“Unbeknown to most employers, people with disabilities sparked the creation of many of the technologies we use today,” Haben Girma boldly asserts in a new article on Financial Times. She is one of the best authorities to speak on the condition and experience of the disabled in the secular world and rightly so as she has fought seemingly insurmountable adversity to be the first deaf and blind Harvard Law graduate. Girma, an Eritrean with a heart for all the things that matter, has grown into a champion for the inclusion of the disabled in the economics and socio-political landscape of the world. Her latest article is sound education for an ignorant global economy which has never quite got to appreciate the abilities of the so called disabled.
In June, Girma raised haunting questions for the current technological movement to Kristina Kopic of The Ruderman Foundation. The Harvard graduate said, “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?”
There is gross pervasive inequality and seclusion in the world’s industries and this leads to the consequent production of technology that further cements the existing seclusion. It is a vicious cycle that will be broken by simply including the disabled in the manufacturing processes and having them take part in creating technology they can benefit from. Only when the disabled are included in the industry can innovation be truly global and all embracing.
Girma’s article in the Financial Times then says, “Employees with disabilities drive innovation. Disability creates a constraint, and embracing constraints spurs inventive solutions. Our history has numerous examples of people with disabilities leading advances in science, technology and other fields.”
Experiencing a constraint, as it were, fuels innovation and Haben does well to educate on at least three inventions which were driven by the need to address constraints borne of disability.
The Love Letter Typewriter
Pellegrino Turri and Countess Carolina Fantoni da Fivizzano’s romantic association gave birth to one of the first working typewriters. The pair struggled to find a mode of communication that accorded them the privacy they needed. After all, it is no life dictating your sweet nothings to a scribe! Girma says, “By treating blindness as a design challenge, they developed a revolutionary method for producing print by touch. Today, millions of people produce print through the touch of a key, and some of the fastest typists are touch typists.”
Email as an answer to hearing impairment
Vint Cerf is regarded as one of the fathers of the internet for good reason. With hearing impairment as the design challenge, there was a need to create a way around telephones.
“Mr Cerf spearheaded the creation of the first commercial email service, allowing him to communicate with family members and colleagues without straining to hear,” Girma says.
Disability leading innovation in space
Wanda Diaz Merced, a blind astronomer, developed a non-visual system (sonification) for studying stellar radiation. Her application converts complex data into sound and this has also helped her sighted colleagues.
With disability at the heart of innovation, a lot more can be done to make technology accessible to all and for all. There is nothing about disability that militates against invention but instead, disability is a fuel for innovation.