When guitarist and folk singer Doc Watson visited Santa Fe in 1985 to perform at a benefit concert held by the nonprofit New Vistas, I interviewed him and asked him how his disability affected his career.
He said he wanted to become an electrical engineer when he was younger, but training wasn’t available for blind students. Instead, Watson pursued a musical career, winning eight Grammys before his death in 2012.
Watson’s story isn’t the same for everybody. Now with better technology, there are blind electrical engineers. Curtis Willoughby was one of the first. He worked for Bell Laboratories.
He wrote in a 2012 Braille Monitor article that he developed techniques for making raised-line drawings for electrical schematic diagrams, yet had to visualized two and three-dimensional objects, as they were presented on paper.
Today, things have changed, according to Greg Trapp, executive director of New Mexico Commission for the Blind.
“Around the time of your interview with Doc Watson there was a burst of innovation in assistive technology used by persons who are blind. The IBM Screen Reader was invented in 1986. Another early access device was the Braille ‘n Speak, invented in 1987 by Dean Blazie. And the computer screen reader JAWS, released in 1989, which was developed by Ted Henter, who was himself blind,” said Trapp.
He said one of the great equalizers for people who are blind was the computer age, which increased their ability to be competitive.
“As a blind lawyer using a computer in the early ’90s, I was actually ahead of most of my contemporaries who were still using dictation. I had my first email account in 1995, which gave me a further advantage in terms of productivity and efficiency,” said Mr. Trapp.
Trapp said there are still barriers in education for a blind or visually impaired person, because “students who are entering college must have excellent computer skills to function in the modern college setting, and many blind children are not getting the same level of access as their sighted peers. In addition, educational software is not always accessible to persons using screen readers,” said Trapp.
Higher educational institutions have faced increased scrutiny for inaccessible learning technologies for individuals who are blind.
For instance in 2013, the Justice Department reached a settlement with Louisiana Tech University to resolve allegations that the university violated the Americans with Disabilities Act.
A student who was blind lacked access to the online course syllabus and was not provided accessible materials for class discussion or exam preparation.
“Emerging technologies, including internet-based learning platforms, are changing the way we learn, and we need to ensure that people with disabilities are not excluded or left behind,” said Eve L. Hill, Deputy Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division in the settlement agreement announcement.
In 2014, a team from Stanford University published successful results using 3-D-printed models for teaching students with visual disabilities math and science concepts.
“Our Technology for Children program, in conjunction with the New Mexico Department of Health, provides blind children with Braille computers and video magnifiers. Our goal is to help these students be more technologically capable and literate when they start college,” said Trapp.
“Another problem is that blind persons who are graduating from high school do not have the Braille skills of prior generations. There is a severe shortage in the area of teachers who are qualified to teach blind students, Braille or how to travel independently,” said Mr. Trapp.
Trapp said while technology provides many benefits, Braille is still an essential literacy tool for persons who are blind.
According to the American Community Survey there were 69,500 New Mexicans reported to have a visual disability in 2012, which are most commonly caused by inherited disorders, infections or injury.
Andy Winnegar has spent his career in rehabilitation and is based in Santa Fe as a training associate for the Southwest ADA Center, 800-949-4232. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.