HumanScare: How I Broke up With one of the Biggest Assistive Technology Companies

Introduction: From Classic to Apex

I’ve been a HumanWare user/customer for over fifteen years, starting when I got my first BrailleNote Classic in the sixth grade. Using HumanWare devices, I’ve been able to take notes, read books, perform calculations, and (invaluably when notetakers took up to six weeks to repair) learn valuable techniques for troubleshooting and contacting technical support. Over the years, I’ve owned three of their devices, upgrading each time in high school to the MPower and college to the Apex–each new notetaker was a very smooth transition.

Giving old Hardware Some new Love

However, my beloved BrailleNote Apex, which served me well all through college, began to show its age. The battery was not charging correctly, there was a pin out on the display, and it had been several years since it had seen the inside of a repair facility. There were two main reasons for this:

  1. Specialized devices such as these require special parts and attention, and the price generally reflects that. Most students and Vocational Rehabilitation clients are able to get their schools/agencies to cover the maintenance costs (more on that later) but I have no such affiliation anymore as I am now a successfully employed blind person.
  2. These devices are unique and rare in that only blind people have/use them, and for students or professionals who rely on the Braille display for essential activities of work or school, going without their device for weeks or months at a time can seem incredily daunting. It’s not the same as simply swapping out a computer or relying on your phone while your laptop gets fixed. Indeed, I can still recall when I was a student the feeling of intense dread and anxiety when I discovered that there was nothing more I could do for my BrailleNote and had to send it off for service. How would I read books? How would I accurately perform mathematical calculations quickly and efficiently? There are solutions to all these problems, some of them low-tech, some of them substituting audio, and some of them just being patient until the notetaker returns.

This time, however, my situation is different. I am working a position where I spend most of my time on a mainstream computer. Unless I am actively programming, Braille is a nice convenience for writing down passwords (after all, it is sort of its own secret language), checking error messages, and taking notes in meetings discretely. (I will also return to the topic of Braille as a luxury/convenience later in this article.) So, I was in a position to live without my trusty Apex for a bit, assuming I was willing to give up reading books in electronic Braille for a bit.

Show me the Money!

If you have been around the blindness community for awhile, you know that electronic Braille is expensive. And the number of cells matters. If you want a tiny, 12 or 14-cell model, expect to pay around $1000. 20 or 40-cell models range anywhere from $2000 to $4000. And the full-fledged notetakers of yesteryear? $6000, easily. These assistive technology companies are in competition with each other, but none of them compete on price. There are several reasons for this–a niche market and development costs, for example–but the important one for this argument is that individuals are not these companies’ customers. State, federal, and school agencies are; they are able to buy units in bulk for their students/clients, and can make the AT companies a lot of money in the process.

How Does This all Relate Back to Me?

When I got the repair estimate for my Apex, I was expecting it to be high. Parts and labor are not cheap. What I wasn’t expecting was a recommendation for the entire Braille display to be replaced. This alone would cost $2000, with an additional $550 in other electronics repairs and general clean-up. Because mine was one of the first Apexes ordered all the way back in 2009, I knew it would die eventually–not all hardware lasts forever, and technology is always changing. Now the question becomes: Do I repair an almost ten-year-old unit, or salute it quietly into the sunset? Unfortunately, we have a bigger problem.

Closing the Ghetto Gate (and Locking it Shut).

We all have issues with backwards compatibility. File standards change, programs come and go, and even entire processor architectures are built and then later abandoned. Companies usually let their clients know that a new format is on the horizon, and provide their customers with time and tools to ease the transition.

Not HumanWare.

Ever since the BrailleNote Classic days, HumanWare’s proprietary word processing software, KeyWord, has created documents in the “KeyWord Braille” document format by default. I do not know the specifics of this file format (that is information known only by our AT vendor overlords), so cannot tell you advantages or disadvantages over any other open-source Braille formats. All I know is I have many thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of KeyWord Braille documents from my time in middle school and onward. I confirmed with a HumanWare technical support representative that only the BrailleNote Apex and older units are able to read and convert these documents into more open formats. At the time of publication, there is also no program for the PC or Mac that will convert these documents in bulk (and that has apparently been an oft-requested feature that HumanWare has chosen to ignore). Not even HumanWare’s replacement for the Apex (covered more in a minute) will open them! With HumanWare’s “jump” into the future, it seems to have left loyal customers running older hardware and older file formats firmly behind it.

