Our Civilization Owes Its Existence to Disability

By December 3, 2020Blog Posts
Our Civilization Owes Its Existence to Disability

OK, This May Sound Ridiculous but Hear Me Out.

During these challenging times of pandemic, physical distancing, and lockdown, we have more time to think about what we are, and various concepts related to our existence. Since we are mostly experiencing situational disability in the pandemic, the concept of civilization, normality/abnormality, and disability emerge as concepts worth pondering upon.

I use the term “civilization” as defined in dictionary.com, which goes as follows; “an advanced state of human society, in which a high level of culture, science, industry, and the government have been reached.”

Based on this definition, we can easily conclude that there would be no civilization without inventions and innovations. Apart from the motivation behind them, the conditions in which they were developed, who the developers were, there is an essential condition for an invention to be considered an invention. If no one deems, sooner or later, a newly developed tool or technique a necessity, how and why do we call it an invention?

Disability = The Mother of Necessity

Drawing on what Plato said centuries ago, we can say: “Necessity is the Mother of Invention.” Needing something means not reaching the conditions that can be achieved with that thing in the absence of that thing. So, when we lack what we need, we are considered disabled in terms of the conditions we want to be in. Hence, we can claim that disability, in a broader sense, is the mother of necessity. Put differently, when what we need is not provided by inventions and innovations, we will all be considered disabled. Take, for example, the invention of the plane. We were all ‘flight-disabled’ under conditions where the plane was not invented. Even if we don’t address disability by expanding its meaning, disability as we know it is also a source of motivation for inventions that affect all our lives. Here are a couple of examples:

  • In 1808 Pellegrino Turri built the first functioning typewriter and invented carbon paper to go with it. Why? Because he was in love with a blind woman and wanted her to write him letters directly rather than having them dictated by someone.
  • Vint Cerf programmed the first email protocols in 1972 to easily communicate with his wife—who was deaf—while he was at work.
  • Captions on videos were first designed for deaf people, but they also help hearing people too. “In fact, Facebook reported that adding captions to videos increases the average view time by about 12%.”
  • Launched in 1974, the world’s first TV-based Teletext system Ceefax was developed by BBC engineers exploring ways to provide subtitles for the deaf audience. While doing so, they found it was possible to transmit full pages of text information in the “spare lines” transmitted on the analog TV signal.

How Technology and Design Help

Paraplegics and quadriplegics are already operating computers and wheelchairs using eye trackers. The technology is being used more widely, for example, alerting drowsy drivers, diagnosing brain trauma, and marketing. It can help companies analyze how consumers react to their products and advertising.

Kitchens are often not very friendly to wheelchair users. One particular issue is cabinets with shelves that are too high to reach. One design becoming more popular is a pull-down shelf, where the entire shelf can easily be brought down and stowed back in its place. These shelves are beginning to be used by people who are naturally too short of reaching the shelves. It can also benefit children who won’t be tempted to climb the bench to reach the shelves.

Most larger stores and shopping malls now have automatic door openers. Not necessarily designed for wheelchair users, they benefit people with mobility impairments, people carrying many bags, pushing prams, etc.

Fisher & Paykel offers a double-drawer dishwasher for individuals with impairments who have reaching issues. In the space normally occupied by a single drawer dishwasher, they put two drawers, independent of each other. Besides people with disabilities, this is beneficial for many people, such as individuals who only have small loads of dishes, individuals who, for religious reasons, wish to wash dishes used for meat, and those used for vegetables separately. This kind of design becomes truly universal, benefiting many groups.

Curb cuts and ramps are not really technology per se but are a good example of universal design. Curb cuts, also known as curb ramps, were initially implemented to allow wheelchair users to get on or off the sidewalk. Now, parents pushing prams or children on skates have an easier time with street corners as well. Examples abound.

Final Thoughts

The most refined conclusion we can draw from all this is that disability does not have to be perceived as an individual pathology, personal tragedy, or a source of pity. It was and is, in fact, the main motivation for improvement, invention, and innovation. If our ancestors living in the cave were content with feeling sorry for their own conditions, considering how talented other animals were, we would probably continue to live in caves now. This allows us to redefine disability by freeing it from its negative semantic burden as in this statement:

Disability is a state of life using other abilities, alternative techniques, various tools, and devices.

Author: Çağrı Doğan, Accessible Products Consultant, Sestek