People with disabilities can get a wide variety of access technology that they can use to perform many different tasks. People with vision impairment may utilize a screen reader to access a computer, tablet or mobile phone; people with hearing impairment may use a captioning program to display text so they can enjoy a video; people with quadriplegia can use a device that, by using their thoughts, can navigate a computer screen; people in wheelchairs can benefit from having a robotic arm attached to be able to reach for objects they couldn’t otherwise reach and others with all sorts of disabilities can do many different other things if they have the technology to do so.

Access technology can also cost a lot of money and, in the US and most of the rest of the world, health insurance does not cover most AT products. Recently, companies like Apple, Google and Microsoft have included basic AT (screen readers and such) in their operating systems so it is included in the prices of the devices. AT hardware and a lot of AT software, however, is developed by small companies who charge incredibly high prices to satisfy their investors with profits that will make them happy.

In addition to their high prices, commercial AT has, for the past decade or so, suffered from a lack of innovation. as the companies that make these products have a tremendous aversion to risk and,for all intents and purposes, they have no motivation to find ways to lower prices or invent things that may have tremendous value but do not already fit into a known market niche. Thus, the people who use these products, none of whom lead the companies who make such, fall behind as new possibilities emerge.

What about microfinancing?

As stated above, this idea views microfinancing differently than one might in Bangladesh where the international microfinance movement first took hold. In South Asia, a $25 loan can buy a woman a weaving loom which she previously would have to rent. With her own loom, she becomes free of the high rental prices and she can make more money for her family by selling her woven products as a micro-entrepreneur at market.

The notion I’m proposing for microfinancing AT means that I will raise up to $500 per project via contributions made on this site to fund efforts to build access technologies at hacker spaces and other similar communities.

While traditional microfinancing projects work as small loans, I mean to disburse funds as grants, challenges and rewards. The way that lending is regulated in the US and Europe would likely make it impossible for me to loan money for the AT projects I hope to fund.

How will this work?

I will raise funds from both small contributors via PayPal and I will try to get corporations and wealthy donors to kick in. I will post projects, in a manner similar to large microfinancing and crowd sourcing web sites like Kiva and Kickstarter that donors can choose from or they can contribute to a general fund which will be spent on projects deemed important by me and to the readers of this blog.

Typically, an access technology project funded by a government agency like National Science Foundation (NSF), Department of Education and others would start at a minimum of $50,000 and could grow to well over a million dollars. A new AT hardware product would generally have at least a million dollars invested in it by an access technology company. Most of these dollars will be spent on salaries for engineers and elaborate marketing campaigns to launch the product when it ships.

I, in no way object to government funding of access technology projects but, rather, hope to supplement the funding to creatively achieve similar goals. I cannot possibly fund the sorts of research paid for by federal dollars and in no way intend to “compete” with major projects funded in this manner.

What projects will I fund?

If a hacker or group thereof proposes a project that will result in a bit of new access technology, it will be considered for financing. I will base its acceptance criteria on a number of factors, including:

  • probability of success (Will the funding be enough to accomplish the task? Is the individual or team * proposing a project likely to succeed?)?
  • the value of the proposed project (Will the proposed project further innovation or possibly offer an alternative to a high priced current product? Is there a need for the proposed technology?),
  • novelty (Are there already similar technologies that are affordable?)
  • other subjective criteria that I will use to help me invest my donors’ money wisely.

I also plan to offer funding in the form of cash rewards for accomplishing tasks deemed important to the population of people with disabilities. For instance, the free and no-cost screen readers NVDA (for Microsoft Windows) and Orca (on the Gnome desktop on GNU/Linux systems) have published bug lists. I may offer something like “$50 per bug” to volunteers who want to work on the unglamorous but necessary task of fixing defects in open source software. Similar rewards can provide a small way to encourage all sorts of desired outcomes.

Some desires of access technology users have been sought for a long time and represent the “holy grails” of the field. In the blindness segment, refreshable braille displays have always cost far too much for most individuals to purchase. To approach problems like this, I will seek pledges from individuals that will be paid to a person, group or organization who can find a solution to one of these long desired goals. In the case of the braille device, a the organization may post a challenge like, “Build a 40 cell braille display that can be successfully manufactured and delivered for less than $800” and people interested in this goal can pledge dollars toward a bounty that will be paid when it is proven that such has been accomplished.

How can people apply for the funds?

As I’m just an individual with a good idea, I will not be able to create a formal process to launch a fundraising effort in a generic manner. If you have an idea that you think you can accomplish, please send me an email through the contact form on this site. I will then get back to you with a decision as to whether it’s something I’d like to work on or, more likely, I’ll ask you a bunch of questions and we can work together to build a proposal that I can post for the community to fund or not.

How will the funds be raised?

When I approve a proposal, I will put up a page here on the site with a button that permits visitors to contribute to either a specific project or to the general fund I set up for doing this stuff. I will do my best to promote these projects using free media, social networking and the like. It is also expected that the people receiving the funds will do the same. I don’t approve on spending a lot of money in pursuit of raising more money and, as these projects are being funded with small sums, it is, in my opinion, imprudent to spend too much on fundraising.


  • People who hang out in hacker spaces want to change the world.
  • People with disabilities need access technology..
  • AT is expensive and tends to lag far behind mainstream innovations.
  • A small amount of money can make the difference between an idea that disappears and delivering an innovative invention.

Hackers, with these small grants, will make exciting strides in access technology.