Going Beyond What’s Possible: Inventors with Disabilities

Thomas Edison in his lab for inventors

“Start by doing what’s necessary; then do what’s possible; and suddenly you are doing the impossible.” -Francis of Assisi

Many inventors prove the old cliche that necessity is the mother of invention.  Often, those who need innovative solutions dream up the most useful tools to serve the community.  People who spend much of their time problem solving make some of the best inventors.  They can be the most determined not to let obstacles stand in the way of their success.  People with disabilities find themselves in need of solutions to everyday problems all the time, and often their solutions become inventions that are useful for everyone. In fact, if you’re using the internet to read this you have one of these disabled inventors to thank.

Thomas Edison

Thomas Edison is famous for inventing the lightbulb, but it’s less commonly known that he was also deaf. Edison lost his hearing around the age of twelve possibly due to Scarlet Fever or, as he believed, because he was lifted by his ears onto a moving train. This never interfered with his early love of chemistry and mechanics, a love shared by many inventors. He viewed his hearing loss as an asset instead of a liability because it enabled him to tune out outside distractions and focus completely on his work.

Edison invents items after item

As a child, he set up a small laboratory in a baggage car while working at a railroad selling newspapers and candy to passengers. His rudimentary lab caught fire and he had to shut it down.  Later, Edison moved to a larger lab and invented the lightbulb. He quickly upscaled this idea into an entire electric system that he could install across a city. In 1882 Manhattan implemented Edison’s electric system. Edison also invented the phonograph, precursor to the record player, which he hoped would give blind people more access to books. Later he helped develop a camera for recording video. 

Edison was one of the most famous inventors in the United States with 1,093 patents throughout his life. His inventions also brought him great success as a manufacturer and businessman, as he made and marketed his own inventions.

Ralph Teetor

Teetor was left blind in one eye at the age of five after an accident while playing with a knife. Soon, the trauma from that incident caused his other eye to lose vision as well. That didn’t stop Teeter from learning to navigate the city independently and avoiding traffic hazards of the early 1900s. He could smell when horses were nearby and hear oncoming cars. 

Engineering through images

He had a knack for innovation that led him to pursue a career in mechanical engineering at a time when many schools refused to even accept his application. Eventually, the University of Pennsylvania’s mechanical engineering department gave him the opportunity he needed. While he needed some assistance with reading and writing assignments, most engineering required thinking in images, not words, which Teeter was excellent at conceptualizing. Teetor also possessed an unusually detailed and accurate sense of touch, which allowed him to become successful in engineering and mechanics by manipulating items even though he could not see them. After graduating, he worked as an engineer for his family’s automotive parts manufacturing company. 

Decreasing erratic driving and fuel consumption

Harry Lindsay, his frequent chauffeur and lawyer, would erratically accelerate and decelerate when driving, which frustrated Teetor. In response, Teetor developed a device that could push back on the gas pedal when the driver pushed it once a max speed had been reached. He modified the device so the driver could set the mechanism to maintain a given speed until he or she tapped the pedal. Chrysler and Cadillac first adopted it as an optional feature named Cruise Control. It became standard on vehicles in the 1970s during the oil crisis. Cruise Control helped to conserve 167,000 barrels of oil per day during that time.

From cruise control to driverless cars

This technology has gone on to inspire other inventors who have used it to develop automated, driverless cars. It will give those with visual impairments- like Teetor- more independence and mobility decades after his death.

James C Marsters

James C Marsters– Teletypewriter (TTY)- When we think of sending and receiving instant, typed messages, the word “email” probably comes to mind first. But before email, there was a similar system in place using phone lines and typewriters which allowed those with hearing impairments to communicate instantly, like they would in a telephone call. This technology was known as a teletypewriter. 

From ties to tonsils

James C Marsters took a winding path to become an innovator of technology. Marsters lost his hearing after contracting scarlet fever and measles when he was very young. His parents sent him to Wright Oral School for the Deaf in New York City. Marsters went on to graduate with a degree in chemistry and went to work in his first father-in-law’s tie factory.

Marsters’ father-in-law encouraged him to pursue dentistry, which was no easy task for someone with hearing loss. Despite his high test scores, schools hesitated to accept him because of his disability. New York University’s dental school finally accepted him under the condition that he would receive no special assistance during his studies. He would even tell his professors he had some limited hearing to calm their concerns since he could read lips to compensate. 

Creating an alternative to the telephone

One of his more frustrating challenges was conversing on the phone. He was able to speak, so he would speak into the receiver while someone else listened to the response and mouthed it to him. At the time, only businesses could use typewriters to send and receive messages instantly over a dedicated network. The teletypewriter system was cost-prohibitive to the general public. Marsters had the idea to ask his friend Robert Weitbrecht, a deaf physicist at Stanford Research Institute, to explore the idea of sending and receiving teletypewriter messages across phone lines instead of the expensive, dedicated networks used by businesses.

