The Cost Of Disability: Or, Why We Can’t Have Nice Things

Being disabled is expensive. Slap a label like “adaptive” or “assistive” on a product and the price skyrockets, just like that. It seems odd, doesn’t it? Exploitative? Yet, that’s what happens.

The free market was supposed to help us all. The invisible hand of competition was supposed to keep prices reasonable. We were supposed to have choice. Unfortunately, capitalism can’t accommodate markets that are too small to inspire competition, nor can it liberate us from monopolies that keep prices extortionately high. I don’t begrudge these companies the right to value the bottom line. People need to eat, after all. There’s such a thing as going too far, though. With basic Braille technology costing several thousands and wheelchairs so expensive you’d need a full-scale fundraiser to afford them, the landscape for low-income disabled people is grim unless they have access to substantial funding.
Considering that we have to use screen readers, wheelchairs and other assistive devices every day, it’s not practical to expect us to simply go without. We’re not a manipulative community whining about handouts. We really do need these products, especially in professional and educational contexts.

Living as a disabled person can incur significant costs when adaptable housing is needed. Installing adjustable beds and stair lifts can become staggeringly expensive, and for those living in low-income housing, proper accessibility is by no means guaranteed. It’s bad enough to be chronically unemployed and live in low-income housing; but living in a place where you lose much of your independence adds considerable insult to injury. Don’t even get me started on the markups on prescription drugs. Even life-saving drugs routinely sell at a 400% markup (100% is generally what is considered reasonable). It no longer surprises me when I see the lengths to which companies will go to monopolize a market and shamelessly exploit people who are already disadvantaged. We’re not asking for a pity party, to be sure, but a little reason would not go amiss.

We’re not the only ones affected, either. There are numerous grants available from governments and charities, which are intended to ease our financial burden. For example, the Government of Alberta provides $8000 a year which is spent on assistive technology and disability-related costs while I’m at university. You would think that’s overgenerous—I certainly did—but even during years when I did not buy any assistive technology at all, the entire grant was put towards paying for the editing of inaccessible textbooks. What is more, the grant did not even meet the full cost; my university covered the rest. It makes my head spin a bit, it really does. Governments are well and truly stuck, because manufacturers of accessible products have few incentives to lower their prices. Why mess with a business model that is working so well? There is more competition than there used to be, it is true, but for the most part, prices remain astronomical.

Worse still, these companies have managed to convince charities and governments that their most expensive products are the best, in any situation. Even though there are other viable options out there, many school divisions and universities insist that JAWS, one of the priciest screen readers, is the only wise choice. Encouraging this view is advantageous, so companies are happy to charge what they do, knowing that someone will gather the necessary funding.

The little things bother me, too. Take watches, for example: very few stylish accessible watches exist. Most are either obnoxious talking watches that draw a lot of unwanted attention (and make startling bonging sounds when you’re not expecting it), or braille watches (which aren’t braille at all, but tactile). These watches are generally affordable enough, but they are seldom fashionable. This may seem like a frivolous gripe, given the more serious struggles we face, but why can’t we have nice things? Why do we have to wear tacky accessories just because we’re disabled? I’m not a huge fan of braille accessories, but a lot of blind people are. Why can’t they have more legitimate selection? I mean, have a look at these charming braille hoodies: they say things like “peace”, “joy”, “Jesus”, and my personal favourite, “Can you read this?” The site boasts that you can “spark conversations with total strangers!” Uh, no thanks. If I really want to spark conversations with strangers, I’ll get a dog.

Simply having a disability is financially and socially punitive, and there are many who are happy to capitalize on the issue for personal gain. Certainly, this willingness to exploit customers is not unique to assistive technology companies. However, the problem is compounded when we’re forced to purchase necessary products, much as we wish we could do without them. It’s encouraging to see how many grassroots attempts to provide affordable adaptive products and services are emerging now. I am immensely proud of open-source screen readers and inexpensive mobile apps. We’ve come a long way. Nevertheless, I don’t think it’s wise to ignore the nasty elephant in the room: being disabled is prohibitively expensive, and few people know it.