Nov 6, 2020

According to the Assistive Technology Industry Association, assistive technology is “any item, piece of equipment, software program, or product system that is used to increase, maintain, or improve the functional capabilities of persons with disabilities.” However, have you ever considered that assistive technology might also be beneficial for individuals besides those with various disabilities (as dictated by the built world)?

Below, we’ll  share some specific examples of when assistive technology proved to do just that, thereby serving as the grounding principle of what we now know as inclusive design. In other words, when we design for user groups typically excluded, we end up designing better solutions for everyone. Let’s take a closer look.

  1. Typewriter (and, therefore, keyboard). At the beginning of the Nineteenth Century, Italian inventor Giusepee Pellegrino Turri and Countess Carolina Fantoni da Fivizzano invented one of the first machines used to mechanically type letters and words. Legend has it that the two were secret lovers and used letters to communicate. However, the Countess was slowly losing her vision and, at this time in history, the only way for a person with severe visual impairments to write letters was to dictate the message to someone, who would then transcribe the message to paper. Committed to keeping their writing correspondences private, the two lovers developed a machine in which the user could press down a key for a single letter, thereby raising a metal arm to press each letter into the carbon paper. The user could then continuously press the appropriate keys to create a string of letters to form a message. As technology advanced, this same concept evolved into the keyboard;.
  2. Sidewalk curb cuts. Imagine you are walking down a sidewalk and preparing to cross the street. If you look down, you will notice that the curb gradually lowers to street level, thereby creating a small ramp between the two levels. This design is known as a “curb cut.” In 1945, the town of Kalamazoo, Michigan was the first to install curb cuts within all their downtown sidewalks in an effort to facilitate more accessible travel. However, it was not until 1990, when the American with Disabilities Act (ADA) was signed into law, that curb cuts became a mandated feature on all public US sidewalks. Although these curb cuts were initially introduced to facilitate travel for wheelchair users, this design benefits many others as well, such as those pushing a stroller or riding a bike, or those with weak joints who struggle to move up and down steps.
  3. Touch screen interface. While finishing his dissertation on multi-touch surfaces at the University of Delaware, Wayne Westerman developed a severe case of carpal tunnel syndrome, thereby inhibiting his ability to use the computer effectively. This developed disability proved to be a significant road block to finishing his work and ultimately inspired him to develop a way to interact with a computer with minimal force. So, he and University of Delaware professor, John Elias, founded Fingerworks, a company developing a system comprised of touchpads for each hand that would replace the keyboard. Although Fingerworks initially marketed to those with dexterity impairments and repetitive-strain injuries, many other individuals became interested in using the system as an easier way to navigate their computer. In 2005, Apple bought Fingerworks technology and used it to build their first device with a touch screen interface, the iPhone. Westerman is still listed on a 2007 iPhone patent.  
  4. Electronic toothbrushes. In 1927, the Electro Massage Tooth Brush Company developed the first electric toothbrush, which would provide electrically-powered vibrations to move the toothbrush to enable those with poor dexterity to brush their teeth without exerting significant hand force and, therefore, potentially independently. However, this model and several subsequent models drew electrical power through a power cord connected to a power outlet, thereby setting up a notably dangerous environment for anyone using the device near water. By the 1990s, a cordless and rechargeable toothbrush entered the scene, ultimately becoming widely popular around the country, including those with and without dexterity impairments.
  5. Audiobooks. For individuals living with visual impairments in the early 1900s, reading a book was close to impossible unless someone else read the book to them. To address this inequity in access to written resources, the American Foundation for the Blind began creating recordings of books on vinyl records in 1932. These recordings were later known as “audiobooks,” which became an industry standard name by 1994. Today, audiobooks not only enable individuals with visual impairments, but also learning impairments such as dyslexia, children not yet able to read, people driving in a car, and more, to enjoy a book.
  6. Video captions. In the 1970s, ABC became the first (and only at the time) national TV newscast that deaf people could follow: per orders from Malcolm Norwood, the Chief of Media Services and Captioned Films within the Bureau of Education for the Handicapped at the US Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (DHEW), ABC decided to experiment with closed captions on Julia Child’s popular cooking show, The French Chef. Therefore, Child’s show became the first television program accessible to deaf and hard-of-hearing viewers. Video captioning is yet another example of a product or service that has proven helpful not only to deaf and hard-of-hearing viewers, but also to those viewing media in loud environments like a bar or a train, as well as those whose native language is not that spoken on the media source.

These product histories reinforce the inclusive design principle mentioned earlier: When we design for individuals typically excluded, we end up designing better solutions for everyone. So next time you are considering exclusion criteria for an upcoming research study, take a second look--who exactly are you leaving out? How are you sure your product development would not benefit from their perspective?

Samantha Levy is Human Factors Associate at Emergo by UL’s Human Factors Research & Design (HFR&D) division.

Related medical device design, human factors and usability resources:

  • Human factors design and prototype development support
  • Human factors engineering (HFE) user research for medical devices, IVDs and combination products
  • Webinar: The role of hardware user interface design in medical devices


  • Samantha Levy