When John A. Gardner, PhD went blind at 48 owing to complications from eye surgery, he had to figure out how to do his job as a professor and physicist at Oregon State University. But it was rude awakening, trying to do his research without the aid of assistive technology. So out of frustration, the physicist created ViewPlus Technologies, masterminding a range of tools to convert visually-oriented information to a medium that can be comprehended by people of low vision, through touch and sound. From his vacation retreat somewhere in Germany, Dr. Gardner found time to Skype with ABILITY’s Christopher JB.
Christopher JB: Congratulations on your win of the ACM SIGACCESS Award for outstanding contributions to computing and accessibility.
Dr. John A. Gardner: Thank you. It was really for what our company, ViewPlus Technologies, has developed. But they had to aim it at somebody and I was standing in the way.
JB: How did you first become interested in science? Was there a special teacher?
Gardner: My father was a mathematician, so at the dinner table we were asked math questions. Then, when I went off to school, it felt natural to study math and science.
JB: It was always there then, nurtured by your father.
Gardner: That’s right.
JB: You lived much of your life sighted and went blind after undergoing surgery. Did you wake up from the surgery blind, or was it a slower process?
Gardner: It was the day after the surgery.
JB: Can you talk about the frustration that you encountered at that time?
Gardner: Most of it had to do with my research. I had more than a dozen students, post-docs and visiting faculty in my research group, and it was well funded by the Department of Energy, as well as the National Science Foundation. We were working on a complex technique to understand physics of defects in solids, which were practiced by only a handful of people around the world. You had to look at nuances of the data, you had to run checks, and you had to look at many, many, many checks before you could convince yourself that what you were doing was actually sensible. And when you can’t see the data, that’s kind of hard to do. That was the real frustration.
JB: Was that the beginning of your involvement with assistive technologies?
Gardner: Well, I could see rather quickly that there were an awful lot of, let’s say, deficiencies in the way information was presented and in the technologies for accessing information even if it was well presented. Mostly in graphical information, but also in mathematics. So I thought, well, this is an opportunity to do something about it. So I started working on it, and that became my second research field, which later became my primary research field.
JB: What year did you form your company?
Gardner: In 1996, one of my students came up with this new embossing technology and we realized that finally we’d found something worthwhile. When we were unable to interest anybody in licensing and commercializing it, we said, “Oh, we’ll do it ourselves,” and founded the company.
JB: It’s based in Corvallis, OR?
JB: When we think of what people use, we tend to think of Braille, but you’ve gone far beyond that. Can you talk about some of the cutting-edge technologies you’ve created that make a difference in the lives of those with blindness and low vision?
Gardner: I guess we should talk mostly about graphics. Even then, it was clear to me that the right way to access graphics was to feel them. But your fingers are not nearly as sensitive as your eyes. There was a technology that had been developed a few years before by an Australian scientist. He published his first paper on it in 1988, and what he did was determine that you needed something you could touch that had two-dimensions. For instance, I remember early on my wife handed me a tactile diagram and asked me to tell her what it was. I felt it and I said, “Hmm. This feels like two halves of a bunch of wire.” In fact, it was a bicycle.
JB: You couldn’t decipher it by touch.
Gardner: Right. Had she told me it was a bicycle, I would have then been able to figure out what it was, but she didn’t. And sometimes that’s not even enough. Because if you’ve never seen a bicycle before, you would need to be told, this is the front wheel, this is the back wheel, these are the handlebars. So this audio-tactile technology does that.
It allows you to feel something and the diagram talks to you at the same time. It will tell you: “All right. You’re going to see a bicycle,” and it might give you more information. “This is a bicycle. The front of the bicycle is pointed to the right,” and so on. But then as you touch it, it’ll say, “This is the front wheel. This is the handlebar.” For more complex things on the bicycle, you might have more information.