Using an early version of a modem the inventors were able to use discarded typewriters to communicate their messages. The challenge became convincing the phone company to allow them to use phone company lines to transmit their messages. Because Bell was so strict about the use of their phone lines, Marsters went to Washington to convince lawmakers to legalize the use of TTY over phone lines as long as they didn’t interfere with regular phone calls. Deaf and hard of hearing people installed TTY in their homes, making it their standard method of communication. Emergency service providers like hospitals and fire departments also used the service. 

John Forbes Nash, Jr. 

John Forbes Nash, Jr., was a gifted mathematician who also struggled with schizophrenia. Even as a child, Nash was different from other kids. His mother noticed his difference immediately and associated with his indisputable intelligence. Nash’s classmates bullied him because his ideas were beyond their understanding. He understood that they picked on him because he was smarter than they were.

A genius from the beginning

Nash set up a laboratory in his bedroom where he could experiment with chemistry and electronics.  His parents enrolled him in a college class while he was still in high school to encourage his curiosity and intelligence. Princeton’s math program after his professors encouraged him to pursue mathematics.

It was there that he developed the Nash Equilibrium, which suggests that sometimes both sides of a situation are incapable of backing down from their positions without coming away with less than what they started with. While the Nash Equilibrium might not be a household name, it is used widely in political and business strategizing, as well as in gaming. He developed his theory during his Princeton years in the 1950s, after which he went on to teach at MIT.

Using brilliance to overcome challenges

During that time, Nash began to show symptoms of schizophrenia in the form of paranoia and delusions. Later, he would hear voices which he believed were real because they came to him in the same way his mathematical ideas came to him. After decades in and out of psychiatric hospitals, he learned to distinguish the delusions and voices from reality and essentially willed himself into remission, refusing further treatment and medications. 

He was able to return to work at Princeton and quietly resumed his research. Nash won the Nobel Prize in 1994 for his work on the Nash Equilibrium.  In 2001, his remarkable life was made into a movie called, “A Beautiful Mind.” 

Vint Cerf 

Did you check your email this morning? If so, you have Vint Cerf to thank for one of the most significant inventions of the century.  Cerf experienced significant hearing loss after being born six weeks premature in 1943 and placed in an oxygen tent while his lungs developed. This contributed to progressive nerve loss, causing degenerative hearing loss. Although he looked different from his classmates because of his large, over-the-ear hearing aids, he embraced the opportunity to stand out and did so with style, adopting sport coats and ties even in middle school. His affinity for technology led him to pursue it as a career and proudly proclaim himself a nerd. 

Email interested him because instantly reading messages was easier than talking with someone on the phone because of his hearing loss.  He and co-designer Robert Kahn were named “Fathers of the Internet” for their work in furthering an early email system to connect computers across the country, developing the early architecture of the internet.

Going beyond individual messages

The inventors expanded the idea of email- sending digital messages from one person to another- to a concept of making digital information accessible electronically from a central digital location for anyone wishing to access it. That structure of open-source information became the precursor of the internet we have today. He went on to become the Vice President of Technology Strategy for MCI Communications Corp. He is currently the public face for Google as the company’s chief internet “evangelist.”

Chieko Asakawa

Chieko Asakawa is a Japanese-born woman who lost her vision in a swimming accident when she was just a teenager. She began having to rely on her brothers to complete her schoolwork. They would read her textbooks to her while she transcribed them into Braille. Asakawa’s lack of independence frustrated her and caused her concern for her future. Her inability to access technology limited her career options. It influenced her decision to develop ways to make technology more accessible to everyone. Science could change people’s lives and give those with disabilities more freedom, and that inspired her. 

Asakawa majored in English in college and later took a computer programming class for visually impaired people. Following this course, IBM hired her as a visiting researcher, and later to work on an English-to-braille translation system. There she developed a word processor for Braille documents and a braille library network. She later created a text-to-speech plug-in for the Netscape web browser. Her work on this text-to-speech web browser plug-in earned her induction into the US National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2019.

People with disabilities often face barriers to mobility or communication. The need to remove those barriers can lead to the creation of unique solutions.   Creative problem solving has led many people with disabilities to become inventors whose tools improve life for everyone. 

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Nina Overdorff

Nina comes to Onix with years of sales and marketing experience from a variety of industries, and holds a BS in Language Arts Education. Nina has a passion for words, storytelling, and information, which she believes everyone should have access to regardless of ability. After spending time as a teacher with a blind student, she became much more aware of the limitations and abilities of web accessibility, and how essential it is to those experiencing disabilities. “Being able to access information equally ensures that everyone has an equal opportunity for education, employment, and success in life.”