American Action Fund for Blind Children and Adults
Future Reflections Special Issue: Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) WAYS AND MEANS
by Joshua Miele
From the Editor: Dr. Joshua Miele has been innovating in the area of blindness accessibility for over twenty-five years. He has made significant contributions to screen readers, auditory displays, audio/tactile maps and graphics, wayfinding, Braille input, and video description. His work has yielded a number of accessibility products that use low-cost, off-the-shelf technologies to address significant challenges in access to information. Dr. Miele directs the Description Research and Innovation Lab at the Smith-Kettlewell Eye Research Institute in San Francisco, California.
As I look back on growing up as a blind kid in the 1970s and 1980s, I think the greatest gift my parents gave me was the freedom to explore, experiment, and even fail. I was never told that I shouldn't try something, build something, or participate in an activity because "blind people can't do that." Instead, my parents helped me think through the obvious challenges in any given project or activity and identify strategies to meet those challenges. Consciously or not, they realized that their role was to support me as I learned to deal with barriers rather than to shield me from them, or, worse still, add to them through misguided overprotection.
Although the term was not invented until I was over thirty, I have always been a maker. The kind of support my parents gave me resonates beautifully with the aesthetics of the maker movement today. The modern maker movement combines hands-on learning with communal adventure, blending arts, crafts, chemistry, technology, cuisine, and culture with sustainability, inclusion, and social justice. The importance of trying something new is valued more highly than success, and the idea of creative problem solving is at the movement's very heart.
The maker movement is three parts creativity, two parts science, and one part rebellion. Cool gadgets are usually involved--quirky, whimsical, brilliant, beautiful, unique gadgets that embody a spirit of experiential learning difficult to domesticate for the traditional classroom. Makers live by the idea that making something yourself is fulfilling and educational, providing the individual and the community with the benefit of the product as well as the collective experience of creation.
From a very young age I was interested in what we now call STEM--science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Technology has always fascinated me--gadgets, machines, engines, rockets, electronics, you name it. If it moved, made noise, or turned on, I was interested. Even better was when it didn't do those things. That meant it was broken, and it was fair game to be taken apart and explored. I loved taking things apart to see what made them work. In elementary school I acquired a reputation. Friends and family often brought me their broken clocks, radios, motors, and toasters to be disassembled and sometimes even understood. To be completely honest, I must admit that some of the things I took apart were not broken to begin with. Occasionally I was even successful in putting them back together.
My mother has no particular background in STEM, but she understood and supported my passion for gadgets. She also understood that helping me take my interests in a more constructive direction would extend the life expectancy of our remaining household appliances. My preteen birthdays became kit rich. My gifts included chemistry sets, model rockets, Heathkits, windmills, gliders, and steam engines.
The problem was that all these kits came with printed instructions--instructions that I couldn't read independently. My mother was willing to read them to me, but she was usually busy. My projects were rarely as prioritized for her as they were for me. Often I went through the kits without benefit of instructions, figuring out how they worked through a combination of inference and trial and error. Sometimes my strategy worked, particularly with models. In fact, I often fall back on this technique when I assemble IKEA furniture today.
While guesswork occasionally got me through the models, it never worked with the electronics. The circuit boards lacked any tactile indicators, and without an accessible volt meter or continuity tester (standard pieces of electronics test equipment) I had no way to distinguish one resistor or capacitor from another. When she had time, my mother gamely read me the instructions and identified the parts for doorbells, burglar alarms, and radios. However, her lack of expertise, combined with my lack of patience, made the work unrewarding for both of us. Had I been able to read the printed instructions and explanations independently, I would have gotten much more out of the experience.
Unknown to me, a continent away, a blind electrical engineer in San Francisco named Bill Gerrey was publishing a Braille magazine filled with instructions on projects and techniques for a widespread community of blind electronics enthusiasts. The Smith-Kettlewell Technical File offered step-by-step instructions on how to build the accessible test equipment that I lacked. In addition it offered tutorials and recommendations on nonvisual approaches to circuit design and soldering. The do-it-yourself projects published in The Technical File did not include circuit diagrams. Instead they used highly standardized verbal circuit descriptions that allowed blind readers to assemble electronics projects independently. Had I connected with this pre-maker community of blind electronics hobbyists, ham radio operators, and other technical professionals, I very well might have pursued my preteen dream of becoming an electrical engineer.