We have a demonstration of how to make art accessible, which is a picture of the Mona Lisa. When you feel it, you feel Mona Lisa’s face, the background is sort of whited out because it gets too cluttered. You’re just feeling Mona Lisa. When you touch her mouth, it will say “mouth,” but if you then probe deeper, it will start to tell you, “She has an enigmatic smile,” which is then discussed by various people. A friend who’s an art historian does all this for us. By exploring that picture of the Mona Lisa, you can learn a great deal about the painting and why it’s famous, not just that it’s a picture of a woman and she’s got a nose and a mouth. Big deal. But why it’s interesting.
And then, information is included in the electronic file so you can access it by touching it, but it’s not shown on the picture itself. That would be really messy if you put the words on the picture, but the words are there.
JB: It sounds almost as if you could explore a painting more than a sighted person that way, you’re touching it, feeling every contour, and then you have insights from an art historian to round it out. That could be even better in some ways.
Gardner: We’re having discussions with people in art museums who have said, “Suppose we could create new ways to make art accessible to sighted people as well?” We’ve shown our audio-tactile diagrams at many shows, and it’s quite normal for a family to bring up their child who is blind, the child will be exploring it and the sighted brothers and sisters will crowd around saying, “You’ve had your turn. Now let me have mine!”
JB: I could see that happening. It’s exciting that it’s crossing over like that. I read a press release that you went to a conference and heard parents talk about how smart phones and voice-activated technologies are getting in the way of Braille literacy for low vision school children, which might be happening as far as kids wanting to read in general. Your technology, though, works with Braille. Do you think that Braille could be made more enticing to low vision and blind students to counter any disinterest in Braille?
Gardner: That’s an interesting thought. We discovered when we began developing this technique that words on the diagram are not converting to Braille. There are several reasons for this. One, Braille is pretty big. If you took the words off the diagram and converted them to Braille, chances are pretty good it wouldn’t fit, so you’d have a big mess. So we just have tactile copies of whatever text is on there. Sometimes, if the figure is enlarged, you can read the tactile copy, but it has to be enlarged quite a bit. It also depends on whether you know the shape of letters. Most blind people actually do, but some don’t.
The other reason we don’t put it in Braille is because people who are dyslexic can also use this. Dyslexic people, by and large, don’t use Braille. By being able to both see it and feel it, makes it more accessible.
JB: Our publisher might be interested in that. He’s dyslexic and might be curious about that possibility.
Gardner: A lot of people fall in that category. Keep in mind though, we’re not just in the Braille business. We are a company that is providing equal access to information, for every member of the learning community, while reducing the cost to schools, universities and organizations servicing citizens with vision needs—including dyslexia. Our Voiceye® software solution, sold exclusively in the US by ViewPlus, can make every printed text document accessible instantly—and in 58 different languages, just by sending it to any printer. This technology is fast becoming the software of choice by people with dyslexia and those who do not currently read Braille.
JB: I read this about your company: “ViewPlus is the only company in the world producing desktop printers that produce color tactile graphs and ink with Braille combined.” Could you expound on that? Is that your most innovative technology?
Gardner: There have been other embossers that could print ink, and preceding us there was a Japanese embosser that would print ink. It’s very nice to have the ink words as well as the Braille words, because then the piece of paper becomes accessible to everybody.
For example, a child who is blind may not be as fluent in Braille as he could be, or sometimes there’s an error in the Braille. If the vision teacher isn’t around, and there’s also ink on there, he can just poke the elbow of the kid next to him and say, “Can you tell me what this says?” It’s nice to have a document that’s universal, meaning that a person who is blind and a sighted person can both read it.
