Academic journal article The Journal of Consumer Affairs

Consumer Independence, Vulnerability and Public Policy: The Case of Free Matter for the Blind

Academic journal article The Journal of Consumer Affairs

Consumer Independence, Vulnerability and Public Policy: The Case of Free Matter for the Blind

Article excerpt

Legislation limiting access to advertising may inadvertently limit consumers from independently making consumption decisions. This article addresses the possibility that legislation limiting access to information may inadvertently create vulnerability for the consumers it is meant to protect. A specific public policy outlining the Free Matter for the Blind or Handicapped program is discussed.


Advertising has been linked to consumer vulnerability, where vulnerability in the marketplace is "a state of powerlessness that arises from an imbalance in marketplace interactions or from the consumption of marketing messages and products" (Baker, Gentry, and Rittenburg 2005, p. 134). Vulnerability is a function of both individual and situational characteristics that arise in various contexts. Individual characteristics contributing to vulnerability can be either physical or psychological, while situational characteristics can be any external condition that disables the individual in the marketplace (Baker, Gentry, and Rittenburg 2005). Whenever advertising creates an imbalance that leads to a state of powerlessness for the consumer, it becomes an element with the potential to increase consumer vulnerability. Although some consumers may be more susceptible to vulnerability throughout their lives, "we must keep in mind that all people--young or old, healthy or ill, rich or poor, domestic or foreign--have found or will find themselves, at one time or another, in a position of vulnerability" (Shultz and Holbrook 2009, p. 126).

Information is essential to prevent both perceived and actual consumer vulnerability (Litt et al. 2000; Mansfield and Pinto 2008). Most consumers rarely question whether written information will be accessible in the marketplace, but this is a salient issue for blind consumers whether the need be restaurant menus, catalogs containing product information, signs announcing sales or other communications. Although public policymakers have introduced a variety of legislation which vastly improves the likelihood that blind consumers will have access to printed information, contexts remain in which blind consumers suffer as a result of inaccessible text.

Independence in the marketplace is desired by all consumers (Baker, Stephens, and Hill 2001) and factors that inhibit consumer independence may increase the likelihood of vulnerability. Consumer independence exists when an individual is in control, is aware, can evaluate options, can make decisions, can perform activities and can generally participate in the process of consumption (Nosek and Fuhrer 1992). Individuals may experience varying levels of independence from one experience to the next, as the marketplace may present barriers to achieving autonomy of consumption, particularly for consumers with physical disabilities (Baker, Stephens, and Hill 2001).

This article discusses advertising as an information source with a focus on public policy restrictions on advertising and their potential for contributing to vulnerability in blind consumers. Ironically, previous legislation that limits information access may unintentionally create vulnerability for the very consumers the legislation is meant to protect. Recently, the Twenty-First Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act of 2010 (111th Congress 2010) modified previous communications law and Federal Communication Commission regulation to ensure accessible telephone, Internet and video technologies for consumers with disabilities. With technological changes in how information is transmitted and promises of legislation to update accessibility law, a reexamination of past accessibility legislation is warranted. The discussion here focuses on one public policy example in need of similar updating. Free Matter for the Blind or Handicapped (FMB) is a service allowing individuals with disabilities to send or receive reading materials and equipment postage-free through the United States Postal Service (USPS). …

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