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The godfather of the book that was read over your smartphone headphones was Audio books, who developed records for the visually impaired in the United States in the 1930s as an alternative to Braille.
I have talked to Dr. Kudlick, who calls herself “imperfectly blind”, and other experts talked about the history of audio books because I like listening to books. But it’s more than that. Audiobooks are a prime example of technology developed by or for people with disabilities that has helped us all. They remind us that people with disabilities are not an afterthought, but key figures.
“Disability promotes innovation. There’s no denying it, ”said Joshua Miele, a blind adaptive technology designer who recently called a recipient of the MacArthur Foundation “Genie” grant.
“Almost always when you find something that is really cool for people with disabilities,” says Dr. Miele, “thinks it’s wonderful in the mainstream and makes life more beautiful.”
Let me come back for a moment History of the audio books: Robert Irwin, the former executive director of the American Foundation for the Blind, led a record development program in the 1930s for narrators who read aloud to books Mara Mills, a professor at New York University whose expertise includes disability studies.
Back then, only about 10 to 20 percent of blind Americans – including veterans who lost their sight in World War I – could read Braille. The US government helped fund record players for people with blindness or low vision, and audiobooks were distributed through public libraries.
Commercial audiobooks began on the rise after World War II, and every generation of audio formats – cassettes, CDs, and now smartphone apps – has made listening to books more convenient.
(Side note: Dr. Mills said that some people with low vision hacked their turntables to speed through audiobooks, and that this listening speed was affecting the audio Time stretching technology. If you’d like to listen to your favorite podcast or audiobook below double speedYou owe this to people with poor eyesight.)
This story reverses the script of how many of us envision product design. We may be more familiar with technologies that have been developed for the general population and then, through adaptation or chance, also become useful for some people with disabilities. Smartphones are like that.
But other technologies that are relatively widespread today also exist because of people with disabilities. Silicon Valley inventor and futurologist Ray Kurzweil has developed several technologies, including the trailblazer for text-to-speech software like Siri, with the National Association of the Blind.
Hearing aids were one of the earliest commercial test environment for the computer chips which is now in everything, from fighter jets to refrigerators. And that’s not necessarily technology as we imagine it, but Dr. Miele also mentioned that curb cuts in sidewalks were developed for wheelchair users and have proven useful for many other people.
Audio books still there today. But dr. Mills said that Screen readers – Descendants of Kurzweil’s design that scan digital text and speak out loud or convert it to Braille – have made both audiobooks and audiobooks a little less popular with their blind students.
It seems appropriate that a technology originally developed for the blind has been partially superseded by another.