by Gary Wunder
Before the time of Braille and speech notetakers, blind people who used Braille wrote their first draft on a Perkins Brailler, their second draft on the same machine, and then, when they had the document as perfect as they could envision it, they set themselves to typing that Brailled document in print so their sighted instructor could read it. If the phone rang while you were typing and you stopped to answer it, you had to remember where you stopped typing: was it before or after the comma, did you space after it, and how could you know for sure without asking Mom, Dad, Sister, or Brother for help—help you would sometimes have to pay for from siblings intent on supplementing their spending money.
When people of that day thought of science fiction and how there could be a useful invention for the blind, we envisioned a machine that would let us type a document in Braille and have it magically turned into print. Never in our wildest imaginings did we think this might somehow involve a computer, and the concept of a word processor had no meaning for us.
Sometime during the early 1980s we began hearing about devices that had Perkins-style keyboards and could produce refreshable Braille (a new concept at the time), and the buzz was that these machines could be plugged into computer printers to generate printed documents from works created in grade two Braille. Prototypes were being built by the Kentucky Department for the Blind, and the word on the street was that two blind men were at the center of these inventions—Tim Cranmer and Fred Gissoni.
Deane Blazie, the inventor of the spectacularly popular Braille ‘n Speak, recalls visiting with Fred and Tim to examine a machine they had constructed using a VHS cartridge for its case. He recalls that the machine was called a PortaBraille and that it could keep a document in memory only as long as it remained turned on. Their meeting was to discuss how to use this Perkins-style Braille keyboard to do document navigation, and the design that evolved out of their two-hour meeting is so much a part of every Braille notetaker that we take it for granted in the same way we expect the arrow keys on the keyboard to react in moving a cursor on a computer screen.
In writing this tribute, it occurred to me that what was missing was personal knowledge of Fred. A recurrent theme in interviews I did spoke to Fred’s sense of humor and his friendship with Tim Cranmer. I was told that one evening Fred and Tim were at a banquet together and that Fred unexpectedly rose, struck his cup with a spoon until the room was silent, and then said that he would like to introduce an unscheduled presentation. The story is that he announced the topic, specified its length in the evening's agenda, and then, without warning, introduced Tim Cranmer as the presenter. I was led to believe that Tim took the podium and delivered his speech. The audience was never aware of the joke Fred had played on them and on his friend Tim.
My interview with Deane Blazie was immensely helpful, but he suggested I talk with others who also had a warm friendship with Fred. Knowing and admiring Larry Skutchan, I called to interview him, but he gave me much more than an interview. He said that, if I could give him a couple of weeks, he'd be delighted to write a tribute. I argued that I needed something in four days. He gave me a draft in two, sent a revised draft in two more with a request that I give him another day or so, and sent his final revision one week to the day after we talked. I hope you will agree it was worth the wait, and I want to thank Larry publicly for an outstanding piece. It is a wonderful tribute to Fred, an interesting insight into the work that goes on at the American Printing House for the Blind, a tremendous review of some of the history surrounding problem-solving strategies for the blind, and a moving glimpse into the heart and mind of a really good man who took the time to put down the words that appear in the following article.