By Becky Montgomery
Recently, HLAA joined others around the world to celebrate Global Accessibility Awareness Day (GAAD). I want to honor GAAD and digital accessibility, too, even if it’s a week late. Digital accessibility profoundly changes the lives of millions of people around the world.
Ever since computers were invented, developers wanted to use technology to help people with disabilities. They still do today. In fact, for the past 30 years, inventors have filed more patents (on average, 17% more) for accessibility-related inventions than for the rest of the tech industry’s products.
Disability inspires creativity
Many inventions have helped those of us with hearing loss. Here are some of the milestones, courtesy of Stanford University:
- 1916 – Harvey Fletcher created the first hearing aid.
- 1948 – John Bardeed, William Shockley, and Walter Brattain invented the transistor to create more dependable, smaller, and cheaper hearing aids. They won the 1956 Nobel Prize for Physics for this work.
- 1960 – Pilgrim Imagine started the first publicly available captions for the Deaf.
- 1962 – James West invented a new kind of microphone, the electret, for hearing aids, still in use today. (Fun fact: James’s mother was one of the human computers for NASA in the 2016 movie Hidden Figures.)
- 1964 – A deaf orthodontist sent a teletype to his deaf friend so they could “talk” on the telephone. Deaf people still make calls with a TTY today.
- 1972 – Vinton Cerf, who was hard of hearing and married to a Deaf woman, invented communication protocols for ARPANET (a precursor to the web) so he could send text messages to his wife. This was the invention of email.
Disability policy takes off
By the 1970s, innovation spread to political arenas. President Richard Nixon signed the nation’s first accessibility law, The Rehabilitation Act of 1973. For the first time, it became a crime for government agencies to discriminate against someone because of their disability. The law also meant that all the technology used by government agencies had to be accessible to people with disabilities.
Then, in 1990, Congress followed with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA ). The ADA expanded the 1973 law beyond government to public businesses, and beyond technology to physical spaces. Although making physical spaces accessible was a bit controversial at first, millions of places now offer accessible doors that open automatically, wheelchair ramps, and sidewalk cutouts.
After those laws passed, inventiveness snowballed. We even had to coin words to talk about it all, such as Assistive Listening Devices (ALDs) and Hearing Assistive Technology (HAT.) Today, public assistive listening systems are commonplace—think FM transmitters in classrooms, hearing loops in theaters and houses of worship, and open-caption movies. To hear in other contexts, our phones can turn speech into text.
From an individual perspective, inventiveness in digital accessibility means that people with hearing loss, like me, can have actual conversations with other people. Many of us can easily use the telephone or stream TV and movies. To borrow a phrase from one of the tech companies, digital accessibility has given us “ease of access.”
Personally, I am a happy user of digital accessibility tools. I thank the thousands of people – dreamers, designers, scientists and engineers, writers, artists – who work on them. In the past, I too worked in accessibility with some of these folks. The experience left me a little starry-eyed. People who work in accessibility are enthusiastic about it, and their enthusiasm is infectious. At hundreds of companies all around the world, accessibility professionals are excited about their mission. The assistive devices they create range from pretty ordinary things like magnifiers to inventions that seem miraculous. Just today, I read about a paralyzed man who can now walk, thanks to digital implants.
A humble spark for creative fire: the everyday advocates
Digital accessibility is a wonderful confluence of creative inspiration, hard work, and the legal requirements of governments. But behind most accessibility “breakthroughs,” there is an invisible army that I want to honor. I’m convinced that the creative spark for accessible invention is very close to home. The spark grows from self-advocacy and from the advocacy of people who care about us – parents, friends, teachers, and so on. We got frustrated, we muttered to ourselves and each other (ok, sometimes we yelled). In the end, we learned how to ask for what we needed.
Today, for example, thanks to years of advocacy from HLAA and others asking for hearing loops, I can go to a concert hall to hear an author talk about a book or listen to a news anchor speak about world issues. I can go to a play or a movie and know that I will be able to hear it. Locally, HLAA-WA’s advocacy did not stop there: Soon, we’ll be able to relax and know that health insurance will pay for new hearing aids. Eventually, when we speak up, our needs become visible to a much broader audience.
Becky Montgomery writes about living with hearing loss from a very personal place – she has progressive hearing loss. She managed with hearing aids for 20-odd years but now wears bilateral cochlear implants. “When you gain a disability as an adult, it opens up whole new ways of thinking about how we do what we do; it’s a great spark for creativity. How do people who can’t see or hear experience the world differently? How can we learn from each other, and learn how to help each other?”
Becky is now retired and works hard at catching up on her reading and movie watching. In the past, she worked at Microsoft, where she was deeply involved in the company’s Employee Resource Group for Disability. For pay, she also helped to make programs like Word more accessible for people who can’t see.