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Enabling Communication – Deafness, Phones And Disability – A Connection

Posted by Mike Phipps on December 4, 2020

 An old-fashioned dialling telephone in bright yellow. The background is also bright yellow

Photo by Mike Meyers on Unsplash

Many of us know Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone. With it, Bell helped usher in a new era of civilisation.

‘Telephones’ had actually been around before 1876, when Bell was awarded the world’s first patent for an electronic telephone. Acoustic telephones, like the cups attached by string we played with as children, are known to have been used as far back as 1664 when a physicist, named Robert Hooke, was experimenting with jars and wire. Hooke discovered that you could hear things clearly over distances too far for the naked ear if you stick some string in the bottom of something that covered those ears! 

In fact, acoustic telephones were still being sold commercially, even after the design Alexander Bell created became available to buy. It was only when other companies were able to make their own electronic telephones that the old string and cup – or a take on that idea – were permanently consigned to the children.

The ability to talk to someone far away goes a long way in aiding mental wellbeing, particularly relevant in the current Covid-19 world we are living in. This may be obvious, but nevertheless, it’s always good to recognise the power of connectivity in overcoming loneliness.

There is a fact which few people know – Alexander Graham Bell, AKA Mr Telephone – was deeply influenced by his mother, Eliza Grace. Eliza was an accomplished pianist and, like Mozart, she also suffered from profound deafness. Along with Bell’s wife, Mabel Hubbard, who had completely lost her hearing from scarlet fever, these women would catalyse, inspire and encourage Bell’s ongoing interest in acoustics, and the potential for sound waves to be transmitted through wires. Or, to put all that another way, there’s a chance we wouldn’t have been calling anyone quite so soon had the man who invented phones not lived in the same home as two people suffering from the same disability – deafness.

Bell achieved many things during his lifetime. Amazingly, some even credit him with inventing the wireless telephone, a precursor to the mobile. In 1880, he described it as “the greatest invention I have ever made, greater than the telephone”.

In truth, it was pretty unworkable, as you can probably imagine. It wouldn’t be until almost a century later, with the invention of fibre-optics in 1965, that wireless phones would become a genuinely conceivable idea. Interestingly, Bell also created a basic metal detector in an attempt to save the life of US President James Garfield, as his condition worsened following an assassination attempt. Doctors called upon the telephone mastermind to try and locate the remaining bullets using this device.

The design didn’t work, although this time it wasn’t Bell’s fault — wires in the mattress and a surgeon refusing to allow the left side of the body to be examined sealed the leader’s fate. Digressions aside, perhaps too late, Bell also gave his name to the bel and decibel units of noise measurement. And this is where his contribution arguably becomes significant, as so many devices we now use today to gauge deafness and hearing impairments are tied to this system.

Hearing impairment comes in many different degrees, and some telephones have functions aimed at helping people with partial deafness. Still, one of the most obvious and original ways designers started to think about phones and disability was in terms of blindness and partial blindness. 

‘Big button’ phones have been around for a very long time – there’s no specific ‘birthday’ for the design. Instead, it’s a case of evolution guided by consumer demand for a phone that was easier to see, with clearer numbers.

We like it because of its sheer simplicity. And, like many designs, focused on phones and disability today, it takes into account both hearing and sight impairments, as does the Geemarc CL100.

Both are classed as big button amplified phones, meaning they can reach louder volumes than standard models. And yes, as you probably guessed, we measure that volume in decibels — in this instance, a maximum of 90dB and 30dB respectively. They are also easy to see, and there’s less chance of hitting the wrong number because of the button size, which can help those who struggle with motor skills. 

Designs for phones and disabilities aren’t limited to landlines, either. The PowerTel M9500 and M7000i are great examples of mobiles that purposefully keep it simple and – crucially – spaced out to make it physically easier for people to use them. The former even has the option for family members to dial into conversations. The latter has extra-loud ringtones and a function that announces the name of the caller.

It should be clear by now that the relationship between phones and disabilities is much more complex than products alone. In fact, it’s reciprocal in that it works both ways. Not only have phones changed how we all live, whether we have a disability or not, but disabilities have also been a source of inspiration and a driving force behind many of the developments in telecommunications over the last two centuries. This includes the very genesis of the telephone itself. Histories really don’t get much closer aligned than that.