I often joke that I have always been blind but didn't know it until September 1988. I wore thick eyeglasses and had vision in only one eye. As a student, I sat in the front row but could barely read the board, and I had great difficulty driving at night and in low light. Nonetheless it never occurred to me that I was disabled, and I plowed through school, earning a PhD in Physics, and becoming a university faculty member.
By 1988 I was a Physics Professor at Oregon State University, teaching and doing research in materials physics. On September 8, 1988 I went to the local hospital for a minor procedure on my right eye. Unfortunately my eye didn't take kindly to that procedure, and reacted quite negatively. Within a few weeks it became apparent that I was going to be blind for the rest of my life.
A Bit of a Struggle
In retrospect I was very lucky that I never had time to feel sorry for myself. At the time of the surgery my research group of some ten students and professionals were churning out data. Even from my hospital bed I spent much of my time talking to them about their research. My wonderful Physics Department colleagues took over my lecture classes, but nobody else could supervise my research group or read and write for me. I struggled for a few months with readers and tape recorders. I learned literary braille but never became really proficient.
Back into the Swing of Things
Fortunately I soon learned of the existence of computer screen readers. I remember that day as one of the happiest of my life. It hadn't taken me long to figure it out – within a few days I had mastered the thing. I had begun to learn the (verbose but useful) Latex notation for math and was able once again to do the reading and writing necessary to continue my academic career.
A Little Side Note
I became an early subscriber to something called "Computer Books for the Blind" run by a young man at the University of Montana. That young man was George Kerscher, and his organization was eventually absorbed by Learning Ally (originally RFB, then RFB&D) and led to George's interest in DAISY.
Not an Impossible Dream
I could read and write with my computer, but the graphics access technology of the day was insufficient for me to read the graphical data that was pouring out of my lab. The data plots meant very little in the raw form taken by my students. Data had to be fitted with very complex functions involving many, many fitting parameters in order to extract the physical quantities we were trying to measure. Although many professional colleagues around the world pitched in to help with analysis, the difficulty proved insurmountable and eventually I closed that research lab.
In the meantime I had taken up a new research field – improving accessibility of math and science. Somehow I just knew that someday, math and graphical information could be published in a form that would be accessible to blind people without needing to "be made accessible". The goal of my new research was to help make that dream a reality. Accessible math today is close to being a reality because of the increasing use of MathML. Accessible mainstream graphics are still a dream, but I do now know for sure that it is not an impossible dream.
One early development of my new research team was the DotsPlus method of displaying math equations graphically just as for sighted people. Braille is used for letters and numbers, but nearly everything else is tactile graphics. A few students who need only limited access to math use DotsPlus successfully today. The learning curve is quite small for someone who knows only grade 1 braille.
To make DotsPlus and to represent general graphics tactually, an improved tactile technology was needed. In 1996, student Peter Langner invented such a new method that is at the heart of what is now called Tiger. He won the 1996 BF Goodrich Collegiate Inventors Prize for that invention. After braille embosser manufacturers showed no interest, he, my wife Carolyn, and I formed ViewPlus to bring that technology to market. We all had full-time jobs, so things progressed slowly at first. Peter accepted a position in California but was able to develop a decent prototype.
Bringing Tiger to Market
In mid-1999 Carolyn and I rented a room in the Business Enterprise Center, hired two engineers, and began to develop a manufacturable product. In 2000 we shipped six Tiger Advantage tactile graphics and braille embossers. ViewPlus has grown steadily since then. In 2003 after working part-time for ViewPlus and part-time at Oregon State, I moved to ViewPlus full-time and am still President of the company.
As of today, ViewPlus is a multi-million dollar company employing several dozen people in Oregon and several people in other states and in Europe. We continue to innovate, having developed a full line of embossers, many of which print ink as well. In 2011, we introduced a new flagship product, the ViewPlus EmFuse, a high speed double sided embosser capable of printing sheets up to 12x18 inches with full color graphics and/or ink words with braille. We bundle a suite of braille translation software and printer drivers with our embossers. And we make other software, including the Audio Graphing Calculator Windows application and the IVEO technology for audio/tactile access to graphical information.
Tiger and IVEO are the two big steps in my dream journey to accessible mainstream graphics. Today, someone who is blind can use those two technologies to access just about any type of graphical information by audio/touch. No braille expertise is required, and the learning curve is fairly small. You open an electronic file in the IVEO Viewer, emboss a copy on a ViewPlus embosser, and then touch text or graphical objects on the tactile copy. The computer then speaks the text or title of the object. Additional information about the image or any object is available through various keystrokes or gestures. Several academic publishers have pledged to begin publishing graphics with such "meta-information" included in the graphics file. These mainstream graphics would be automatically accessible to blind readers by this audio/touch process. I can hardly wait for that day!
My Personal Reward
I would not have chosen to become blind, but being blind has been a lot more interesting adventure than I imagined in those first few depressing days. I am pleased by the accomplishments of my university and ViewPlus teams and am flattered by the many awards we have received. But personally, my biggest reward comes on those occasions when someone who is blind tells me how much their lives have been improved by the technologies that we have developed and brought to market. There is no better feeling.
Dr. John Gardner is the recipient of the 2012 ACM SIGACCESS Award for Outstanding Contributions to Computing and Accessibility, and will therefore be the keynote speaker at the ASSET 2012 Conference on Computers and Accessibility. He is internationally recognized as a leading expert on the physics of defects in materials and has won a number of scientific awards including the Humboldt Prize awarded by the German Alexander von Humboldt Foundation. Awards received for the contributions he has made to accessibility include Distinguished Service Awards presented by Oregon State University and the University of Illinois, and the Oregon Governor's Award in recognition of outstanding achievements in improving access to education and employment through technology. His physics research has been supported by the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy, the Office of Naval Research, the Department of Defense, NASA, and several private corporations and foundations. He is the founder and editor-in-chief of the STEM-access web site and is Professor Emeritus of Physics at Oregon State University. ViewPlus Technologies Inc. is a Friend of the DAISY Consortium.