‘Disability Drives Innovation’

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Do you love audiobooks? “You have blind people to thank for that,” said Catherine Kudlick, director of the Paul K. Longmore Institute on Disability at San Francisco State University.

The godfather of the book being read aloud through your smartphone headphones was Talking Books, the records developed in the 1930s in the United States for people with impaired vision as an alternative to Braille.

I’ve been discussing the history of audiobooks with Dr. Kudlick, who calls herself “imperfectly blind,” and other experts because, well, I love listening to books. But it’s more than that. Audiobooks are a prime example of a technology developed by or for people with disabilities that has helped all of us. They remind us that people with disabilities are not an afterthought in invention but key players.

“Disability drives innovation. It’s undeniable,” said Joshua Miele, a blind adaptive technology designer who was recently named a recipient of the MacArthur Foundation’s “genius” grant.

“Almost always when you find something that is really cool for people with disabilities,” Dr. Miele told me, “it will find its way into the mainstream in a way that is wonderful and makes life better.”

Let me go back to a quick history of audiobooks: Robert Irwin, the former executive director of the American Foundation for the Blind, spearheaded a program in the 1930s to develop gramophone records of narrators reading books out loud, according to Mara Mills, a New York University professor whose expertise includes disability studies.

Back then, only about 10 percent to 20 percent of Americans who were blind — including veterans who lost their sight in World War I — could read Braille. The U.S. government helped fund record players for people with blindness or low vision, and Talking Books were distributed through public libraries.

Commercial audiobooks started to take off after World War II, and each generation of audio formats — cassette tapes, CDs and now smartphone apps — has made listening to books more convenient.

(Side note: Dr. Mills said that some people with vision impairments hacked their record players to speed through Talking Books, and that this aural speed reading influenced audio time-stretching technology. If you’re fond of listening to your favorite podcast or audiobook at double speed, you have people with low vision to thank for that, too.)

This history flips the script on how many of us imagine product design. We might be more familiar with technologies that are designed for the general population and then, by adaptation or accident, become useful for some people with disabilities, too. Smartphones are like that.

But other technologies that are relatively widely used today exist because of people with disabilities. The Silicon Valley inventor and futurist Ray Kurzweil developed multiple technologies, including the forerunners for text-to-speech software such as Siri, with the National Federation of the Blind.

Hearing aids were one of the earliest commercial proving grounds for the computer chips that are now in everything from fighter jets to your fridge. And this isn’t strictly technology as we imagine it, but Dr. Miele also mentioned that curb cuts in sidewalks were developed for people who use wheelchairs and proved useful for many other people.

Talking Books still exist today. But Dr. Mills said that screen readers — descendants of Kurzweil’s design that scan digital text and speak it aloud or convert it into Braille — have made both Talking Books and audiobooks a bit less popular with her blind students.

It feels appropriate that one technology initially designed for blind people has been partially crowded out by another.

Further reading:

  • An inexpensive phone mount finally allowed Claire Perlman, a graduate student at Hunter College, to use a smartphone from a wheelchair.

  • San Francisco State hosts the Superfest Disability Film Festival from Oct. 15-17. You can buy a pass here to watch the movies online. (Dr. Kudlick mentioned a short film about cockroaches that sounds intriguing.)

  • From New York Times Opinion: “We should be attempting to eradicate the stigma that surrounds hearing loss.”

  • Check out The Times’s series of articles and essays about the influence of the Americans With Disabilities Act.

  • And The Times is looking for people who love listening to podcasts to help us test a new audio product. Visit to join the beta.

Before we go …

  • Facebook is a little less open and connected: My colleague Ryan Mac reports that Facebook planned to make some of its internal online discussion groups private, in an effort to minimize leaks. The company is dealing with the fallout of disclosures by Frances Haugen, a former employee, of thousands of pages of internal documents to U.S. regulators, lawmakers and the news media.

  • An Apple hearing device coming soon? The company is studying ways to make its AirPods into a health device, including the possible use of the headphones as hearing aids, The Wall Street Journal reported. (A subscription is required.) I wrote earlier this year about the potential health implications of a coming new category of hearing aids that Americans might be able to buy without a prescription.

  • Imagine dating apps, except as an email newsletter. Brian Ng writes for The Times about Hot Singles, which sounds like old school newspaper personal ads mixed with a TV dating show plus a dash of Tinder.

Hugs to this

An elk in Colorado roamed around for more than two years with a vehicle tire stuck around its neck. Wildlife officials tranquilized the elk a few days ago and removed the tire. Hooray! I don’t want to say that the elk is all of us … but the elk is kinda all of us?

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