Enter the maze

Help the Disabled ... Help us all

Designing for the disabled - that must be a niche market mustn't it? Actually no. One in five people have a disability of some kind! More surprising still, the disabled have been the inspiration behind some of the biggest companies in the world.

This article was inspired by a talk at Dundee University by IBM's Vicki Hanson, a leading expert on designing for the disabled.

A paper chain of people with a wheelchair out front

Where do innovators get their ideas from? Often they come from people driven to support people disadvantaged in society. The resulting technologies then not only help those with disabilities but become the everyday objects we all rely on. A classic example is the idea of reducing the kerbs on pavements to make it possible for people in wheelchairs to get around. Turns out of course that they also help people with pushchairs, bikes, roller-blades and more. That's not just a one-off example, some of the most famous inventors and biggest companies in the world have their roots in helping the disabled.

Alexander Graham Bell: Helping the deaf

Bell, one of the greatest inventors of the 19th century was inspired by his deaf mother. His life's work, that ultimately led to the invention of the telephone, was really about helping the deaf to learn to read and write. Bell's company went on to become one of Americas greatest telecommunications giants. The sad irony of his work is that actually the telephone made things worse for the deaf. As telephones invaded the world of work, becoming a necessity to do business, many deaf employees were sacked because they could not use the phone.

A telesales silhouette

Thomas Edison: Helping the blind

Thomas Edison is one of the most prolific innovators ever: so much so that his invention, the light bulb, is used to mean "innovation". Another of his inventions was the phonograph or record player, used universally before being overtaken by the digital age of CDs and MP3 players as the way to listen to music. In his patent for the phonograph, Edison put "listening to music" as only the fourth most important use of his invention. He was far more interested in reason 2: "the spoken book" to allow the blind to listen to books rather than have to read them. For many, like me, listening to spoken books like the Harry Potter series while driving make the commute to work bearable.

Typewriters for the blind

The original reason for the development of the typewriter was to make it easier for blind people to write. Now of course the keyboard is everywhere - how could we manage without them? Well perhaps soon we will, as speech recognition software gets better. Of course some of the early users who helped to drive that technology were people with repetitive strain injuries from using keyboards too much meaning they could no longer type.

Lifts and wheelchairs

The helpful lights on the banks of lifts of skyscrapers that tell you where the lifts are and help you predict which lift will arrive first were originally designed to help people in wheelchairs get into the right position. Without the lights they would often miss the lift, because they couldn't change position fast enough.

Crossed hands in a Lightbeam

Temple Grandin and her squeeze-box

Temple Grandin is an animal scientist. As a result of her inventions and approach to animal welfare she has dramatically reduced animal suffering. She is heavily in demand from the meat packing industry to fix their problems. She is also autistic, and her career solving problems for animals started out with her designing a "squeeze-box" to help herself cope with autism.

Herman Hollerith and learning difficulties

People with disabilities have also been instrumental in the computer revolution. Early computers were controlled by punch cards - cards with holes in them that represent the data. The system was originally devised as a way of counting census data. Herman Hollerith founded a company that made his fortune around them. He had learning difficulties himself - a kind of cognitive disability. His personal motivation for developing punch card systems was so that people would not have to do the counting themselves. His company later became IBM, a company that helped propel us into the computer age.

So if you care about society or just want a source of innovative ideas, you could do worse than thinking of how to help take the disadvantage out of being disabled.

You may just make life better for everyone.