Your favorite device feature probably started as an accommodation for disability

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October – the National Disability Employment Awareness month in the US – in now in the rear view mirror.  We meant to take at least a minute before we get immersed in year end holidays to salute the work of scientists, inventors, and entrepreneurs who have applied technology to the needs of people with disabilities and in the process transformed the workplace.

From the eyeglass to the iPhone, features developed for people with disabilities become standardized, fashionable, and eventually indispensable. I look forward to the day when “accommodation” and “innovation” are seen to be closely related because, as a matter of fact, historically they are.  Here are some examples:

Computer punch cards

Many know Herman Hollerith as the inventor who developed an electromechanical punched card tabulator to assist in summarizing information. Widely adopted in the early 20th century, the system led to the formation of IBM and was the foundation of computer programming for decades. What many do not know is that Hollerith was severely dyslexic, could not read well, and developed his punch card code to store information for himself.

Telephone

Alexander Graham Bell’s wife was deaf, as was his mother. The idea of “electronic speech” occurred to him while visiting his mother in Canada. His endless experiments with hearing devices in trying to accommodate communication needs for people he loved eventually culminated in his being awarded the first U.S. patent for the telephone in 1876.

Siri

In the early 2000’s, when Apple introduced a service to college campuses to provide recordings of lectures to students, it was rejected from the 23 campus University of California system because the graphic interface could not be operated by blind students. Apple saw an opportunity, put great designers on the problem, and developed a speaking interface that became Siri, now used by billions of people of all abilities around the globe.

Good Design is Accessible

The point of these few examples – and there are countless others – is that when we design workplaces and communications systems to meet the needs of people with disabilities, we solve unanticipated problems for all users.  As we say farewell to October 2016, please seriously consider how to better use technology to include people with disabilities in your workforce and then learn from them how to innovate the 21st Century workplace.

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