6 technologies inspired by the Deaf

I work with technology professionals every day. While I can’t code or configure, I use technology every day, just like most people. One thing I didn’t consider about the technology I enjoy, like texting, is why the technology was created in the first place.

Technology is a tool to help us all accomplish difficult tasks easily and efficiently. But what about those that need technology to create a level playing field?

April is Deaf History Month. And while recognizing historical figures is how this month is generally celebrated, the technology created for the deaf community and by the deaf community is just as relevant…and worth mentioning.

I am fascinated by deaf history, so I did a little research. Here is a list of some technologies we owe to the deaf community:

1. First electric hearing aid

In 1898, the first electric hearing aid was created after the invention of the telephone and microphone. Miller Reese Hutchison, the inventor, was inspired to create an electric hearing aid because his childhood best friend lost his hearing due to Scarlet Fever. His design used an electric current to amplify weak signals. This eventually evolved into a hearing aid for personal use.

2. Video calling in its earliest form

In the 1930s, AT&T started developing a system that would enable it to stream video over its switched telephone network, rather than via dedicated cables. It showcased a prototype at the 1939 World’s Fair. But it wasn’t until 1964 that AT&T introduced the Picturephone Mod I, which allowed deaf individuals to sign and communicate from different locations. It was presented at the New York World’s Fair and set the stage for assistive technologies that have universal benefits. That is why we now have video calling capabilities via our phones and laptops.

3. The Text Telephone

Text Telephone (TTY), invented in 1964, came into being because of a deaf man named Robert Weitbrecht. Born deaf, his experience as a ham radio operator led to the development of the TTY. Morse code gave him the ability to communicate with hearing people via radio. In 1950, he obtained a radio teletypewriter that was only capable of receiving messages. It could not be used with a regular telephone. Weitbrecht was able to modify this radio teletypewriter so that it could send messages, too.

4. Cochlear Implants

When speaking of assistive technology for the deaf community, most people think of Cochlear Implants (CI), an electronic device that electrically stimulates the cochlear nerve (nerve for hearing).  Inspired by French experiments with electrode implantation at the VIII nerve, the invention was a collaborative effort of California universities mostly. The initial practical development of the CI started with the first implantation by William House and John Doyle of Los Angeles in 1961. In 1964, Blair Simmons and Robert White of Stanford University placed a 6-channel electrode directly into the modiolus. Then, Robin Michelson, Robert Schindler and Michael Merzenich at the University of California, San Francisco, conducted clinical trials on patients in 1970 and 1971. The final step to establish CI as a clinically feasible technology involved the independent evaluation of implant users, which was completed in 1977.

5. Closed Captioning


I use Closed Captions every time I watch TV despite not being hearing impaired. In 1972, “The French Chef” with Julia Child was the first open captioned program to air, meaning that the captions appear to everyone watching and cannot be turned off. It wasn’t until 10 years later that the National Captioning Institute (NCI) provided the first real-time captioning for a live event, the 1982 Academy Awards. Later that year, “World News Tonight” was the first regularly scheduled program to be real-time captioned. And now, it’s an option anyone can use and turn on and off, as needed.

6. Texting

Now for the technology more commonly used, texting. The SMS concept was first developed in the Franco-German GSM cooperation in 1984 by Friedhelm Hillebrand and Bernard Ghillebaert for the deaf community. The first text message was sent years later on December 3, 1992, from Neil Papworth, a former developer at Sema Group Telecoms. Mobile phones didn’t have keyboards at the time, so Papworth had to type the message on a PC. Papworth’s text — “Merry Christmas” — was successfully sent to Richard Jarvis at Vodafone. SMS changed the entire telecommunications industry by saving telecom bandwidth by texting instead of calling. And now, we text so much that “texting thumb” is a medical issue many have to deal with.

Building on the technology of the past, the deaf community has inspired whole industries to change, as well as improve people’s lives. I could list all of the cool technology that has come out in the past 20 years like video calling platforms for sign language (VRS, VRI, and TRS), or Bluetooth hearing aids, but if you’re interested in learning more, visit the National Deaf Center website.


About the author

Lindsey Carbo serves as a Technical Recruiter for Synergis. She started as an Associate Recruiter and was promoted within the first six months. In this role, she sources candidates for clients, specializing in project management and data analytics roles. Lindsey is a fervent advocate for her candidates, guiding them through the hiring process every step of the way. She earned her bachelor’s degree in communication studies from Appalachian State University. In her spare time, she enjoys reading and watching movies (with subtitles on).

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