On Thursday last, Screenreader.net had a minute of fame with a brief article about us appearing in the London Times Newspaper in the careers section. The story as told below is substantially true and its remarkable how a journalist can put together an uncomplicated summary of our last eight years of work in 300 words. But what I liked most was that it presented a picture of blind people doing well, achieving something good and not the more usual helpless image as often portrayed by some fund-raising charities’ campaigns. When you read this piece, you will also realise that no mention was made, sadly, of Sensory Software Ltd, who created the Thunder software.
Roger Wilson-Hinds achieved academic success despite his
blindness and rose to senior jobs in education. But he was
uncomfortable as an employee and, when 50, he and his wife,
Margaret Wilson-Hinds, started a successful business to supply
ICT equipment and teach other blind people how to use it. Illness
struck. While recovering, Roger resolved to create and give away
screen reader software to any blind person. Now with 100,000
users, ‘Thunder’ is gaining large fees for developing variants.
Our big idea
GIVING your product away to anyone who wants it is certainly an atypical business model, but for Roger and Margaret Wilson-Hinds, it was the pivotal decision that turned their screenreader idea into a commercial reality.
Blind since birth themselves, the Wilson-Hinds were busily running a disability training company, having won a government contract to teach blind people to use computers. Then, in 1998, Roger was diagnosed with cancer, forcing the couple to quit the business and gift it to a close friend - who has continued its success and now employs nine people.
During the ensuing treatment the Wilson-Hinds realised that, although programmes that could scan text on a computer screen and read it back to the user were available, the typical £700-£800 software packages were beyond the pocket of the majority of the world's blind community and they became determined to produce a low-cost alternative.
At 60 most people contemplate turning the wick down a little, but fuelled by the idea of "opening up information literacy to blind people anywhere", in 2000, Roger enrolled himself and his wife on a course for social entrepreneurs instead.
Having self-funded the product's development, the screenreader, called Thunder, was finally ready for market, but, after a few years of trying to sell it at low-cost, the take-up was slow.
"It seemed like a good idea at the time, but low-cost is often seen as inferior and it wasn't until we studied the Google model and embraced the notion of 'free to the end user' that things really got moving," Roger says.
Immediately the product became free a German company with links to European Blind Union got in touch and, two months later, the Wilson-Hinds were in receipt of an EU grant of ¤240,000 to fund French, Italian, German, Slovak and Estonian versions of Thunder.
Since then, more funding has been forthcoming, a version specifically for people with learning difficulties is in development and, with almost 100,000 users, the company now advises businesses on how to make their websites available to this untapped market.