Three familiar technologies that began as assistive devices

The other day I was in a workshop about Canadian accessibility laws (spoiler: they’re largely toothless but if you sell things online and ship to the US, you can be sued under American legislation) and the conversation turned to familiar technology invented as assistive devices. I thought it might be fun to share a few here.

When it comes to physical infrastructure this is called the curb cut effect, and if you look at the origins of the things we take for granted, you’ll start to see examples throughout our digital daily life as well. Here are a few that have probably benefited you at least once today.


We begin way back in 1808. While there is some controversy around who is the true inventor of the letter transcribing machine, aka typewriter (epistolary drama!), there’s a good case to be made for Italian inventor Pellegrino Turri, who built a device for his blind lover Countess Fantoni da Fivizzano so she could more easily write letters. The first commercially produced typewriter was called the writing ball (the keys were assembled in a ball shape above the writing paper) is usually credited to Rasmus Malling-Hansen, who was principal at the Royal Institute for the Deaf in Denmark

Text Messaging (short message service, aka SMS)

Texting as we know is just the latest in a line of innovations that began with the teletypewriter

Robert Weitbrecht was born deaf and grew up to be a physicist and an engineer working in radio communications. He used Morse code to communicate with hearing people via radio, but hit up against its limitations when trying to communicate using a conventional phone. Starting with a teletypewriter (TTY) that could only receive messages, he developed the technology that allowed the TTY to both send and receive messages through a regular telephone.

This evolved into the short message service, and the first text message as we know it now was sent in 1992 from a computer to a cell phone. It said “Merry Christmas.”


With every new invention comes new problems, and this time it’s chronic pain. In the late 90s, American grad student Wayne Westerman got interested in low-impact interactivity.

The first iterations of the touch screen were stylus-based (think your mom’s PalmPilot) and were used as early as 1942 for drawing directly on live tv broadcasts of sports. Several different types of touchscreens technology evolved over the decades–the first finger-driven screen was created in England in 1965.

The technology we know and love today was introduced in 1998 when Westerman started a business called FingerWorks (don’t look at me, I just work here) to sell touch-based keyboards that were especially useful to people with similar repetitive stress injuries. In 2005 the company’s patents, along with Westerman himself, were bought up by (I bet you can see where this is going) Apple Inc. Two years later, the first iPhone was released.

If you know of more modern conveniences that were created by people with disabilities, let us know!

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