People with Disabilities Motivate Inventors By Ellen Kampel & John M. Williams
In today’s technological world, people with disabilities have an array of assistive technologies at their disposal to address a number of challenges. However, this hasn’t always been the case. Many assistive technologies have been developed based on identifiable needs within the disabled community.
In many cases, well-known inventions are the result of inventors with family members or friends experiencing a physical or communication need that was not being addressed. Motivated to provide a solution for those they care about, these inventors created a product to address the need and brought them to market.
One such example is Vinton Cerf. Cerf was frustrated by his inability to communicate with his wife Sigrid, who was deaf. So he helped develop Arpanet in the 1970’s, the forerunner of today's internet. As part of that development, he co-designed the TCP/IP protocol for internet communication. Such communication capabilities have revolutionized the way people with disabilities are able to stay connected with the outside world.
As a teacher of deaf people, Alexander Graham Bell was determined to help deaf people speak, so they could take part in the speaking world, rather than be isolated and alone. To do this, he tried to find a way to make sound visible. Bell got his idea for making sound visible from his knowledge of how the ear hears.
In 1862, Bell enrolled as a "student teacher" at a boy's school near Edinburgh, Scotland. There he taught music and elocution in exchange for instruction in other subjects. Later, he became a full-time teacher, using Visible Speech in teaching a class of deaf children.
On March 7, 1876, the U.S. Patent Office granted Bell a patent for a communication device for "transmitting vocal or other sounds telegraphically." Bell's telephone grew out of improvements he made to the telegraph. He had invented the "harmonic telegraph" which could send more than one message at a time over a single telegraph wire. Bell reasoned that it would be possible to pick up and transmit the sound of the human voice using an adaptation of his "harmonic telegraph." In 1875, along with his assistant Thomas A. Watson, Bell constructed instruments that transmitted recognizable voice-like sounds.
In 1876, Bell and Watson, located in different rooms, were about to test the new transmitter described in the patent. Watson heard Bell's voice saying, "Mr. Watson, come here. I want you." The first telephone company, Bell Telephone Company, was founded on July 9, 1877.
Carbon Paper was developed for blind writers and clerks who could not tell when their quill pens were blotting or needed to be re-dipped. In addition, one of the earliest typewriters was developed by Pellegrino Turri in 1808 for blind Countess Carolina Fantoni using the carbon paper that had been developed earlier for blind writers. Turri's machine combined carbon paper and the typewriter in a way that did not become prevalent for another 65 years.
Ellen Kampel is the public affairs manager for the Accessibility Business Unit at Microsoft. John M. Williams is managing editor of ATechNews.com and coined the term assistive technology. Reprinted with permission.