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Innovation from Disabilities

These pictures show personalities that we probably recognize easily.

King George VI, British King during World War II; Albert Einstein, inventor of the theory of general relativity; Ray Charles, soul musician and singer; Ludwig Van Beethoven, German composer and pianist; Helen Keller, American author, political activist and lecturer; and Thomas Edison, inventor of the light bulb, the phonograph, the motion picture camera (just to highlight a few of his 1093 patents).

Yet, there is something that these personalities have in common – disabilities

King George VI, speech impairment; Albert Einstein, dyslexic; Ray Charles, blind; Ludwig Van Beethoven, deaf; Helen Keller, deafblind; and Thomas Edison, dyslexic.

Although the examples relate to individuals with disabilities, I would like to ascribe their success to personal innovation, which in this context can be defined as the act of improving oneself beyond (most people’s) expectations. Personal innovation is to personal development what product innovation is to product development: a way for the individual to reach an entirely new level of performance or achievement that few would have thought possible. Indeed these six characters rose above their disabilities and contributed to the world in ways that touched the lives of many to this day.

Innovation is so often described in terms of products, services, technologies or even corporate success that it is easy to overlook the individuals who make it happen for themselves.

Taking a product innovation as example, typically the innovation process will begin by identifying strengths, weaknesses and space for innovation. This is then followed by research and investments (time, funds and resource) in an area identified to be most profitable, which would eventually lead to a new, sometimes breakthrough, product/service/technology. The product would feature several characteristics that differentiate it from competition. Sustained presence of the product in the market would create a brand that stays in the mind of consumers.

Similarly, let’s consider the personal innovation of the individuals above. Despite their disabilities (weaknesses), they had in them innate passion or skill (strengths) in areas such as art, literature, sciences (analogous to product segment). Years of determination, courage and perseverance (investments) eventually led them to excel and make a positive impact (breakthrough with a differentiation), such that they remained in the memories (branding) of generations to come.

Of course, there are many individuals who are innovation champions without having any disabilities. The focus above on people with disabilities was aimed at highlighting the point that those disabilities or barriers did not stop them. Their disabilities did not stop their abilities. The courage shown by the individuals brought contributions that touched people in different ways e.g. political governance, frontiers in scientific discoveries, electronic product advancements, enrichments to the literary world and greater appreciation to music.

Therefore, innovation, be it at a product level or personal level is effectively the act of improving oneself, a product, a service, a system or a technology withstanding and overcoming barriers that can be inherent, either internally or externally, for the betterment of society, whilst leaving a lasting impression. Disabilities or barriers should not be show-stoppers.

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