I Want to Give you Money. No, I Really do!

Facing my $2550 repair bill for my Apex, I called up HumanWare customer service to ask about a payment plan. After all, I do want my device repaired (since replacing it with something newer would cost at least twice as much), I have no help from government agencies anymore, and I do need this device for work. You would think, as a company claiming to serve blind people and empower them with technology, surely they would have a way to work with the blind person when that technology breaks? Surely? Right?

Nope.

As I stated before, they are used to dealing with bulk purchases in the thousands rather than the hundreds of dollars. They will not start to fix my Apex until the invoice/purchase order is received. The best the customer service supervisor could do was to tell me about their trade-in “loyalty” program: $1000 off their newest notetaker, a model called the BrailleNote Touch. This device is something of a cross between an Android tablet (running Android KitKat, current version is Pie, I might add) and the older-style BrailleNote series. I have never seen one of these devices in person.

OK, I thought to myself, Let’s play a little game. I asked for the current retail price of the Touch. The answer: $5,495.00

Wait a minute? With the $1000 off, the price would still be $4495.00? For a device that you confirmed will not even read my old documents? I looked it up later–surely the backwards compatibility couldn’t be this bad, especially after sixteen years on one format. But deep within the word processing chapter of the BrailleNote Touch user guide, there is this sentence:
“KeyWord can open the following file types: DOC, DOCX, RTF and TXT.”

Wait, no KWB? At all?

And you still want to sell me this device because it is an “upgrade” and the way of the future?

I don’t think so.

I inquired if the trade-in program was valid for any other HumanWare product, thinking I might just purchase a standard Braille display.

Nope. Only valid for notetaker to notetaker transactions.

By this time I was furious. So you are trying to upsell me a device that I’m not only not interested in, but doesn’t perform a key function I need it to and costs twice as much as the repair fee that I’m struggling to pay now? And what of your other customers who had older devices and now have old documents they need to convert?

Not sure. Hmmmm…

At this point, I ended the call and am still considering my options. I might simply pay the incidental repair fees, get my unit back, start the long and arduous process of converting my documents, and then leave the HumanWare ecosystem for good. Or, judging by the responses I received when posting my quandary to FaceBook, I could easily borrow another Apex unit, convert my documents, not have to give HumanWare money, and still leave their ecosystem. (April 2021 update: This is what I ended up doing; big shout-out to my friend for helping me convert my documents!) Ever since the iPhone came out, the writing has been on the wall for traditional Braille notetaker devices. iOS has more raw power, more flexibility, a much longer lifespan, and is order of magnitudes cheaper to both purchase and repair. (Just thinking of the Mac Mini or MacBook Pro I could get for $2500 makes me really question the “value added” proposition these devices claim to bring.)

Braille as a “Luxury”

I could expound immensely on this topic, but I’ll try to keep my comments brief. Braille, whether in its electronic or hard copy form, has unfortunately become a “commodity” or “luxury” in the blindness community. Literacy is not a luxury. Literacy is one of the foundations upon which society rests, and allows us as disabled people one of the few freedoms to participate in mainstream conversations. I have a Bachelor of Science in Physics from Virginia Tech, a degree I would have had no chance of obtaining had it not been for technology and my strong advocacy skills. Even though I use my “notetaker” for far few of its notetaker functions (reading books from BookShare, composing first drafts of papers or creative writing projects, and performing calculations) those functions are not merely “conveniences” for me. Indeed, the number of times I had to stop the flow of writing while composing this article to fix some misspelled word or capitalization error that I could easily have found with a Braille display are too many to count. (This post was written entirely on the Mac using Markdown.) The HumanWare representative also tried to convince me that my employer would pay for the device to be fixed. I repeatedly told her this was not possible (for various reasons, the first of which is I’m the only one on our team of blind employees utilizing Braille this effectively). She said this was unfortunate.