The difference between our product and what has previously been on the market is that ours actually prints the words that are supposed to be there. Braille is a form of shorthand, so when you convert the words to Braille, there are a lot of shortened words, a lot of abbreviations, contractions and things like that. Typically in English, the number of letters is reduced to about 70 percent, for example, of the ink letters. Braille is also very strange. What you use to represent Braille or used to use on a computer was a computer Braille code so that blind people could compose computer programs in which every Braille character is represented by an ASCII character. These have some relationship to real Braille. For example, the numbers are different from the literary Braille numbers, because literary Braille doesn’t actually have any numbers, they’re represented by a code. So these are real numbers, but the computer numbers are actually punctuation marks. So 1 is actually a comma in literary Braille. So when you’re reading this thing, it’s just a mess. You can more or less tell what it says, but only more or less. That’s what other printers print, while we print the real words. But it takes good software to do that, and that’s as much the difference as anything else. We support our embossers with first-rate software. And, in answer to your question, we are the only company in the world, with embossers providing color tactile graphics, braille and text in ink– all on the same page.
JB: I’m a little naïve. My brother is blind, but I’ve never touched Braille, and I’ve never seen any of these technologies that you’re referring to, like a color tactile graphic, say. When that comes out of the printers, it’s tactile as it comes out, I’m assuming? So the blind person can touch it right away and kind of see it that way? Is that how it works?
Gardner: It depends on whether it’s something that’s intended to be tactile, or whether it’s something that’s just for reading with Braille on it. Either one we can do on our printer. So if you had my bicycle example and it was prepared in Braille, it would have the word “bicycle” on it somewhere as the title, and maybe even some additional information. It comes off the printer and then you can read it. If it’s audio-tactile, it comes off the printer and you need to somehow associate with a device that can communicate with the computer, so that the computer knows what part of the diagram you’re touching it on. The most popular way to do this is the big old touch pad that we sell, but there are other technologies we’re developing that will be used in the future. So you take it off, put it on the touch pad, and then touch the bicycle wheel and it’ll start telling you what it is.
JB: That sounds more appealing than mere Braille. Can you talk about some of the problems teachers face in meeting the needs of low vision students? Are there some areas you still want to address?
Gardner: Oh, sure. There are always going to be things that need to be done. Bigger, better, faster. I think right now one of the frustrations I have is that because Braille has such a mystique about it, somebody has to be trained in Braille to use it. You must take a two-year course in Braille to be certified transcriber.
JB: That’s a long time.
Gardner: And so a teacher would send something, like a lesson plan, to a Braille transcriber, and that person quite typically requires a week to get it back the teacher. And my frustration is that this really isn’t necessary given the fact that we’ve developed these new technologies. That same teacher could simply prepare the lesson plan in Microsoft Word, and then push a button and our software will transform it into Braille and print it. Then the teacher can just take it off the printer and hand it to the student who needs it 30 seconds later instead of a week later.
I can’t tell you how many people who are blind I’ve met whose major frustration with education is that they’re always behind the class. But now we’ve got a technology that can do the transcription in real time; it’s a matter of convincing people that Braille literacy is still important. Fortunately, in July 2013, the U.S. Department of Education stated that, under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, schools should provide Braille instruction to students who are blind or visually impaired. They went on to state that a lack of trained or certified Braille instructors or access to new technology should not prevent the teaching of Braille. Our goal is to make it as simple as possible for teachers, schools, colleges, and universities to provide equal access to the curriculum, at the lowest cost possible.
JB: Is there anyone using it yet?
Gardner: More and more every day.
JB: This is something that should be used internationally. Is it hard to penetrate the academic bureaucracy? Is that part of the problem?
Gardner: It’s hard to communicate. Teachers work really hard and are really busy, and adding one more thing can feel like a burden. So there’s that. Probably the most successful use of this is when parents adopt it, so the teacher will give the parents something and instead of taking a week to get it, the parents will do it and give it to the child so they’ve got it the next day, which is usually good enough.
JB: So are parents more your target now, rather than the schools? Is that the way in?
Gardner: I would certainly like to have teachers using it, because it really isn’t a burden. A teacher who is using Word to make lesson plans only has to push another button to send it off to another printer. That’s basically all they’re doing. But it has to be set up; the school has to make sure that it’s available. Somebody has to show the teacher that it’s really easy; you just have to have the software on your computer, press the button and done. This change is going to happen eventually, but it’ll take time. This is one of the reasons we’ve recently introduced the EmBraille, a personal desktop embosser weighing only 10 lbs. and priced at under $2,000. The EmBraille should make it easier for folks to afford, and there is a travel case on wheels for it so that students can take it from class to class and from home to school or the office.
