Tom Killeen

@tom.killeen

These 5 everyday products have a hidden history of accessible design

I design digital experiences at the BBC. As part of this role, I joined the Accessibility Champions Network and became an advocate for accessible design in things we make.

Since joining the network, I’ve become fascinated by the idea that when we design things to be accessible to all, the experience will actually be improved for everyone, not just those with impairments, driving innovation for businesses and whole industries.

The classic example of this is dropped curbs at road crossings, this solution was originally developed for wheelchair access, but it’s also a huge benefit to anyone with a pushchair or wheeled luggage.

By listening to High Resolution’s August de los Reyes podcast, I learned that many products we use every day have a hidden history.

I did some research and discovered five products that were invented to meet the needs of accessible users, but directly or indirectly became adopted by the mainstream and became so popular that their original use has been forgotten.

I’ll reveal them now.

Typewriter

Pellegrino Turri developed a typing machine so that his blind lover, Countess Carolina Fantoni, could send him love letters without the need for her to dictate to a scribe.

Although the machine itself is lost, the Countess’ letters still remain. It’s known that Turri’s machine used the same principle of pressing keys to print characters that the typewriter and computer keyboard still use to this day.

One of Countess Carolina Fantoni’s love letters via OzTypewriter

Telephone

In 1874, Alexander Graham Bell created a device called a phonautograph that allowed deaf students to see the vibrations of a sound etched onto smoked glass. The invention used an unusual component… the ear from a dead body.

It was this work that started Bell on the path to invent the telephone two years later.

Phonautograph complete with section of human skull via The Baldwin Project

Audiobooks

Talking books were one of the first applications of the phonographic when it was invented in 1877 — as Thomas Edison said, they could “speak to blind people without effort on their part.”

Talking books began to be used more widely in the 1930s when they were distributed to veterans wounded in the First World War.

It wasn’t until the mid-1980s when audiobooks started to gain mainstream appeal. The introduction of the cassette made audiobooks much more portable, and the general public began to enjoy the convenience of listening rather than reading.

Blinded airman listening to talking book - 1944 Library of Congress

OCR scanners

In 1949, L.E. Flory and W.S. Pike of RCA Laboratories created a machine that scanned text using optical character recognition (OCR) and read it aloud to blind people (read more in Popular Science magazine).

The invention never took off commercially, but it spurred on a whole new industry of OCR. The technology is now used for everything from libraries digitising archives to the postal service scanning addresses.

W.S. Pike using the first OCR device — Herbert Luckett via Modern Mechanix

Fidget spinners

Finally, the craze that’s swept the planet the last 12 months. Although less of a secret, some may not know that fidget spinners were originally designed to calm people with anxiety and attention disorders, such as Autism and ADHD.

They became a must-have gadget for young people across the world in early 2017, with a whole industry devoted to releasing fresh, creative designs and inventing new tricks.

Dude Perfect’s Fidget spinner trick shots — 57 million views and counting

I’m drawn to accessible design as it offers tough problems — the type that need really great thinking to solve. As we can see in these five examples, it’s great thinking that improves the lives of millions of people and stands the test of time.

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