Yes. Yes, it is!

I know the blindness technology field will not change overnight. I’ve spoken to people who have seen it not change in twenty years. I was sure iOS would move the market, but it has only seemed to segregate those who still “cling on” to traditional notetakers and those who have abandoned the sinking ship long ago and migrated to devices with fruit logos on the back. In this day and age when they are floundering, you’d think that HumanWare would want to work with rather than disenfranchise its remaining customer base, most of whom do not have the deep pockets of standard blindness agencies.

A Virtual Suggestion Box

If anyone from HumanWare is reading this post, I would like to offer the following suggestions:

  • Realize that, although most of your user base is being supported in some way or another by a blindness agency, not everyone has these resources at their disposal and there are people who would really like to use your products. To this end, instituting some form of a payment plan for repairs would go a long way into making them seem more viable for those who are on fixed, or at least moderate, incomes. These devices are an equivalent to cars for sighted people–both in terms of the freedom they bring and the cost they require to keep up on general maintenance. One would not expect someone to buy a car up front, would they? (Well, maybe some people, but this is not the default method usually used.)

  • Expand the reach of the trade-in program, so that notetakers can be creditted toward the purchase of hybrid Braille displays. These more versatile and cheaper displays are refreshable Braille’s immediate future. Canabilizing your own product lines is something mainstream companies, namely Apple, are adept at doing.

  • Create (or give software developers the tools to create) a program for a mainstream computer that would convert older KWB files into a range of open-source options, the least of which being BRF or TXT, depending on the users’ preference. Computers can translate these documents in minutes or even seconds, compared to the minutes or hours this chore would consume on the Apex alone, not to mention older notetakers with even fewer hardware resources. This way, newer generations of BrailleNote would be able to support these more open standards, and people using other Braille displays or Braille translation software would be able to use their documents again. It is inevitable that old hardware eventually dies, but a person’s documents should not have to die along with it.

The Rebirth of Braille in my Life (or how this Story Actually Ended)

I initially wrote this article when my Apex died, in November 2018. It is now April 2021; publication has come so late because I wanted a long while for the dust to settle, I wanted to have a solid decision about which Braille display I was going to purchase next, and I wanted to see if time would heal the wounds from HumanWare (spoiler alert … nope). The display I went with when my Apex died was the QBrailleXL from Hims. After multiple firmware updates, factory resets, and support emails, the unreliable connection (through USB, no less; bluetooth being totally out of the question) was just too much. While I still have the unit and will probably use it when travelling because of its more silent operation, just this weekend I took delivery of the Orbit Reader 40, a relatively new addition to the Braille display market. Because it does not use traditional piezoelectric pins, it is much cheaper than other displays. Orbit Research has had a 20-cell model out for some time, but I was waiting for the 40, as 20 cells are just too small for the kinds of reading and writing tasks I do. I’ve only played with it connected to my computer for a few hours, but already the connection is much more stable. Typing on it is a little weird because of the Braille keyboard configuration, but I’m sure I’ll get used to it with time. Will I miss the extra keys the QBraille offers? Maybe; we’ll see when it comes to editing my book again, but the mere thought of editing my book exactly when I want to, with no updates or restarts to get in the way of the creative process, is enthralling. It will also be nice to have another Braille display around so I can still have Braille when one display needs repairing–unless they both break at the same time, as Murphy’s law would predict.

And what happened with HumanScare? It turns out they stopped supporting the Apex, too. It had a good run while it lasted…

Maybe I’ll write an update post later, maybe all blindness technology is just meant to have bugs and quirks, but I did want to finally get this posted while I could edit in electronic Braille.

Now, back to talking about books. A person can read a lot of books in two years. I’ve got some catching up to do.

But first, time to go play more with my new toy!