This article is part of the On Tech newsletter. Here is a collection of past columns.
Do you love audiobooks? “You have blind people to thank for that,” he said. Catherine Kudlick, director of the Paul K. Longmore Institute on Disability at San Francisco State University.
The godfather of the book that is read aloud through the headphones of his smartphone was Talking books, registers developed in the 1930s in the United States for the visually impaired as an alternative to Braille.
I’ve been discussing the history of audiobooks with Dr. Kudlick, who calls herself “imperfectly blind,” and other experts because, well, I love listening to books. But it is more than that. Audiobooks are an excellent example of a technology developed by or for people with disabilities that has helped us all. They remind us that people with disabilities are not an afterthought to invention, but rather key players.
“Disability drives innovation. It’s undeniable, ”said Joshua Miele, a blind adaptive technology designer who was recently called a recipient of the “genius” grant from the MacArthur Foundation.
“Most of the time, when you find something that is really good for people with disabilities,” Dr. Miele tells me, “it will find its way into the mainstream in a way that is wonderful and life enhancing.”
Let me go back to a quick history of audiobooks: Robert Irwin, former executive director of the American Foundation for the Blind, spearheaded a program in the 1930s to develop gramophone records of storytellers who read books aloud, according to Mara Mills, a New York University professor whose experience includes disability studies.
Back then, only 10 to 20 percent of blind Americans, including veterans who lost their sight in World War I, could read Braille. The United States government helped fund record players for the blind or low vision, and talking books were distributed through public libraries.
Commercial audiobooks began to take off after WWII, and each generation of audio formats – cassette tapes, CDs, and now smartphone apps – has made listening to books more convenient.
(Side note: Dr. Mills said that some visually impaired people hacked their turntables to speed up the reading of Talking Books, and that this listening speed reading influenced the audio time lengthening technology. If you like to listen to your favorite podcast or audiobook at double speed, you also have to thank people with low vision).
This story changes the script for how many of us envision product design. We may be more familiar with technologies that are designed for the general population and then, by adaptation or accident, also become useful for some people with disabilities. Smartphones are like that.
But there are other technologies that are used relatively widely today due to people with disabilities. Silicon Valley inventor and futurist Ray Kurzweil developed multiple technologies, including precursors to text-to-speech software like Siri, with the National Federation of the Blind.
Hearing aids were one of the First commercial proving grounds for computer chips. that are now in everything from fighter jets to your fridge. And this is not strictly technology as we imagine it, but Dr. Miele also mentioned that curb cuts on sidewalks were developed for people who use wheelchairs and were useful for many other people.
Talking books still exists today. But Dr. Mills said that screen readers – descendants of the Kurzweil design that scans digital text and speaks it out loud or converts it to Braille – they have made both talking books and audiobooks a little less popular with their blind students.
It seems appropriate that one technology initially designed for blind people has been partially displaced by another.