JB: I hope so. My girlfriend’s a high school teacher. I do see how hard she and the other teachers work. This would invaluable for someone like her. She’s had one student who is blind. It’s not a high percentage. I was reading that 90 percent of low vision and blind students go into regular classrooms, and maybe 10 percent attend a specialized school. Is that about right?
Gardner: Very few low vision students go to schools for the blind any more; the best of these schools are encouraging students to be mainstreamed. These facilities see their mission as teaching students the skills they need and serving as a resource, so when mainstream schools need help with doing something for a student who is blind, they’re a resource. So the student, for example, may go to the school in the summer and learn Braille or brush up on Braille, and learn various things. But the idea of students living at a blind school and taking all their courses there is happening less and less. California, Washington and Texas are very, very much geared towards supporting mainstream students rather than teaching residential students that are blind.
JB: That makes sense, because they’re mainstreaming other types of disabilities into the classroom. Your technology helps in the business world, as well. How is it being received there?
Gardner: People who used the new technologies when they were in school continue to use them when they graduate and go out and get jobs or enroll in higher education. It’s not really very expensive, considering what you get for it, and there are government tax incentives so that if a company hires a person who is blind, they get to take the cost of the technology off their income tax. The expense is being borne by the taxpayers, but a few thousand dollars invested on the front end is the difference between a person becoming a taxpayer and a person being dependent on Social Security’s Supplemental Security Income.
Then there are older people who got their education long before we introduced our technologies, such as engineers and scientists who are blind and have been struggling along until they learn about our machines and buy them.
People occasionally buy our machines for the spreadsheet, which is very important to somebody in business, and reading one on the computer with a secure reader is hard because you don’t have two-dimensional access. If you read it with an audio screen reader, as many people do, skipping around, you can move from cell to cell to cell, but how do you know where you are? If you’re reading it in Braille, you can do so one line at the time, but you’re only reading one line, and how do you know which column you’re in? So having full two-dimensional access to a spreadsheet is very important and with our printers, you print the spreadsheet and you’ve got it. That’s all there is to it. If it’s a big spreadsheet, you might print it in landscape mode and have something that can get kind of big, but you’ve still got it. That’s a very popular application.
JB: Going back to the school realm for a minute: It seems that there are different gradations, from being let’s say legally blind to being fully blind. Maybe that was where I heard that 10 percent are actually blind, while the rest have varying levels of low vision. This would help all of them across the board.
Gardner: There are differences. The students who are not totally blind tend not to read Braille. There’s sort of a gradation. And some students, especially if they know that their sight is going to get worse and worse, can be persuaded to learn to read Braille. But by and large, it’s human nature to just depend on your sight as long as you possibly can. People who are using magnifiers might magnify text until a single letter fills the screen. They could use audio and Braille screen readers alongside. But these people, even if they don’t need to read something in Braille, they really do need to have the graphics access that we offer. So a student who is, for example, moderately visually disabled or who is moderately dyslexic might find it perfectly adequate not to have something they can feel, but just something they can see and hear. So they’ll have a touch screen or even a mouse, and they’ll be able to look at the objects, look at the words, and click on them. So if their vision is good enough or their dyslexia is not so severe that they can’t recognize that this is an object and these are words, then they wouldn’t need the touch part.
But as the vision gets worse or the dyslexia gets more severe, there’s a crossover where they go from not needing it to needing it. And it’s nice that it’s available. The software’s the same, the content is the same, and it just depends on whether you need that extra help. Again, this is where Voiceye® software can provide a complimentary format that can be added to the printed portion of a page of Braille output to provide even more accessibility.
Because different people need to have a variety of accessible output, we will introduce an All Formats Accessibility Station in 2014, with which existing static information, in currently inaccessible formats, will be made accessible in a variety of output consumables.
