Image of Dr. John Gardner
Dr. John Gardner

by John A. Gardner

From the Editor: John Gardner is professor and director of the Science Access Project, Department of Physics, Oregon State University. In mid-November of 1997 something of a media flap occurred when Senator Ron Wyden objected loudly and publicly that the Department of Education had rejected a grant application from a blind physicist in his state merely because the proposal was not submitted in a double-spaced, large-print format. The rejection apparently had nothing to do with the merit of the project in question; the reviewers seem to have glanced at the proposal, noted that it was incorrectly formatted, and tossed it into the reject pile.

Neither Senator Wyden nor Dr. Gardner, the physicist in the case, thought this was appropriate behavior. The project, according to Curtis Chong, Director of the Technology Department at the National Center for the Blind, has value and clearly needs funding if it is to demonstrate its possible usefulness.

Yet Federationists who have heard about this rather public difference of opinion have been united in our conclusion that the Department of Education was correct to apply the same rules to all the applications it received. We have always demanded the right to compete on terms of equality with our sighted peers, and that necessarily means abiding by the rules governing our work. We cannot afford to start down the path of demanding that exceptions be made because we didn't read the rules or have someone check our final product.

Our position certainly does not excuse employers, for example, from their responsibility to provide reasonable accommodation to blind employees. And we would certainly fight for the rights of a blind person who had been prevented from learning the requirements because they were not accessible and no one had bothered to mention their existence.

Regardless of the merits of the treatment of Dr. Gardner's grant proposal or the appropriateness of Senator Wyden's efforts to reverse the Department of Education's decision, everyone with an interest in tactile access to graphic symbols for blind people must applaud Dr. Gardner's work and his effort to find funding for his project. This is the way he describes his work:

Senator Ron Wyden recently made DotsPlus a household name when he complained to the Department of Education about their rejection without review of my proposal for a major DotsPlus study because I had overlooked the requirement that it be double-spaced. Let me explain, more accurately than the press coverage did, what DotsPlus is and why I feel the study is so important.

DotsPlus is a tactile font set. It is a critical first step needed to make possible a true computer printer for blind people. One cannot print standard Braille directly from the text in a word processor, let alone print a tactile image equivalent to anything containing graphics or exotic symbols such as plus or equals signs. Standard Braille is a code that must be derived by a translation process and has no way of representing exotic symbols.

By contrast, DotsPlus permits virtually any kind of text as well as line and block graphics to be printed in tactile form with nothing more than a font change. Anybody who can use standard applications on a computer can make tactile diagrams, charts, graphs, even math by simply writing it on a computer, changing the font to DotsPlus, and sending it to a computer that can print images that can be felt instead of just seen. The revolutionary potential of DotsPlus on educational and professional opportunities for blind people seems obvious.

DotsPlus has been enthusiastically endorsed by a number of blind educators and scientists. It has been used successfully by several Oregon middle school, high school, and university student volunteers for difficult scientific materials. But it has previously been too difficult and expensive to produce DotsPlus materials to permit the kind of widespread testing necessary to learn whether it is something that most blind people can learn easily.

A new robust, potentially inexpensive embossing technology now makes such a widespread DotsPlus test feasible. The Tactile Graphics Embosser prototype introduced by the Oregon State University Science Access Project early in 1997 is capable of printing line and block graphics DotsPlus or any computer Braille code (for printable ASCII only). It is the first true printer for blind people.

DotsPlus letters are standard Braille. Users have a choice of a six- or eight-dot font to represent capital letters and other symbols having a Braille cell representation. Text consisting of words and punctuation marks reads very much like Grade I Braille. The Braille representation for numbers is familiar to blind Europeans but will initially feel strange to Americans.

Most of the thousands of other symbols that occur in modern literature are represented as tactile images having a shape similar to the printed symbol. For example, a plus sign, equals sign, parentheses, and square brackets are tactile images shaped like the print symbols. The symbol size is large, corresponding approximately to a twenty-four-point font in order to be easily recognizable tactilely.

Before the development of the tactile graphics embosser, DotsPlus could be produced only with swell paper or by a wax jet printer that had been modified to pile up thick wax. The original DotsPlus research used a wax jet printer that was available commercially for about a year before it was withdrawn. Very recently a modified version of the Tektronics Phaser wax jet printer has been introduced.

Most major organizations concerned with Braille and with educational and rehabilitation issues for blind people, including the Braille Authority of North America, the National Federation of the Blind, and the American Council of the Blind, are aware of DotsPlus research. All have taken a wait and see attitude pending adequate information on its ultimate usefulness, readability, and ease of learning. These organizations would have been invited to participate in a test of DotsPlus using all three presently-available technologies had the proposal been funded instead of being rejected on a technicality.