Disability Drives Innovation

May 16, 2022 | Winona

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Did you know: many popular technologies were invented thanks to people with disabilities?

To mark the 11th annual Global Accessibility Awareness Day (May 19, 2022), I'd like to share a few books that highlight how disability drives innovation.

Cover of the Power of Disability: multicoloured dots radiating in a circular patter up from the bottom of the cover, like a rising sun.

The Power of Disability: 10 Lessons for Surviving, Thriving, and Changing the World by Al Etmanski.

A little book of everyday wisdom for living a good life, drawn from the lives of people with disabilities. This book shows how people with disabilities have shaped our world thanks to five powerful disability advantages: the power of majority, inclusivity, ingenuity, authenticity, and unity. It’s full of bite-sized profiles and fun facts. For example, reading this book, I learned that the first bicycle was a wheelchair! In 1655, a German watchmaker named Stephan Farffler invented a three-wheeled hand-cranked carriage. It is believed he had either a spinal cord injury or had his legs amputated. His invention was the first self-propelled wheelchair and the precursor to the tricycle and bicycle. 

Cover of The Blind Contessa's New Machine: an illustration of a woman in profile with an orange butterfly over her eyes.

The Blind Contessa’s New Machine by Carey Wallace

A dreamy fictional love story based on the true story of Pellegrino Turri, an Italian nobleman and mechanic, and his friend, or possibly lover, the Countess Fantoni de Fivizzano. Turri is credited with inventing the first typewriter in the early 1800s so he and the Countess could write each other letters. Typing out these words on my computer keyboard, I’m struck by the huge impact the invention of the typewriter has had on how we communicate to this day. 

Cover of The Untold Story of the Talking Book: a pair of headphones with lines representing sound coming out of one earphone.

The Untold Story of the Talking Book by Matthew Rubery

A fascinating history of the audiobook for bibliophiles and accessibility advocates alike. Before the audiobook as we know it today existed, there were Talking Books for the Blind. These were the first recordings of full-length books, made in the 1930s on vinyl records, to meet the needs of blinded veterans of the First World War. At first, Helen Keller objected to Talking Books because she believed they would decrease braille literacy. But later she championed them to the Library of Congress. Talking Books are still created today, by organizations like the American Foundation for the Blind and the Centre for Equitable Library Access (CELA) here in Canada. Toronto Public Library’s accessible collections include Talking Books and CELA for library members with print disabilities. Oh and we have conventional CD and digital audiobooks too!

Cover of Leaders in Computing: two curved shapes, one green, one yellow, against a black background.

Leaders in Computing: Changing the Digital World by Steve Wozniak

Vinton Cerf is a key figure in the invention of many recent technologies. He is best known as one of the architects of the internet in the 1970s. In those early days, Cerf, who has a hearing disability, and his wife, who is deaf, communicated through the computer using text - a precursor to email. In an interview in this book, Cerf talks about how there are many types of disability - physical, cognitive, visual, hearing, motor - and about the importance of re-examining design systems and tools to make sure that information is fully accessible to all.  

Cover of Making Disability Modern: photo of a woman smiling widely, seated in a brightly coloured wheelchair.

Making Disability Modern edited by Bess Williamson and Elizabeth Guffey

A collection of critical cultural histories that connects disability studies and design. This book examines how the design of everyday objects and spaces shapes society, impacts the social experiences of people with disabilities and influences the ways we think about disability and ability. One example from the book is the Swany Walking Bag from Japan. Created by Etsuo Miyoshia, who contracted polio as an infant, the bag functions like a rolling cane but looks like a suitcase. Two years after it was introduced in the United States, the American luggage company Samsonite introduced its four-wheel “spinner” luggage – with similar wheels and ease of use. Just one example of how people with disabilities have been, and continue to be, drivers of technological innovation.


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