Accessible Technology Origins
Who knew history could be fun? Especially when it comes to knowing how technology has truly made such an impact on the lives of those who are deaf, hard of hearing, deafblind, and/or with speech disabilities!
The communication we enjoy today has its roots in the early 1750s, predating the invention of the telegraph by more than 80 years!
In the early 1820s, Louis Braille a blind French inventor borrowed an idea from a soldier in Napoleon Banaparte’s army. The soldier, Charles Barbier, had developed a code system to enable the French army to communicate secretly. Known only to the French, Barbier's code was a series of raised dots which made secret communication easy, and uniquely, made these codes readable at night — important for a time where instant access to electric light didn’t exist! Mr. Braille adapted this “night writing code” to create the braille characters we know today.
In a similar way, Robert Weitbrecht, a deaf American inventor, was inspired by another code alphabet—morse code! Weitbrecht adapted Samuel Morse’s dot-dash pattern into audible tones that could be interpreted by the phone system, converted to text, and displayed on a special device. In the early 1960s, Weitbrecht introduced his invention, calling it the “Text Teletypewriter” (TTY, and often called the “Telecommunications Device for the Deaf,” or TDD). For the first time, people who were deaf could place phone calls through the telephone system, albeit 90 years after the first telephone was invented.
What is fascinating here is that these two inventors adapted code systems for a different use: Louis Braille’s braille system from Barbier’s night writing code and Weitbrecht’s TTY tones from Samuel Morse’s morse code. These inventions were foundational to today’s IP Relay technology over websites and on mobile devices. Moreover, Braille’s invention led to the creation of electronic braille devices that pair with the computers and mobile devices adding tactile access to both!
In the 1940s, a desire to access sound-based movies inspired Emerson Remero, a deaf man, to explore ways to add text to film, as it had appeared decades earlier in “silent” films. While Remero started the effort, it was another man who took the process further. J. Pierre Rakow, who was supervising teacher of the Vocational Department at the American School for the Deaf (ASD), pushed for captions to be added to film in the early 1950s. But it was ultimately two others — Dr. Boatner, superintendent of ASD, and Dr. Clarence O’Connor, superintendent of the Lexington School for the Deaf, who built on Rakow’s work, collected a total of $7,500 in donations, and with the money, were able to fund captioned films for the Deaf community.
Dr. Boatner and a few others then approached the U.S. Congress to secure support for making captions widely available in the Deaf community. Their argument was straightforward: with the popularity of the Talking Book program for the Blind community—around since 1933—why not create an accessible film program for the Deaf community as well? In 1958, U.S. President Eisenhower signed a Public Law that ensured that going forward, films were captioned for the Deaf community.
These developments, paired with a growing desire for access, built momentum that ultimately resulted in The Americans with Disabilities Acts (ADA) of 1990, signed by President Bush. The Act’s Title IV mandated a nationwide system of telecommunications relay services to ensure telecommunications would be accessible to every person with disabilities. This was augmented by the 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act (CVAA) which ensured that modern communication technologies would be kept up to date through digital broadband and mobile innovations.
Many of the innovations enjoyed by people with disabilities today have their roots in this history of accessibility. These include:
- Relay Conference Captioning (RCC)
- T-Mobile IP Relay (including Braille access for IP Relay)
- Video Relay Service
- Speech to speech services
Wondering what accessible communication services are available to meet your needs? Visit to www.t-mobile.com/access for details. If you’d like to try T-Mobile IP Relay yourself, visit t-mobile.com/iprelay and click on the “register” link. Once you register, you’ll have IP Relay wherever you go and whenever you need it!
- Alexander Graham Bell. https://www.history.com/topics/inventions/alexander-graham-bell
- Alexander Graham Bell. http://www.pbs.org/transistor/album1/addlbios/bellag.html
- Captioning for Deaf People: An Historical Overview. https://dcmp.org/learn/80-captioning-for-deaf-people-an-historical-overview
- Charles Barbier: A hidden story. https://dsq-sds.org/article/view/7499/5947
- Description and History of Braille. https://www.acb.org/history-of-braille
- Federal Relay Services. https://cso.nasa.gov/content/federal-relay-services/
- George Louis Le Sage – Telegram in 1774 Nearly Electric…
- History of Braille. https://brailleworks.com/braille-resources/history-of-braille/
- History of Relay Service in America. https://relaysd.com/news/history-of-relay-service-in-america
- History of the TTY, Captioning and other issues for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing and DeafBlind (a timeline). https://www.smecc.org/timeline_deaf_and_blind_telecom.htm
- Hist 330 Deafness and, Technology: Overview: https://infoguides.rit.edu/deaftech
- Louis Braille, French Teacher. https://nfb.org/sites/default/files/images/nfb/publications/bm/bm10/bm1003/bm100310.htm
- Morse Code & the Telegraph. https://www.history.com/topics/inventions/telegraph
- Telephone and Relay Services. https://www.nad.org/resources/technology/telephone-and-relay-services/
- The Invention of Braille. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3036681/
- The Telephone: A Barrier to Telecommunications Access? https://rockymountainada.org/news/blog/telephone-barrier-telecommunications-access