Skip to main content

A short history of assistive technology

Published on
November 10, 2022 at 12:00:00 AM PST November 10, 2022 at 12:00:00 AM PSTth, November 10, 2022 at 12:00:00 AM PST

November is Assistive Tech Awareness month, and to celebrate, we’re looking at the foundations of assistive technology and how we got to where we are today.


Assistive technology is described by the World Health Organisationas ‘an umbrella term covering the systems and services related to the delivery of assistive products and services’. Assistive products are ones that foster better daily experiences and wellbeing when implemented. They can range from things that assist with mobility and personal transport to communication aids, prostheses, vision and hearing support – and things that help with specific tasks like reading and learning, such as our own C-Pen Reader 2


Many devices can be afforded the title of ‘assistive technology’ even if that’s not the purpose they’re designed or marketed for. For example, somebody who struggles with their mobility can useverbal commands with their Alexa device to turn up their heating, therefore making Alexa a piece of assistive technology for that person. Without assistive technology, some people might find that they’re excluded from spaces and experiences they want to be included in or are locked into low incomes, dependence or a lack of personal dignity.

Assistive technology in history

It’s not easy to pinpoint the first assistive technology, as they’re devices that are likely to have been created, used and forgotten by the time we developed writing. The earliest prehistoric peoples would have used mobility aids such as walking sticks and crutches, and the idea of utilising a piece of polished crystal as a magnifying glass to help with reading is at least as ancient as 424 BC. Additionally, the ancestors of the wheelchair can be evidenced to the beginning of the sixth century. One of the most recognisable forms of assistive technology – a pair of glasses – can be attributed to their invention by Salvino D’Armate in Italy in 1284, but when it comes to supporting visual impairments using assistive technology, many people herald the beginning of the age of invention of Braille type around 1824.

The golden age of assistive technology


Although the past has been filled with more assistive tech than we might think, most regard the golden age of assistive technology as the one we’re living in now. The late 1970s represents a watershed in terms of how many of us thought about assistive technology and saw a shift towards supporting neurodiversity. It’s also when we see the genesis of many of the reading and speech support technologies that we’re familiar with today, alongside a focus on creating and implementing devices that can support learning and improve quality of life.


Reading and writing support – major modern milestones


Although less of a talking point than assistive devices that help people stay mobile or comfortable, reading and writing support tech has a long and vitally important history in the story of assistive technology.


1961: The first recognisable text-to-speech system is created by John Larry Kelly Jr. using an IBM computer at Bell Labs. It’s a rudimentary system, but the foundation for everything that comes after it – many people get on board and start exploring the possibilities of TTS over the next two decades. 


1980: The Don Johnston Human Learning Tools Company develops its first assistive writing tools, Co:Writer and Write:OutLoud. They’re mainly adopted by schools, but colleges and workplaces pick up the idea as the 80s turn into the 90s. 


1985: The first version of Microsoft Windows is released. Compared to other OS builds at the time, it has simplified and intuitive UX priorities and revolutionises the writing process for many people with dyslexia, but it’ll be another decade or so before dedicated reading support emerges alongside writing support within the base OS. 


1989: Freedom Scientific pioneer JAWS for DOS. It’s a screen reader system for DOS systems saw market dominance and still exists in other forms today. It’s not the first screen-based TTS, but it’s the most functional available to users for around five years either side. 


1995: Accessibility features are built into Windows OS for the first time.


1998: An innovative technology is patented – a small sensor that can scan images and fit into a small, handheld device around the size of a pen. It’s this tech that prompts the genesis of a company in Lund, Sweden: you’ll know them later as C-Pen.


1998: The ATIA – Assistive Technology Industry Association – is born. 

1999: The first iteration of Narrator, a Microsoft screen reader solution, became included in every copy of Windows. It marks the beginning of screen reader tech in a mainstream software setting, breaking down the idea that assistive tech and tech are two separate entities.


2000-5: Research and innovation gain sway in a shifting consumer electronics industry – the ‘tech boom’ is over, and tech is now an inbuilt necessity, not a new novelty. Assistive devices aren’t a key focus of the movement yet, but they’re gaining traction as focuses pivot to education and learning within the developing personal tech space – lots of TTS systems and names you might recognise from the EdTech industry pop up around now.


2003: Jack Churchill and Toby Sutton found a UK business selling a range of tech products in the developing eComm space. You might have heard of them.


2006: OCR-based TTS electronic reading system, the Kurzweil/NFB Reader, debuts to industry acclaim. It’s designed for people with low vision, but the worldwide media coverage it receives catapults OCR to the top of assistive tech priorities the world over. The tech isn’t new, though – Ray Kurzweil commercialised the ‘omni-font OCR’ which could process almost any written font in the 1970s.


2007: Debut of the LiveScribe SmartPen. It’s a physical notetaking system that computerises handwritten information as it’s written.


2008: Scanning Pens are appointed as UK seller for C-Pen, bringing handheld reading support to schools and businesses nationwide – and soon many others.


2011: The first of the “Hey,” generation of assistive tech appears – iOS’ Siri. It’s followed in 2014 by Amazon Echo’s Alexa and makes accessing information far easier than ever before – on-the-go knowledge acquisition can be entirely verbal, with the need for a keyboard and reading wholly eliminated. 


2015: Microsoft’s Learning Tools for Dyslexia debut, the result of an accessibility hackathon the same year. 


2020-1: Without assistive tech like online learning environments, handheld reading supports, text-to-speech software and other accessibility tech, learning would have been even more severely compromised during social distancing protocol – especially for vulnerable learners who might have been used to in-person support.  


Assistive tech has the power to change lives. But many people still don’t have access to the support they need in order to lead rich and fulfilling lives, succeed in education and progress into careers they love. 


Scanning Pens’ C-Pen Reader 2 combines award-winning text-to-speech technology with a simple and effective implementation that opens up the world of words for readers of all ages, from the classroom to the office to reading at home. Find out more about how the C-Pen Reader 2 can change the narrative for good and become part of your assistive technology story at Scanning Pens