People with Disabilities Motivate Mainstream Technology Innovations
By Ellen Kampel & John M. Williams
Eliminating the communication barriers between people with disabilities and people without disabilities has been a key motivator in developing technology products and solutions over time. While people with disabilities have been early adaptors of many technology products, the inventors themselves probably did not realize that these innovations would revolutionize opportunities for the majority of the world’s population as well.
A look back on the history of technology invention shows that several of the technologies people with multiple sclerosis use today to stay connected may very well be relied upon by the general population as a whole in the future.
One great example of this phenomenon is Dr. Vinton Cerf, considered by many as one of the two founding fathers of the Internet. Dr. Cerf was frustrated by challenges in communicating with his wife Sigrid, who was deaf. Driven by a desire to better communicate with his loved one, Dr. Cerf helped develop the Arpanet in the 1970’s, the forerunner of today’s Internet. He also co-designed the TCP/IP protocol now used in today’s Internet communication.
As a teacher of the deaf, Alexander Graham Bell was determined to find a way to help deaf people be part of the speaking world. On March 7, 1876, the U.S. Patent Office granted Bell a patent for a communications device used to "transmit vocal or other sounds telegraphically." He then created the "harmonic telegraph," which could send more than one message at a time over a single telegraph wire.
However, Bell felt strongly that it would be possible to pick up and transmit the sound of the human voice using an adaptation of his "harmonic telegraph." The result was the telephone, a piece of technology developed out of a desire to communicate with people with disabilities, yet something used today by mostly everyone in the world.
Even records were developed initially to address a need in the disabled community. Long-playing records spinning at 33 1/3 revolutions per minute were developed to hold audio books for blind people, but they quickly replaced the 78 RPM being used by everyone else. Have you ever used an on-screen keyboard at an airport or bus station to retrieve your ticket? These too were developed for people with disabilities, allowing them to use a pointing device instead of typing on an actual keyboard. Today, on-screen keyboards can be found nearly everywhere, at ATM’s and even in the latest personal handheld devices.
The bottom line: Necessity motivates invention. Many products are developed to address a need to include people with disabilities into mainstream communication circles. While initially intended for the disabled community, the end product often benefits the mainstream population.
Ellen Kampel is the public affairs manager for the Accessibility Business Unit at Microsoft. John M. Williams has been writing about assistive technology for 28 years. He coined the phrase assistive technology.