John J. Boyer
In order for blind and visually impaired people to advance their educational and employment ambitions, contemporary research and education materials must be presented in a way that is accessible to them. Many dedicated individuals and organizations are working to create assistive technologies that will allow those with disabilities to access modern science and mathematics information.
John J. Boyer has worked quietly for 25 years to develop computer software that would advance the cause of braille literacy and availability. Born blind and becoming deaf at an early age, Mr. Boyer knows intimately the frustration experienced by persons with those disabilities who are also dissatisfied with the availability of science and math materials in braille. John, with the urging of John Gardner of ViewPlus Technologies, and with the help of a small team of programmers, is developing BrailleBlaster. Previously he developed liblouis, liblouisxml and liblouisutdml. This is John Boyer's story.
I was born on a farm in Minnesota in 1936, one of 12 children in a German Catholic family. I have been blind from birth. I was sent to the Minnesota School for the Blind at a young age. Neither I nor my parents were enthusiastic about this, but at that time it was the only way for a blind child to receive an education. There I became proficient at reading braille, and that skill that has made the difference in my life. At the age of seven I lost most of my hearing as a result of illness. The next few years were spent in and out of school.
However, I became an avid braille reader, especially of books on science. This was true in spite of the fact that good scientific reading in braille was then, and still is, in short supply. I have never lost the sense of frustration I felt when the braille resources available to me were insufficient to satisfy my hunger for more science education. I believe that is the motive for my life's work.
At the age of 13 I was sent to the New York Institute for the Education of the Blind, because they had a deaf-blind department. There I completed high school and graduated as salutatorian of my class. My enthusiasm for science and math increased.
I attended the College (now University) of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota. I majored in mathematics and took a lot of psychology courses. The math major was in preparation for a career as a computer programmer. At that time there were no real departments of computer science. I graduated in 1961, second in the class.
There were no suitable jobs immediately available. I learned to live alone in an apartment, to do most of my own shopping, and to ride the city buses to an assembly-line job. My hearing deteriorated further. I designed and built a hearing aid. It was a big box, but it had better features than anything I could afford.
In 1964, I went to one of the first courses to train blind computer programmers at the University of Cincinnati. After completing the course, I worked as a programmer at various places for a number of years.
In 1972 I took a job at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside. A few months later I trained my own "seeing eye" dog, because at that time the guide dog schools would not accept deaf-blind students.
When I left the job at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside, I moved to Madison to continue my education in computer science. At that time I placed myself in the service of Christ, and determined to use my knowledge of computer science for His greater glory. In practice this has meant dedicating the use of my abilities to benefit others. I obtained a master's degree in Computer science, with a minor in electronics engineering. I began my studies for a Ph.D., planning that my dissertation would focus on engineering a robotic guide dog.
In 1981 I started the nonprofit company Computers to Help People, Inc. (CHPI) as a braille publishing venture. Gradually that organization assumed more importance to me than pursuing my Ph.D. I started the Technical Braille Center at CHPI hoping to begin to remedy the absence of good scientific books in braille that had troubled me since my experiences as a child. To expand on that work I created JJB Software, Inc. as a venue to help develop the liblouis, liblouisxml and liblouisutdml software.
The liblouis Software Suite
After years in development, liblouis was released in 2002. Liblouis is a basic translator and back-translator between text and braille. It has special features for mathematics that were previously unavailable. In 2008 liblouisxml was released. Together they are a complete braille transcription package, but liblouisxml handles formatting and uses liblouis for translating. It was originally inspired by the desire to get better braille output for books from Bookshare.org, using the DAISY XML files. Special features include use of the XML framework and the ability to process any XML document. DAISY was the first XML format supported by the liblouis suite.
These programs are provided as software libraries written in C which can be used in many different applications. They are licensed under the LGPL (Lesser Gnu Public License), so that they can be used, under special circumstances, even in commercial software applications. They can be run on the Mac, Linux and Windows operating systems. A multilingual feature allows for the provision of braille in many more languages and different braille codes than were previously available. The software is designed to use translation tables for many languages other than English. Liblouis has been accepted as the preferred translator by organizations such as Mozilla, Orca, Bookshare, and of course ViewPlus. There is also a basic integration of liblouis in the most recent release of the DAISY Pipeline.
liblouisutdml (for UTDML or Unified Tactile Document Markup Language) adds the ability to handle tactile graphics and show the relationship between braille and print. It will eventually have all the features, such as dividing them into volumes, needed for professional production of braille books.
In 2010 the company name was changed to Abilitiessoft, Inc. to better reflect the nature and purpose of the work. Currently, Abilitiessoft, Inc. is partnering with ViewPlus Technologies, Inc. to sponsor a new project called BrailleBlaster. BrailleBlaster is an Open Source, cross-platform transcription software project designed to lead braille translating and formatting into the 21st Century. It relies heavily on the DAISY XML specification. The name derives from its user friendliness, its ability to translate and format almost any kind of braille and from the ability to insert tactile graphics into text documents – resulting in the release of a blast of braille. BrailleBlaster will have several important characteristics:
• It is under the Apache 2.0 License, which allows almost unrestricted use. The copyright is held jointly by ViewPlus and Abilitiessoft.
• It uses liblouis and liblouisutdml as its braille transcription engine.
• It is written in Java, using the SWT (Standard Widget Toolkit) library to generate an accessible GUI.
• Its native format will be DAISY XML, but it will be able to import many other formats.
• It will be fully usable in speech or braille by persons who are blind or visually impaired.
• Inexperienced users will be able to compose simple documents and then translate and emboss them in braille.
• Advanced users will be able to create multiple braille volumes with title pages, tables of contents, and end notes for each volume, etc.
• The software will be designed for use in Windows, Macintosh, and Linux operating systems and with common screen readers.
• It will be localized into most major languages.
Recognition and Future
Mr. Boyer was recently honored at the 26th Annual International Technology & Persons with Disabilities Conference (CSUN) sponsored by California State University at Northridge. He was recognized for his pioneering work on open source software development for assistive technologies. During the panel discussion Mr. Boyer called for experienced Java programmers and technical writers to join him in his work on the BrailleBlaster project.
For a comprehensive set of links to liblouis, liblouisutdml and BrailleBlaster go to http://www.abilitiessoft.com/. Anyone interested in working on the BrailleBlaster Project will find information and the source code on the BrailleBlaster Google Code page.
John Boyer is President and Chief Software Developer for Abilitiessoft, Inc. He wrote his story for the DAISY Planet with input from Jack Schroeder, the Business Manager for Abilitiessoft.