As I grew older, my focus shifted from engineering to math and physics. With the use of Braille, it was easy for me to pursue these interests independently. It wasn't until years later, as a college student at UC/Berkeley, that I returned to building circuits. As a requirement of my physics major, I needed to take an electronics lab class in which we would build and experiment with semiconductor circuits. When a friend recommended I get in touch with Bill Gerrey to find out about accessible test equipment, I quickly realized I had struck a jackpot of information.
Over the next few months I spent many hours with Bill and his colleague Tom Fowle in their electronics lab at Smith-Kettlewell in San Francisco. The lab was an amazing place where I eventually became a research scientist after I earned my PhD. Bill and Tom patiently taught me far more than I needed to know for my class. They instructed me on many of the techniques of blind soldering and circuit design, and they helped me build some of the accessible test equipment documented in The Technical File.
One of the most interesting things I learned from Bill and Tom was not about technology, but about history. I found out that we belonged to a long line of blind scientists, engineers, and inventors. From physics to biology, from telegraph to radio, recording, computing, and more, blind people have made significant contributions to science, technology, and accessibility for centuries. Long before anyone had heard of accessible instructional materials, determined blind people found ways to access the information they needed in order to pursue their interests and make significant contributions.
Blind people also have a history of sharing information and supporting one another professionally through guilds, societies, and apprenticeships. Before there was a maker movement, blind people were using their ingenuity to invent and build the tools and systems they needed in order to gain access to information. After all, what was Louis Braille but an early blind maker? With the rise of accessible writing systems in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, information was increasingly exchanged among blind people in our own accessible publications. The Smith-Kettlewell Technical File was an amazing example of mutual support, solving technology access challenges based on a deep knowledge of electronics and our unique needs as blind people.
Bill Gerrey's magazine was not the first. In the 1950s and 1960s, The Braille Technical Press, published by Robert Gunderson at the New York Institute for the Blind, reached a global subscribership of hundreds of blind ham-radio operators. Ham radio is a hobby still disproportionately followed by blind people. The technique of accessible circuit description, pioneered in Gunderson's magazine, originated with hams who needed to use Morse code to communicate circuit designs over the air.
I regret that I did not find these blind communities until I reached adulthood. When I think of all the time I spent struggling with the printed documentation of Heathkit projects, I wish I had known about Bill Gerrey, The Technical File, and circuit descriptions. I grew up at a time before the World Wide Web and Google. Finding obscure resources required dedicated correspondence by snail-mail, strings of fruitless phone calls, and the luck of asking the right question of the right acquaintance at the right moment. Information trickled lazily, coming to some places and not to others, rather than flowing freely everywhere equally all at once. As is true in the sighted world, specialized blind communities have replaced paper publications with websites, blogs, listservs, Google Groups, Twitter feeds, and podcasts. Today it is infinitely easier for us to find each other, exchange information, and offer support.
Just as our communication tools have evolved, so have the electronics available to hobbyists and professionals. The modern maker movement, with its sexy 3D printers, laser cutters, and high-stakes robotics competitions, benefits from tools that would have been unimaginable to my childhood self. When I was a kid, building electronics meant designing custom circuits for every purpose and soldering every transistor and capacitor by hand. Miniaturization, globalization, and modern manufacturing have revolutionized integrated circuits, making complex components, microprocessors, and sensors readily available to the modern maker at very low cost. Along with the lowered cost and increased access to parts comes the ease of assembly. Using only a small number of off-the-shelf components and a handful of standard plugs and wires, it is now possible to build extremely sophisticated interactive devices that use techniques such as computer vision, deep learning, and internet connectivity to work wonders of automation. A sixth-grade maker with forty dollars and a few hours to kill can now build devices that, in 1980, would have required a team of professionals, millions of dollars, and years of dedicated effort.
Arduino is one of the most popular open-source microprocessor platforms used by robotics hobbyists and digital makers today. Simply by connecting this small, inexpensive circuit board to an array of sensors and motors and giving it a few programming instructions from a PC, the casual maker can build toy robots, drones, weather stations, and much more. Not only is it possible to build impressively powerful devices with Arduino, but it is extremely simple. Arduino can be used by elementary-school students almost as readily as by adults with degrees in electrical engineering. It is used in virtually all robotics classes and clubs aimed at increasing interest in STEM among a diverse population of students in the US. In fact, hands-on experience with Arduino and similar electronics platforms in collaborative maker spaces has been shown to improve STEM-related outcomes for students from groups traditionally underrepresented in technical fields.
