The godfather of the book read aloud in your smartphone earphones was Talking Books, the discs developed in the 1930s in the United States for the visually impaired as an alternative to braille. I discussed the history of audiobooks with Dr. Kudlick, who calls himself “imperfectly blind,” and other experts because, well, I love to listen to books.
But it’s more than that. Audiobooks are a great example of a 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 players.
“Disability is the engine of innovation. It’s undeniable, ”said Joshua Miele, a blind adaptive technology designer who was recently named the recipient of the MacArthur Foundation“ Engineering ”Grant. “Always, when you find something that is really cool for people with disabilities,” Dr. Miele told me, “it will find its way into the mainstream in a way that is wonderful and makes life better. “
Let me go back to a brief history of audiobooks: Robert Irwin, the former executive director of the American Foundation for the Blind, ran a program in the 1930s to develop gramophone recordings of narrators reading books at high voice, according to Mara Mills, a new York University professor whose expertise includes disability studies.
Back then, only 10-20% of blind Americans, including veterans who lost their sight in World War I, could read braille.
The US government helped fund record players for the blind and visually impaired, and talking books were distributed in public libraries. Commercial audiobooks started to take off after World War II, and each generation of audio formats – cassettes, CDs, and now smartphone apps – has made listening to books more convenient.
Dr Mills said that some visually impaired people have hacked into their record players to speed up talking books and that this aural speed reading has influenced audio time stretching technology. This story flips the script on how many of us imagine product design.
We may be more familiar with technologies designed for the general public and which, through adaptation or accidentally, become useful to some people with disabilities as well. Smartphones are like that.
But other technologies that are relatively widely used today exist because of people with disabilities. Silicon Valley inventor and futurist Ray Kurzweil developed several technologies, including the precursors of text-to-speech software such as Siri, with the National Federation of the Blind.
Hearing aids were one of the first commercial proving grounds for computer chips that are now in everything from fighter jets to your refrigerator. And it’s not strictly technology as we imagine it, but Dr Miele also mentioned that curbs were developed for people who use wheelchairs and have proven to be useful for many other people.
Talking books still exist today. But Dr Mills said screen readers – descendants of Kurzweil’s design that scan digital text and pronounce it aloud or convert it to braille – have made talking books and audiobooks a little less popular with of his blind students. It seems fitting that one technology originally designed for blind people has been partially crowded out by another.