Although it is not a narrative that many are familiar with, assistive technology was directly responsible for the birth of some incredible pieces of mainstream technology. Many of these revolutionary technological inventions would never have been conceptualized had they not been inspired by the desire to maintain or improve the lives of individuals with disabilities. The following list highlights a few of these inventions, which have since gone mainstream:
The Telephone – Inspired by his work with individuals with hearing challenges, Alexander Graham Bell (new window) was fixated on the idea of recording and transmitting vibrations of speech. Over time, his work evolved, and in 1876, Graham Bell was awarded the patent for the telephone, which evolved into the complex electronic device that it is today. Even in the increasingly online-focused world we live in now, the telephone still remains one of the primary means of communication among people. If Graham Bell hadn’t been inspired by the need to communicate with differently abled individuals, the telephone might not have existed for years to come, and who knows how much progress might have been lost as a result?
The Typewriter -The first typewriter proven to have worked was built by an Italian inventor named Pellegrino Turri (new window) in 1808. The inspiration for this machine came from his blind lover, Countess Fantoni da Fivizzano, who needed a way to independently put her thoughts to paper. Not having the ability to write letters would have put the Countess at a huge social disadvantage, as letter writing was crucial to maintaining social status. In addition to building the machine, Turri also invented the carbon paper which acted as its ink. Although not much is known about the machine itself, some of the countess’ s letters are still intact today.
Word Prediction – In 1988, after decades of development, a fully functional keypad to text system was patented by Roy Feinson (new window). This system contained many of the modern features of word prediction that we enjoy today, such as local dictionary storage and disambiguation. The inspiration for this invention was to create an effective system for communicating with deaf people via telephone. After the system was patented, other companies began to research and develop their own versions of the product, which continued to be marketed as an augmentative communication tool. However, with the advent of the cell phone, this technology quickly found a new use, and within a short period of time, found its way into the hands of billions of cell phone users.
Closed Captioning – The 1971 National Conference on Television for the Hearing Impaired saw the debut of two captioning programs, both of which required a specially designed television set. Over the next few years, this process became more and more refined, and soon, closed captioning was made available across all television sets. Today, captions are a part of mainstream technology, as they allow T.V. viewers to be immersed in a story without having to hear it, something that anyone can appreciate.
Punch Cards – In 1890, Herman Hollerith (new window), who had a cognitive processing disability, implemented the idea of using punch cards to transport data from that year’s census. He later founded the Tabulating Machine Company, which eventually became known as IBM. Because of this desire to process data more efficiently, Hollerith has saved people and organizations across the globe countless hours of time that would have otherwise been wasted in compiling and tracking data. If Hollerith had not invented this incredible way to overcome his personal barriers, what would our world be like today?
All of these amazing innovations came about as a result of our desire to eliminate barriers, and as these examples illustrate, true pioneers are inspired by barriers, not limited by them. It is those very barriers that became the catalyst for some incredible innovations in mainstream technology, innovations that would not have come to light if our society was comprised solely of physically and mentally average individuals. From these examples we can clearly see that diversity breeds innovation, and innovation drives progress, and not just for some, but for all.