Unfortunately, blind kids are not yet prevalent among these students. Despite decades of technological advancements and an increasing consciousness about diversity and accessibility, barriers to blind people working with Arduino and electronics still remain, and blind people are not yet an intrinsic part of the maker movement. The Arduino development environment is challenging, though not impossible, to use with a screen reader. In addition, the web-based instructions for the vast majority of Arduino projects published by sighted makers from all over the world make heavy use of undescribed images of the wiring of the project, much like the inaccessible documentation from the electronics kits of my youth. Luckily, wiring can often be inferred from reading the software that drives the Arduino project.
The greatest barrier blind innovators face is the attitude of unimaginative sighted teachers and coaches, who often assume that sight is necessary for the wiring of Arduino projects. In my experience, wiring is no harder for blind makers than it is for sighted ones. It is not that blind people can't use Arduino--they definitely can. Rather, there is a need to provide adaptive tutorials and lesson plans, as well as programming tools and project documentation that is accessible to blind makers. Blind people can use Arduino. However, without support, sighted parents and robotics coaches are unlikely to find the right combination of tools and work-arounds to help young blind makers become independent Arduino developers.
In response to this need, some colleagues and I have created the Blind Arduino Project. The project is a grassroots effort supported by Smith-Kettlewell and the San Francisco Lighthouse for the Blind, two organizations with a long history of supporting blind people in STEM careers. The Blind Arduino Project is a new community of blind and sighted makers whose mission is to collect and write documentation and other resources, helping blind kids and adults to benefit from the hands-on maker culture of easy and fun electronics. We want blind kids to join robotics teams and hang out in maker spaces. We want them to learn to build and code and innovate, finding fascination and fulfillment in the STEM majors and lucrative careers that build on those foundations.
The Blind Arduino Project balances on the shoulders of blind giants such as Bill Gerrey and Robert Gunderson, using modern communication media to publish information about tools and techniques by which blind makers can gain access to Arduino and its documentation. This natural outgrowth of earlier blind how-to publications such as The Technical File and The Braille Technical Press supports blind makers in building cool gadgets. It helps to engage blind people with the energy and creativity of the mainstream maker movement.
The Blind Arduino Project also aims to document, with good old-fashioned verbal description, a number of projects that might be of particular interest to blind makers. Like Gerrey and Gunderson, we want to design and publish accessible test equipment, equipment that benefits from the simpler and more flexible Arduino platform. For example, using Arduino to build a talking volt meter would be much simpler than following the instructions published by Bill Gerrey in The Technical File thirty years ago. Similarly, it would be relatively straightforward to publish accessible designs for scales, thermometers, barometers, obstacle detectors, Braille embossers, and many other devices that are prohibitively expensive or unavailable commercially. We want blind people to be able to build the things they need in order to do the things they want to do.
The strategies my parents employed to support and strengthen my skills are identical to those that underlie the maker movement in its quest for creativity and collaborative hands-on learning. With access to the right resources, the strategies that build STEM foundations for our nation's diverse sighted kids will nurture STEM learning for blind kids as well. Encouraged by supportive parents and teachers to try, to experiment, to build, and sometimes to fail, blind kids have a vital part to play in the mainstream maker movement.
Blind people have always been makers, adept at using the technology at hand to solve the accessibility problems we face. From Talking Books to the Optacon and Braille itself, we have a long history of creative problem solving, with a dose of ingenuity and presumption on the side. But we rarely do it alone. Encouraged and supported by blind and sighted parents, teachers, and mentors, we draw strength and confidence to succeed from the communities that surround us, helping us strategize around the barriers that inevitably appear in our path.
The Blind Arduino Project is just such a community, and it is growing. The ultimate goal is not to keep to ourselves, building blind stuff with blind people, but to join the sighted makers in their hack spaces and 3D printing labs, and to invite them into our spaces as well. The potential of merging a growing blind maker community with the mainstream maker movement cannot be overstated. The Blind Arduino Project is our gentle nudge in the right direction--the integration of smart, creative, STEM-savvy blind kids and adults into an explosive mainstream community using amazing technology in novel ways for everyone's benefit. Who wouldn't want to be part of that?