Lightbulb made of crumpled paper and idea marks

Disability Drives Innovation: A11y Spotlight

16 Nov 2020

Haben Girma, the first person who is deaf-blind to graduate from Harvard Law School, believes that disability drives innovation. She uses the example of two Italian friends whose desire to correspond through letters sparked the invention of the typewriter. One was blind and the other sighted, so the latter created a machine where his friend could feel the keys and memorize the order of the letters to type. Though keyboards surely look different today, the same technology is used, and benefits so many of us, whether sighted or not.  

Girma is now a disability rights lawyer, and author. She is passionate about educating the world that people with disabilities have more to offer than our ableist culture realizes. She emphasizes that “disabled people are incredibly adaptive. We find ways to come up with solutions everytime we face a new challenge.” 

The solutions Haben speaks of often spur new products or processes that those without disabilities may take for granted. Here are some examples of how disability has driven  innovation in technology:

  • Both text-to-speech and speech-to-text were created for folks with disabilities, but are now used by millions of people. OK Google, Alexa and Siri help us search the web when we have our hands full or want to send a text when we are driving.
  • A combination of GPS and text-to-speech allow many to use navigation systems like a Garmin or a TomTom. 
  • The Segway is only around because of the invention of the two-wheeled chair, called the iBot. The goal of the iBot was to allow people who use wheelchairs the ability to climb stairs and go over curbs. Many police officers and tour guides have people with disabilities that drive these inventions to thank!

The World Wide Web Consortium’s Web Accessibility Initiative also notes that integrating accessibility drives innovation, “Design of user interaction considers experiences other than screens when accessibility is a consideration. The result is interaction that is more human-centered, natural, and contextual.”

Just as in physical accessibility, the phrase “accessibility benefits everyone” is a common mantra in web accessibility. Imagine what else could be in store if we treated people with disabilities as a source of ideas, rather than a problem that needs to be fixed. Haben’s goal of showcasing the ways that people with disabilities have so much to add that could benefit us all, just as the typewriter has.