This Thankstgiving, we should pause to give thanks to the folks who brought us all these things: the activists of the disability rights movement.
Inventions like audio books and optical character recognition (OCR) software, TV captioning and even email -- things we now take for granted and that make life easier -- can often be traced to people whose way of navigating the world showed them the potential of ideas that may have slipped by the rest of us.
The idea for captions came from deaf advocates, who pressured Congress to require them for most TV programs, and to require TVs to come equipped with caption decoders. Today, captions benefit patrons of noisy bars, immigrants learning English (who keep the sound on for a ready-made teaching tool) and youngsters learning to read. Audio books originated in the Talking Books program popularized by blind activists decades ago. Roomy toilet stalls, required for wheelchair access, are a result of disability advocates' work to change building codes and state laws. We're all grateful for an elevator from the subway up to the street. Curb cuts make life easier not just for the wheelchair users for whom they were intended, but for travelers pulling rollbags, for bike riders, skateboarders, UPS workers, Segway users and parents pushing baby strollers.
A surprising amount of today's technology has its roots in products originally conceived to help disabled people. Much like Willie Sutton, who robbed banks because that was where the money was, inventors invent things for disabled people because they're the ones who need the inventions. But the inventions end up helping all of us. Alexander Graham Bell had designed the telephone in an effort to help deaf people communicate. For that purpose, it was a decided flop. For the rest of us? Why, it changed our lives.
For those of us whose bodies lie within the midrange of physical and sensory capabilities, the status-quo environment works fine. After all, it evolved to suit the average person. But the place where invention occurs, the place where innovation occurs, the exciting place, is at the margins. This is why so many visionaries, from Dean Kamen with his Segway, which he envisioned only after designing his iBot wheelchair, to Ray Kurzweil with his original $30,000 Kurzweil Reading Machine talking computer for the blind which morphed into today's OCR software, have had their vision honed by work with disabled people.
Kamen and Kurzweil trace their inventions' starts to ideas suggested by disabled people. Others, like Vinton Cerf, the Internet guru credited with the development of "packet" technology who came up with a use for the application which we know today as email, may see a potential use where others do not; they see it because they're attuned to the needs of someone whose body doesn't function within that midrange. Cerf, hearing impaired for many years, and his wife, profoundly deaf from childhood, saw the potential for email because it was, for them, an easier way to "call" each other.
People who are not inventors or engineers at all have changed things too. Disability civil rights activists have seen the design of a more accessible society -- or built environment -- as a matter of simple justice.
Atlanta's Eleanor Smith, also a longtime wheelchair user, was driving around Atlanta one day in her van, just happening to pass through a newly built subdivision, when she had her new idea: "All these homes -- all of them -- could have been visitable!" "Visitable" was the term Smith settled on to describe her idea: just three simple features that would cost builders of new single-family homes virtually nothing -- a no-step entrance, wider doors and halls, and one big main-floor bathroom -- would ensure that a person in a wheelchair could at least visit: get in, visit with the family, and use the bathroom. Visitability would also mean that homeowners would find it easier to roll bulky and heavy items -- furniture, computers -- in and out of their homes. It would simply make homes easier to live in.
Today "visitable" communities are springing up nationwide -- 3,000 new visitable homes in Bolingbrook, Illinois, alone in the last year or so.
One of the first companies to specifically adopt universal design principles for product design was Oxo, whose Good Grips line of kitchen and garden utensils has become immensely popular. "When all users' needs are taken into consideration in the initial design process, the result is a product that can be used by the broadest spectrum of users," says the company: "a salad spinner that can be used with one hand; liquid measuring cups that can be read from above without bending over; a toilet brush that bends to reach out-of-the-way places; a backlit oven thermometer that can be read easily through the window of an oven door; kettles with whistle lids that open automatically when tipped to pour; and tools with pressure-absorbing, non-slip handles that make them more efficient."
What universal design visionaries share is the realization that something seen as beneficial to ordinary, everyday people will win out every time over something labeled "special for the handicapped."
Something to give thanks for.