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12 Examples of Assistive Technology (AT) That Went Mainstream

Woody and Buzz Lightyear from "A Toy Story." Buzz's hand is extended forward in reference to his catch phrase: To infinity and beyond.

When assistive technology turns out to go above and beyond

A Recurring Pattern

The “curb cut effect[1]” is the phenomenon wherein some kind of modification is made to existing structures or technology to accommodate people with disabilities which then comes to be appreciated for its benefits to all. There are so many examples of this phenomenon, both in the build environment and the virtual world, and we’ve compiled a list of 12 of them. As we become increasingly conscious of accessibility and disability inclusion in our society[2], it will be interesting to see what new and current assistive technologies undergo this process in the future.

Without Further Ado…


1.     Ramps

Ramps were originally added to the built environment to provide access to people with mobility impairments. They became popular in the mainstream because they offer a simple and effective solution for those pushing strollers, shopping carts, and other heavy objects, as well as those for whom they were originally intended.


2.     Accessible restrooms

A picture of a sign indicating where the accessible toilets are. On the left is the word toilets with stick figures of a family, then a parent changing a child's diaper, then a person in a wheelchair. On the right is an arrow indicating that the toilets are ahead.

Accessible restrooms are designed to accommodate people with disabilities, especially those who use wheelchairs, walkers, or crutches. They have become popular in the mainstream for their utility for parents of young children who may need help and people who appreciate having a sink nearby for a variety of reasons.


3.     Voice-activated technology (e.g. Siri, Alexa)

Voice-activated technology allows users to control devices and access information through voice commands, making them accessible to those who have difficulty using traditional input methods such as a keyboard or mouse. They have become popular in the mainstream because they offer a convenient and hands-free way to control technology.


4.     Closed captioning

Closed captioning allows deaf people, people with hearing impairments, or anyone in a noisy environment to follow along with audio content, such as television shows and movies. Closed captioning has become popular in the mainstream as a way to enhance the viewing experience for everyone, not just those with disabilities. It can also be helpful for non-native speakers of a language, or for those who need to turn off audio in a public place, and early research shows that it may help to encourage literacy.


5.     Smart home technology

A picture of a phone's interface with the words "home control" at the top and icons representing different parts of the home. In the background is a kitchen with different parts labeled to correspond with the app's controls: "Light control," "STB/TV control," "Air conditioner," "Window Control," "Light LED control," and "Thermostat control."

Smart home technology, such as app-controlled lighting and temperature systems, allow users to control their home environment with ease. They‘ve become popular in the mainstream because of their convenience and efficiency for all users.


6.     Text-to-speech software

Text-to-speech software allows people with visual disabilities to have written text read aloud to them. They have become popular in the mainstream as a way to multitask or for people who prefer not to read for long periods of time.


7.     Speech-to-text software

Speech-to-text software allows people to convert spoken words into text, making it easier for people with disabilities that affect their ability to type to communicate and work on a computer. It has become popular in the mainstream as a convenient and efficient method of input – it can be helpful for people who are multitasking and want to dictate notes or emails hands-free.


8.     Audio books

Audio books[3] allow people with visual disabilities, dyslexia, or anyone else who struggles with reading, to enjoy books in an alternative format. They have become popular in the mainstream as a convenient way for people to enjoy books on the go or while doing other activities.


9.     Motorized scooters

A smiling elderly woman on a motorized scooter in a parking lot on a sunny day

Motorized scooters allow people with mobility-related disabilities to travel short distances with ease. They’ve become popular in the mainstream as a convenient way for people to get around crowded areas or travel short distances without getting tired.


10.  Automatic doors

Automatic doors allow ipeople with mobility-related disabilities or and wheelchair users to easily enter and exit buildings. They’ve become popular in the mainstream as a convenient solution for anyone using their hands for any reason, as well as because they’re easier than pushing or pulling a door open.


11.  Adjustable height desks

Adjustable height desks allow individuals to adjust the height of their work surface to a comfortable level, reducing strain on the neck, back, and eyes. They have become popular in the mainstream as a way to improve ergonomics and promote a healthy posture while working.


12.  Curb cuts

A picture of a curb cut -- a ramp leading from the sidewalk down to the street

Curb cuts are ramps that allow people in wheelchairs to access sidewalks and roadways more easily. They have become indispensable in the mainstream because they make it easier for people with strollers, bikes, and other mobility aids to navigate streets and sidewalks.


The Proof Is in The Pudding

That so many different kinds of technology and infrastructural tweaks began with the purpose of assisting people with disabilities have undergone the process of becoming popular in the mainstream is fascinating, and these are only some examples. The existence of this phenomenon shows that accessibility makes everyone’s lives better, and to claim that it “only” helps people with disabilities is to miss the potential these innovations have to improve everyone’s lives.




[1] See this episode of 99% Invisible for a full explanation.

[2] And we are, according to this World Bank report.

[3] To read the full history of audio books:

Inclusive. Compliant. Simple.