Braille Monitor                                             November 2014

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Fred Gissoni: A Man of Change

by Larry Skutchan

Larry SkutchanFrom the Editor: Larry Skutchan graduated from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock and holds the position of product manager for the Technology Product Research Department at the American Printing House for the Blind (APH). There he manages a team of engineers devoted to accessible technology. He is well-known in technology circles for creating the Automatic Screen Access Program (ASAP) screen reader and for initiating one of the first podcasts devoted to issues of interest to the blind--the Blind Cool Tech podcast. Here is what he has to say about his mentor, his friend, and one of the most inspiring people to have touched his life:

There are very few times in a person's life when another person can change it profoundly in a positive way. Fred Gissoni affected the lives of countless people, but his pioneering work is appreciated most by people who are blind. As a young, inquisitive man who had been blind for only a few years, I benefited immensely from his innovations, just as the thousands of other individuals with vision impairment did; but Fred affected my life in a much more personal way.

After graduating from college in the early 80s, I began exploring the capabilities of the personal computer (PC)—called a microcomputer back in those days. I had a degree in English and planned to attend law school, so you can imagine the pure excitement I experienced at using a tool that allowed me to read and edit papers on my own. Believe it or not, a blind student either paid someone to type or got very good at it. There was no room for mistakes. On the typewriter there was a backspace, but it did not erase what you had wrongly typed, and the concept of inserting a paragraph in the middle of a document was a dream, not a function. The efficiency of a PC seems so simple and expected today, but in the early 80s it was a liberating, exciting, and enlightening sensation to be able to organize and manipulate thoughts and ideas so simply.

As I explored the landscape of accessible computers, I realized I had accidentally made some pretty cool tools that others could use and began looking for ways to spread the word. Back in Kentucky, Fred, Wayne Thompson, and Tim Cranmer (and Tim's assistant, Deane Blazie) were already applying simple, practical solutions to obstacles for people who were blind. These guys comprised the technical unit at the Kentucky Office for the Blind (OFB). Tim had adapted the ancient and effective abacus for efficient use by those without sight, and Fred spread the word. It was a simple solution to a real problem, and one wonders why someone did not think of it before. That could be said about nearly everything Fred and his team invented, innovated, or adapted. Fred's wife Betty was teaching living skills and wanted a way to pour a liquid into a cup with precision. So the technical unit invented the Say When. The device beeped when the liquid level reached the sensor. Even the name evokes a smile and fond memory of his humor and wit.

Later, Fred, Wayne, and Tim put together commercial parts to make something called the Kentucky Light Sensor, a device that blind people have used for everything from determining a burning light in their house to identifying an incoming call on a switchboard. I have and use one to this day, and it is still sold in the NFB Independence Market. None of these innovations seem very dramatic, but they all exemplify the ability to match ideas with components to create logical, sometimes technological solutions to real problems.

I really don't remember in which magazine I first advertised the Words program, but, regardless of which it was, Fred ordered the very first one. The technical unit at OFB also used technology to find jobs for Kentucky citizens who were blind or visually impaired. Their purchase of Words was a solution to a problem, and, along with an Apple computer and a speech synthesizer, it made an excellent tool for medical transcribers throughout the state. Fred and Wayne conveyed the transcriber needs to me, and I would bang them into the software with ease. Most memorable were the phone conversations about interfaces and ideas on effectively applying this new microcomputer technology. It was very exciting stuff. We were crazy with ideas. Before we knew it, the word processing software navigated and spoke by sentences rather than the arbitrary and useless restriction of screen lines. I still look forward to the day when all screen readers support that feature.

These are the kinds of conversations Fred and I had. We calculated and laughed at the number of minutes in a day, or hours in a month, or years in a life that got wasted by redundant and inefficient user interfaces, especially on things like email, where you might have to listen to the word "subject" before every subject line. Our conversations led to features in the ASAP that analyzed the context of the active screen area and spoke only the differences. It was an amazing experience that made interaction with the PC dynamic and productive. Discussions in later years focused on how to cut through the web clutter and get the right information delivered in the right order and at the right time. We have no illusion that we have accomplished that one yet.

