When I was in graduate school, I knew a guy who was paraplegic. One day, he mentioned something about the grocery store. I took a deep breath and asked, albeit somewhat timidly, “So, how do you do your grocery shopping?”

I guess he was new to disability, because it made him angry. He snapped at me, “Well, how do you think? I go into the store, pick my food, and buy it.”

If he wanted to make me feel sheepish and ashamed, he succeeded. The thing is, though, I know now that he must have been new to disability because, in the decades since that time, I’ve realized that most of us with disabilities love talking about our techniques, technologies, various work-arounds for getting things done.

I stand beside the brand-new van of my friend Heather, who became quadriplegic after a car crash five years ago. She demonstrates it all – how the tiniest pressure on one button can slide open the door, lower the lift, and bring it in again once she has driven her chair up and into driving position. She loves explaining all the finest nuances of how this vehicle and other remarkable tools have given her such glorious freedom.

Most of us love talking about those things which enhance our independence, make what a century ago would have been impossible now possible, and often put us ahead of the curve in terms of technological savvy.

I admit it: I have become a total techno-geek, in love with my technology, always itching to see the next gadget coming to market, and I know that my disability has had some impact on that attitude. If you are shaking your head in denial, saying you don’t really care about such things, ponder a few questions.

How does a deaf person have a telephone conversation? How does a person who is quadriplegic start a movie that he just plain feels like watching? How does someone with cognitive disabilities remember to take her medications? And how do I, as a person who is blind, write articles, do research, or read my credit card statement? All of these tasks are accomplished, almost effortlessly, through pieces of technology. If you’re not familiar with them, hang on for a whirlwind technological tour in the months and issues ahead.

For this inaugural issue, though, laying some historical groundwork seemed in order. Did you know that many of the technologies which have become focal points of modern civilization initially came into being because of someone with a disability? The typewriter (great forerunner of your computer’s keyboard) came into being because, in 1808, Pellegrino Turri wanted to solve a problem for a friend. His friend, Italian countess Carolina Fantoni da Fivizzono, was blind and was not able to write legible letters to her friends who weren’t. The prototype for the typewriter changed that for her – and 60 years or so later was introduced as a trendy new gotta-have-it gadget for lots of other people, too.

Ironically, at roughly the same time in France, Louis Braille, the brilliant blind teenager who invented the world-renowned system of literacy for blind people, was also addressing the same problem: how could blind people write legible letters to their friends who could see. His long-defunct invention, the raphigraphe, was the forerunner of what would later become dot matrix printing. Perhaps the most well-known example of an invention to help someone with a disability being embraced by all is the telephone. Another ironic twist, Alexander Graham Bell actually designed the telephone as an attempt at making a kind of hearing aid for his deaf friends.

Thomas Edison’s intent upon creation of the first phonograph was to invent a machine that could play spoken-word recordings for blind people. Indeed, the first “talking books” in 1933 were entirely intended for people unable to read print. For decades, that would remain the case – until the mid 80s when the notion of audio books began catching on in the mainstream. Today, people with and without disabilities listen to audio books in their cars, on their iPods, while working out, lying on the beach, or doing the laundry. Again, improvements to the technology playing audio books – now usually digital recordings – is being driven by producers of reading materials and equipment for people with disabilities.

One of the most notable such “dual inventions” occurred in 1964. Orthodontist James Marsters of California was deaf; he shipped a teletype device to a deaf friend to provide the two a means of having a conversation over the telephone. Today, it is essentially the same technology used by people around the world to send and receive email via the internet.

If there’s a moral to this tale, I suppose it’s this: We know that universal design, access for all, is smart because history has proven it again and again. Devices thought to be novelties for the sole purpose of assisting someone with a disability have grown into commonplace and essential tools of daily living for everyone. And as for the growing number of us who are enthralled with technology, well, the moral of that tale is, again, something we already know: We embrace those tools and techniques which give us independence. Even if you think you don’t care much about technology, there are new tools being rolled out every season that can serve as a work-around for some obstacle posed by one or many disabilities. They make that old annoying question “How do you do that?” so much fun to answer!

Deborah Kendrick , is a free-lance writer from Ohio.

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