I remember back in the days of DOS—
JB: Ugh, DOS… not user friendly.
Gardner: —I was forever not being able to find the cursor. I would sometimes have to look at the screen and go down one line at a time until I found the cursor, because my vision wasn’t good enough to actually scan the screen and find it. And it’s the two-dimensional part of our technology that is so good for kids who don’t need Braille but still need the tactile graphics part.
JB: This software is easy to use and versatile. It’s hard to find products like that.
Gardner: It’s called “universal design.” If you keep the idea of making something that works for everybody in your mind when you’re designing something, it always comes out better.
JB: True. I grew up with a brother who lost his sight very early on, owing to a cataract that was inoperable. His world turned to the other senses, especially sound. For him it was music. He had to physically infuse with the music. He had to put his ear against the speaker so he could feel the vibrations. That became his strongest sense. Did you find one of your other senses developed more highly than the others after you lost your sight?
Gardner: I don’t think my hearing got better or my memory got better, but I had to rely on it a lot more, so I was much more sensitive to it. I learned to use it better, let’s say it that way. I think that this is very common.
JB: Great musicians often develop a kind of perfect pitch because they use their hearing more than the rest of us. Did you notice, speaking of your mind and your memory, that your connection to science became maybe more acute?
Gardner: No, unfortunately, it went the other way. Because I found it so difficult to analyze the data, after a while I decided that this was probably not a wise direction to pursue. I kept on doing research for quite a number of years, but it was difficult, and I had to rely on colleagues. I had friends all over the world who are experts in this area, and I could fax them something and get their input. But it was very frustrating, because you’re depending on somebody else, and sometimes two people don’t agree on the importance of a nuance. And since I had no way of adjudicating which one was right, it was frustrating.
If I hadn’t been developing this second interest in accessibility, I probably would have gone into some other experimental field. I’ve done a lot of experimental techniques in my life, and not all of them are so extraordinarily dependent on vision. So I could probably have moved my research interest a little bit. But after a few years, the other field began to dominate my time, and in those days the National Science Foundation was actually becoming aware of accessibility. It was a brand new field to them, I suddenly appeared on the horizon, and I was a known quantity.
I was a principal investigator and had been funded by them for years. So I found it very easy to get funding early on. It was something where the research group grew fairly quickly and easily. And pretty soon it dominated my time. So I stayed in the physics department, but I was doing something that in a sense was physics, but—
JB: Where were you in those days?
Gardner: I was at Oregon State University. I lost my sight when I was a full professor with tenure and reasonably well known in the world. People asked me how I was going to continue. So this happened in September before school started, and one of my colleagues who had been teaching the course that I was due to teach stepped up and said, “I can teach your course. I’ve taught it before.” So he taught my course for two quarters. But I couldn’t take any time off from teaching research. I had students and nobody else could take that on. Even after several operations and being quite sick for a couple of months, I was on the telephone talking to my students. Before I learned how to use the computer with a screen reader, I used tape recorders and kept track of things.
JB: Now, that’s dedication!
Gardner: I was amazingly well supported by my colleagues and the university.
JB: What were you most known for before you turned to this other technology, ViewPlus?
Gardner: I was reasonably well known for studies of dynamic properties of point defects, which got funding from various agencies. I guess you would say I was a successful physicist.
JB: I don’t imagine that you get funded if you’re not successful. Are there any other physicist who are blind that you know of?
Gardner: There are, actually. Most of them are people who were blind early on. There is a person who works for NASA. I have a very good friend who’s a teacher and a physicist in Japan. He got all of his schooling as a person who is blind and has a position in a junior college in Tokyo. And I know there’s an Italian physicist who’s blind. I should know them all. But the only one I know is the Japanese guy; he’s a good friend.
JB: Well, it must be late in Germany. I thank you for speaking with me and hope I didn’t keep you up past your bedtime there.
Gardner: I don’t sleep much anyway. Sleeping takes up too much time. (laughs)