Adventures In Accessibilty #3: Accessibility Equals Usability

by Kwasi Mensah

January 7th, 2011


I’m currently working on a game that has blind people as one of it’s primary audiences. All of my friends have been supportive but most say, “I’d buy the game when it comes out but it’s not meant for me”. One of the biggest perceived challenges for marketing and informing people about the game is making it clear that its meant for everyone. Just because I’ve made sure a blind person can play the game doesn’t mean it can’t be fun for someone who can see.

In late December Gamasutra posted titled “Resetting Accessibility In Games” by Dennis Scimeca which was right in line with what I am trying to accomplish. The main point I took away from the article is that adding accessibility is actually adding usability. Two interesting examples brought up in the article were vibrating cell phones, initially conceived for people with hearing impairments, and predictive typing, which all cellphones use for texting. So I wanted to spend this Adventures in Accessibility post focusing on inventions that were originally meant to increase accessibility for a group but increased usability for everyone.

Telephone & Record Player

Alexander Graham Bell talks into an early phone

Alexander Graham Bell[1], the inventor[2] of the telephone, mother started losing her hearing when he was 12[1]
. He spent his first years in the United States taking up the family business and teaching deaf children in Massachusetts. One of his most famous students was Helen Keller.  He also married a deaf woman, Mabbel Hubbard, the daughter of one of his business partners[3]. Bell’s invention of the telephone actually came out of his research into making hearing devices.[1]

An early phonograph

After the invention of the telephone, Bell worked on improving the phonograph (an early version of the record player) which was invented by his lab partner Thomas Edison. While originally using tin foil, which was easily ripped and could only be used a couple of times, he made it use wax which was a lot more durable. This work laid the basis for audio recording and playback as we now it today.

Touch Tone Dialing and Predictive Typing

In the 1970s, teletype writers allowed the deaf to communicate over telephone lines using keyboards[4]. However, there were relatively few of them and they were fairly expensive[4]. The alphanumeric keypad we know today was created to solve this problem[4]. By mapping letters to numbers phone lines were able to carry conversations with no new equipment.

The original keypad scheme required pressing multiple buttons to figure out which letter you meant type. In 1988 a patent was awarded to Roy W. Feinson for a system that would let you only type one letter at a time and would try to figure out what word you were trying to spell[5]. The original intent of his patent was to help hearing impaired people using touch tone typing. The precursor to T9 and iTap, the dictionaries most modern phones use for texting, was born.

Picture of someone Texting



Optical Character Recognition (OCR), the technology that allows your computer to scan a printed document and extract the text it contains, was pioneered by Ray Kurzweil[6]. While it already existed by the time he started working on it in 1974, it was limited to using a special font. He not only worked on making it for multiple fonts but spearheaded the invention the flatbed scanner and the first text-to-speech program. Together Kurzweil combined the three technologies to make the Kurzweil Reading Machine, a device the let blind people scan in printed text and have it read back to them. You can see it in action here.



Hopefully the examples above have shown that just because a piece of technology is meant to make certain people’s lives easier doesn’t mean it can help all of us. And hopefully more people will realize that they can play my game.

If you have any other piece technology that you think should be in this article  post it in the comments section.


Note 1: Alexander Graham Bell Wikipedia article

Note 2: There’s conflict over whether or not Alexander Graham Bell or Elisha Gray invented the telephone. Bell got the patent first but only after Gray filed his initial paperwork with the patent office. There’s also speculation on whether or not Bell saw Gray’s initial paperwork.  See the full Wikipedia article for the full story.

Note 3: Bell is somewhat controversial in the deaf community because he advocated not allowing deaf couples to marry. See this portion of his Wikipedia article.

Note 4: Facts taken from “KEYPAC – A Telephone Aid for the Deaf” by Robert a. Pavlak and David G. Messershmitt in IEEE Transactions on Communications vol. vol. Com-27 No. 9, Sept. 1979. According to this paper TTY systems were $225-$425 at the time it was published. This paper also includes a source on there being a low amount of the teletype writer which I couldn’t get access to in time to write this post.

Note 5: United States Patent 4,754,474 “Interpretative Tone Telecommunication Method and Apparatus”

Note 6: Information on Ray Kurzweil taken from his Wikipedia page and his bio.

Note 7: Image taken from and used under the GNU Free Documentation License. A copy of the license can be found at

One Comment

  1. kestrell
    Posted January 11, 2011 at 3:40 pm

    The typewriter was originally developed for use by blind people, and a couple of famous writers used it while they were losing vision (source: Frederic Kittler, I forget the specific title but I used the book in my thesis).
    Also, the use of buttons on Web sites which allow users to increase the font size was originally an accessibility thing which a lot of people grumbled about, but it is now pretty much standard.
    One of my wheelchair user friends likes to point out the same thing was originally true of curb cuts and ramps for buildings–lots of grumbling about the special people but now everybody uses them.

    Hi *waves*. I’m a totally blind person who has worked as a consultant, alpha tester, and player of accessible games, including a couple developed at the Gambit Lab. My favorite game right now is Echo Bazaar, which was not developed to be accessible specifically, but did use some nice design concepts to include usability, so I finally have a game I can play with my sighted friends and my husband, who is a game designer at Irrational.

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