There are many issues with how our society views people with disabilities and one of the most fundamental ones is that we approach disability as a matter of charity. People with disabilities are often labeled “unfortunate” and regarded as the targets of much-needed generosity by those who can provide help and solutions. But the fact of the matter is that people with disabilities have historically been—and still are—on the forefront of finding solutions for themselves. It’s time we begin viewing the disability community as a community of innovators.
There is perhaps no better person I could have spoken with on this topic than Haben Girma, the first Deafblind person to graduate from Harvard Law School. She is a disability and inclusion consultant and in-between writing her first book (a memoir) and giving several key note speeches on technology and inclusion, she took the time to chat with me about innovation.
“People love dreaming of ‘bigger and better.’ There is always the dream of making better things that make our lives even easier,” says Girma. However while that is an admirable driver toward the invention of something new, Girma cautions that there are often limits: “When people dream, it’s usually just a dream for themselves. If a white non-disabled male dreams of one day having an autonomous car, his dream likely focuses on cars for people just like him. Autonomous cars would be amazing for people with disabilities. But are the designers dreaming of disabled drivers? Will they design a vehicle that will accommodate wheelchair users? Would the controls be accessible to blind people?”
In other words, if designers don’t recognize a problem because they personally don’t happen to have encountered them, they will likely not solve for that problem. This simple reality is often why so many of our most cherished and ground-breaking inventions have come from the disability community. If you inhabit a world that was not built to suit you—as the disability community does—you are of course much more likely to improve upon it. Girma offers the example of the typewriter. In 1808 Pellegrino Turri built the first functioning typewriter and invented carbon paper to go with it. Why? Because he was in love with a blind woman and wanted her to be able to write him letters directly rather than having them dictated to someone. Over 200 years later, I don’t think I can overstate the importance of that invention as I write this via a keyboard, arguably the grandchild of the typewriter.
“This is just one story, and no one knows this story,” says Girma. “What of all the other disability stories?” It truly matters that essentially no one is familiar with this story. We live in a culture that celebrates innovators, but yet we somehow fail to acknowledge the role the disability community plays in the existence of so many inventions we take for granted. Girma offers another example: email. The first email protocols were programmed by Vint Cerf in 1972 as a way to easily communicate with his wife—who was Deaf—while he was at work.
For Girma the key takeaway from these disability-origin stories of some of our favorite technologies is that the products don’t only benefit the disability community. “Captions on videos help Deaf people, but they also help hearing people, too,” she says. “In fact, Facebook reported that adding captions to videos increases the average view time by about 12%.” Technology is also of course not the only realm of innovation, as Girma notes: “curb cuts were designed for [wheel]chair users. So many non-disabled users love this invention, though: parents with strollers, travelers with luggage, kids on scooters, skates, bikes, etc.” She also adds that disability also drove some of our most fundamental intellectual discoveries: “Charles Darwin said that his illness actually led to his theories on evolution. If he wasn’t forced to stay home due to his illness, he may not have had time to develop his theories.” And then there is also TOM, some of the most prominent and impactful inventors of our time who use disability to drive their innovation. Because of this universal benefit, Girma argues that all innovators—even those who do not have a disability themselves—need to design for universal accessibility and with all kinds of people in mind. She gave a speech on the topic at Apple’s 2016 Worldwide Developer’s Conference.
It is time that we start seeing the disability community as a group of people who has not just fully contributed to our civilization as we know it, but has been on the forefront, leading with the kinds of life-improving inventions some of us wouldn’t even dream of. “The dominant disability story in our society is that disability is a burden,” says Girma. “Spotlighting how disability drives innovation will change the dominant disability story to a positive one: difference is an asset.”