Meanwhile, the APH also saw the possibilities of this revolution in technology and began looking for someone to guide it in software design. Naturally, as the best source for information, they consulted Fred, and he recommended me. I was still interested in law, but programming seemed much more fun and practical. I fell in love with the idea of what APH was about, and they seemed interested in what I could do. Thanks to Fred, I accepted a job offer as a systems programmer in 1985 at APH and began working on educational software for the Apple.

Perhaps one of the more complex of Fred and Wayne's projects was the design of a talking tablet (called a personal data assistant back in the day). The Kentucky PocketBraille had a Perkins-style Braille keyboard and a speech synthesizer. It also had the audio, electronics, and software to allow one to type in Braille and use synthesized speech for navigation through the document and user interface. They paired the concept with a refreshable Braille display—the Tiflatel from Italy—to make what was possibly the very first Braille notetaker. Since these designs were all conceived as part of their work at OFB, they made the designs public property, making this one of the earlier examples of open-source software. Every note-taking device available today borrows elements from the Kentucky PocketBraille.

I accepted the position at APH and moved my family to the Silicon Valley of universal design, right in the middle of a beautiful city on its rise to a metropolis. As an acquaintance from Houston described it, Louisville is the smallest big city. At the same time it is the biggest small town. I believe its diversity may have played a hand in how APH came to be established, serving the regional needs of blind students even before the federal government recognized it as a national institution in 1879. That is probably how Tim Cranmer and Fred Gissoni began directing technical developments at the Department for the Blind.

Fred and Betty welcomed us as family. We spent more than a few nights in front of the computer, playing Eamon on the Apple II. It was quite interesting. Fred and Betty were the kind of people who helped everyone. Betty's guide dog Ozzie had a built-in tiled water bowl in the kitchen: just another example of their kindness and tendency to adopt unique solutions to solve problems.

Pamela Rader, an APH customer support representative, told me she first met Fred on the sidewalk outside APH when she began attending the Kentucky School for the Blind. He coaxed out her interest in broadcasting and audio engineering.

I never appreciated the depth of Fred’s personality and talent until he came to work at APH as a customer service representative after retiring from OFB. He loved talking people through the technical problems they encountered in trying to unleash the magic of their technology. He was not afraid to talk you down when you got too emotional, and he told us programmers what he thought, too; it was usually right on target. If he didn't know something, he knew how to find the answer. Fred's genius extended beyond the innovation phase of an idea; he knew how to explain new concepts that made it easy to understand, and his generosity extended to spending his time to help.

If you perform a search of his name online, you will see countless examples of innovations and solutions he provided. Thousands of teachers and students still appreciate his every word, through clearly written or recorded instructions on dozens of processes and products. I do not think anyone can know the extent of Fred's influence in the advancement of both simple and technical solutions to meet the needs of blind people. I loved to solve problems with him. The solutions were always so simple. For example, we both delighted in the technique of knowing when to empty the dishwasher; always put a new tablet in the dishwasher after you've put the clean dishes away. If the tablet is gone, the dishes are clean; it's that simple. It was the simple, elemental ideas—the "that is so obvious" ideas—that pay tribute to innovators like Fred; and he had thousands of them.

Perhaps the most endearing characteristic of his personality was the enthusiasm and enjoyment Fred brought to every aspect of his life. I am sure it is online somewhere, but Fred and Wayne wrote a whimsical article that described an innovation that let the user shake Braille dots onto a page from a salt shaker. Of course it was fanciful, but it displays the kind of spirit, fun, and extraordinary thinking that led to many innovations. More important, it exemplifies the character and attitude of a man who recognized that blindness was nothing more than an inconvenience: a man with a knack for finding ways to eliminate those inconveniences one step at a time.

As I reviewed background for this piece, I ran across an article written by Deborah Kendrick. In it Fred said that he considered introducing me to APH to be one of his most important accomplishments. What an honor that is coming from a man with so many! Fred, I commit to carry on your fortitude, devotion to service, and practical innovation, as long as it meets the criteria you outline in Deborah's article.

Today at APH a dedicated group of engineers share his vision and continue to apply technology to evermore interesting problems. "Pass it along" was Fred's motto. We can all honor his memory with similar gestures of generosity and compassion. Thank you, Fred. Your life has influenced and changed our lives forever.

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