‘Disability Drives Innovation’ – The New York Times

by WDC News 6 Staff


This text is a part of the On Tech e-newsletter. Here’s a assortment of past columns.

Do you love audiobooks? “You have got blind individuals to thank for that,” mentioned Catherine Kudlick, director of the Paul Ok. Longmore Institute on Incapacity at San Francisco State College.

The godfather of the ebook being learn aloud via your smartphone headphones was Talking Books, the data developed within the Nineteen Thirties in the USA for individuals with impaired imaginative and prescient as an alternative choice to Braille.

I’ve been discussing the historical past of audiobooks with Dr. Kudlick, who calls herself “imperfectly blind,” and different consultants as a result of, properly, I like listening to books. Nevertheless it’s greater than that. Audiobooks are a primary instance of a know-how developed by or for individuals with disabilities that has helped all of us. They remind us that folks with disabilities usually are not an afterthought in invention however key gamers.

“Incapacity drives innovation. It’s simple,” mentioned Joshua Miele, a blind adaptive know-how designer who was lately named a recipient of the MacArthur Basis’s “genius” grant.

“Virtually at all times once you discover one thing that’s actually cool for individuals with disabilities,” Dr. Miele instructed me, “it is going to discover its approach into the mainstream in a approach that’s fantastic and makes life higher.”

Let me return to a fast history of audiobooks: Robert Irwin, the previous govt director of the American Basis for the Blind, spearheaded a program within the Nineteen Thirties to develop gramophone data of narrators studying books out loud, in line with Mara Mills, a New York College professor whose experience consists of incapacity research.

Again then, solely about 10 p.c to twenty p.c of Individuals who have been blind — together with veterans who misplaced their sight in World Battle I — might learn Braille. The U.S. authorities helped fund file gamers for individuals with blindness or low imaginative and prescient, and Speaking Books have been distributed via public libraries.

Industrial audiobooks began to take off after World Battle II, and every technology of audio codecs — cassette tapes, CDs and now smartphone apps — has made listening to books extra handy.

(Aspect notice: Dr. Mills mentioned that some individuals with imaginative and prescient impairments hacked their file gamers to hurry via Speaking Books, and that this aural pace studying influenced audio time-stretching technology. When you’re keen on listening to your favourite podcast or audiobook at double speed, you could have individuals with low imaginative and prescient to thank for that, too.)

This historical past flips the script on how many people think about product design. We could be extra conversant in applied sciences which are designed for the final inhabitants after which, by adaptation or accident, change into helpful for some individuals with disabilities, too. Smartphones are like that.

However different applied sciences which are comparatively broadly used at this time exist due to individuals with disabilities. The Silicon Valley inventor and futurist Ray Kurzweil developed a number of applied sciences, together with the forerunners for text-to-speech software comparable to Siri, with the National Federation of the Blind.

Listening to aids have been one of many earliest commercial proving grounds for the computer chips that at the moment are in all the pieces from fighter jets to your fridge. And this isn’t strictly know-how as we think about it, however Dr. Miele additionally talked about that curb cuts in sidewalks have been developed for individuals who use wheelchairs and proved helpful for a lot of different individuals.

Speaking Books still exist at this time. However Dr. Mills mentioned that screen readers — descendants of Kurzweil’s design that scan digital textual content and converse it aloud or convert it into Braille — have made each Speaking Books and audiobooks a bit much less fashionable together with her blind college students.

It feels applicable that one know-how initially designed for blind individuals has been partially crowded out by one other.

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