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Blind physicist creates better Braille

New Braille method may help visually impaired children pursue careers in math and science

November 9, 1995
Web posted at: 7:25 p.m. EST

From Correspondent Miles O'Brien

CORVALLIS, Oregon (CNN)--The sudden onset of blindness would be catastrophic for anyone, but it can be doubly poignant for a professional in the prime of a career. Physicist John Gardner, didn't let his blindness keep him from being able to continue his career and has turned disability into opportunity by developing a new kind of Braille that allows him to continue his research and teaching. His method also may help visually impaired children pursue careers in math and science.

"This is something I really didn't intend to do. When I first lost my sight I had every intention of just doing physics," Gardner said.

But Gardner found that was much easier said than done. Blinded by disease seven years ago, he immediately discovered the unsighted world is neither math nor science friendly.

"I discovered that to read anything that I wanted to read, the only practical way was to get somebody to help me do it," he said.

So, he had somebody help him become more self-sufficient. Randy Lundquist was one of Gardner's graduate students at Oregon State University.

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"We had to find work-arounds constantly," said Lundquist. "How do I present to him what I am doing and how does he evaluate papers to be published on that research?"

Seeing no ready-made solutions, Gardner and Lundquist began adapting technologies and techniques to make it easier for unsighted scientists and mathematicians to pursue their profession. A better Braille language was a top priority. In standard English Braille, there are no symbols for plus, times or equals, they must be spelled out, and numbers are concocted by combining the number symbol followed by a letter. The letter indicates the placement of the number, so 'a' equals 1, 'b' equals 2 and so on.

"So to write 1990, you put a number sign indicator followed by a,i,i,j. And that is just impossible to do math with," said Gardner.

For example, to translate a simple equation such as (1 + 2) x 3 = 9 into standard English Braille, it has to be written as: () #a plus #b () times #c equals #i. Cumbersome, to say the least. A new unified Braille code, currently being evaluated worldwide, includes many math symbols but the numbering system remains the same. To deal with this problem, Gardner and another blind colleague have created the GS8 Braille code. The name evolved from the two dots added to the current six dot Braille pattern allowing numbers to be much more simply displayed.

"I am quite confident the Braille making authorities will embrace this concept," said Gardner.

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Better Braille is just one of the concepts Gardner and his team are exploring at Oregon State's Science Access Project. They're also experimenting with touch sensitive electronic pads and pitch synthesizers, devising ways for blind scientists to understand diagrams and graphs, and are developing software which can recite complex technical documents using tone changes to help the blind visualize an equation.

Ironically, many of these ideas to help blind scientists might not have come to life if Gardner had been born without vision.

"If he weren't a very successful physicist, then we would not have been able to do any of this, we wouldn't have the need," said Lundquist.

Few, if any, blind children ever grow up to become scientists or mathematicians. The hurdles to understanding are too high.

"That is an awful thing to do to a kid, just wave a course because he cannot learn it. We are going to find a way," Gardner said.

In the world John Gardner envisions, blindness will do nothing to stop a good scientist.

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