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8 Things You Didn't Know Were Invented by People with Disabilities

The internet, cruise control, and motion pictures wouldn't exist without the contributions of people with disabilities.

July is Disability Pride Month, a time to celebrate the achievements and contributions of people with disabilities throughout history.  

 

Without their ingenuity and determination, many everyday innovations that we take for granted might not exist.  

 

Take the light bulb, for example, which was famously invented by Thomas Edison. Though Edison’s inventions have made him a household name, it may surprise you to learn that Edison was deaf — a factor that influenced many of his inventions.  

 

Outside of Edison’s fame, there are many lesser-known inventors with disabilities whose discoveries continue to shape our world today. Here are 8 things that wouldn’t exist today without the contributions of people with disabilities:  

1. Teletypewriter

Robert Weitbrecht, an American physicist who was deaf from birth, revolutionized communication for the deaf community in the 1960’s by inventing the teletypewriter, a device that converted audio signals from a phone into text on a typewriter. 

 

This innovation not only enabled individuals with speech and hearing impairments to stay connected, but also laid the foundation for modern technologies like text messaging (SMS) and email. 

Weitbrecht (far right) places the first transatlantic TTY call.
Weitbrecht (far right) places the first transatlantic TTY call. Image source: SMECC

2. Stroboscope

The stroboscope, a predecessor to modern movie cameras, was developed by a physicist named Joseph Plateau.  

 

Plateau, who lost his vision due to sun overexposure while conducting experiments, created the device to study the persistence of vision. The stroboscope produced a series of quick flashes of light which made fast-moving objects appear stationary or slow-moving.  

 

Plateau’s invention was instrumental in understanding and demonstrating the principles of motion capture and playback, which led to the eventual development of movie cameras and projectors. 

Plateau’s stroboscope, which gave the illusion that the image on the disc was moving, was later mass-produced as a children’s toy.
Plateau’s stroboscope, which gave the illusion that the image on the disc was moving, was later mass-produced as a children’s toy. Image source: Library of Congress

3. Cruise control

Next time you’re cruising down the freeway using cruise control, remember inventor Ralph Teetor.  

 

Teetor, who lost his sight at the age of five due to an accident, invented a device to maintain a car’s speed without the driver having to keep their foot on the accelerator.  

 

The idea for this device came to him in the 1940s while he was riding with his lawyer, who would accelerate and decelerate abruptly while talking. 

 

Teetor’s invention, which was later named “cruise control”, has since become a standard feature in automobiles, enhancing driving comfort and safety. 

Teetor (right), holding his cruise control device, with William Prossner, president of Perfect Circle, in 1957.
Teetor (right), holding his cruise control device, with William Prossner, president of Perfect Circle, in 1957. Image Source: Automotive Hall of Fame

4. Motorized scooter

If you or someone you know uses a motorized scooter for mobility, you’re benefiting from the ingenuity of inventor Ralph Braun.  

 

Diagnosed with muscular dystrophy as a child, Braun was determined to stay mobile and independent.  

 

In 1963, he developed the Tri-Wheeler motorized scooter and later invented the first wheelchair lift for vans.  

 

Braun’s innovations have greatly enhanced mobility for many, providing newfound freedom and integration into daily life. 

An early prototype of Braun’s Tri-Wheeler motorized scooter.
An early prototype of Braun’s Tri-Wheeler motorized scooter. Image Source: BraunAbility

5. Packing tape

Packing tape, medical adhesives, diaper tape, and window film are just a few of the inventions we owe to Charlie Lier, a prolific chemist at 3M with more than 80 patents to his name. 

 

Lier experienced partial vision loss from the age of 14 due to an explosion during a Fourth of July celebration. Despite many surgeries, his vision declined over the years, and he became completely blind at the age of 47.  

 

With the use of assistive technology and accommodations from his employer, Lier persevered in his work and developed many impactful solutions that are integral to our everyday lives.  

A portrait of Charlie Lier, who was part of a group of chemists tasked with developing materials for new or existing tape products.
A portrait of Charlie Lier, who was part of a group of chemists tasked with developing materials for new or existing tape products. Image Source: 3M

6. Polyurethane foam rubber

Polyether polyurethane foam rubber is widely used in many of the objects we rely on today, including sponges, mattresses, insulation and soundproofing, and floatation devices.  

 

This innovative material was developed by Charles C. Price, a pioneer in the field of polymer science.  

 

Price, who lost his hand in an accident as a child, also aided in the detection of chemical weapons during World War II and the development of chloroquine as a treatment for malaria.  

 

He went on to become President of the American Chemical Society (ACS) in 1965 and is known by many as “the father of polymer science.” 

Price (right) receives the Army Commendation for Meritorious Civilian Service.
Price (right) receives the Army Commendation for Meritorious Civilian Service. Image Source: Library of Congress

7. Antibiotics

New antibiotics are crucial in the fight against drug-resistant bacteria, ensuring we can continue to treat infections effectively.  

 

Dr. Odette Shotwell, who lived with severe paralysis caused by polio in her childhood, made significant contributions to this field.  

 

Shotwell worked as a research chemist for the USDA and discovered two new antibiotics, duramycin and azacolutin, while also aiding in the discovery of two others.  

 

Her research also earned her the USDA’s Distinguished Service Award for developing standards and methods to exclude mold toxins from foods and animal feed. 

Dr. Odette Shotwell working in her lab.
Dr. Odette Shotwell working in her lab. Image Source: Washington State University

8. ARPANET

If you’re reading this article on the internet, you have Vint Cerf to thank. Cerf, who has been hard of hearing since birth, co-developed ARPANET — the precursor to the modern Internet.  

 

Often called the “Father of the Internet,” Cerf helped create the TCP/IP protocols, foundational technologies for today’s global communication network. 

 

ARPANET, funded by the U.S. Department of Defense in the late 1960s, laid the foundation for the internet as we know it today. 

Vint Cerf demonstrating ARPANET in South Africa, 1974.
Vint Cerf demonstrating ARPANET in South Africa, 1974. Image Source: Computer History Museum

Download the free Disability Events calendar

From cruise control to the internet, the inventions of individuals with disabilities have enriched our lives in countless ways. The next time you use one of these inventions, let it be a reminder to appreciate and honor the diverse talents of people with disabilities.  

 

For more ways to celebrate disability pride all year round, download the free Disability Events Calendar.  

Free Resource: 2024 Disability Events Calendar
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