Braille Monitor                                                 August/September 2010

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The Blind Driver Operating a Vehicle at Speed: Creating the Technology that Puts the Controls under our Hands

by Parnell Diggs

Parnell Diggs delivering his addressFrom the Editor: Parnell Diggs is the coordinator of the Race for Independence and president of the National Federation of the Blind of South Carolina. On Tuesday afternoon, July 6, he addressed the Convention. This is what he said:

The word “technology” is defined in Webster’s Dictionary as the “application of scientific knowledge to serve man and industry, commerce, medicine, and other fields.” When premodern humans first recognized that they could reshape natural resources into simple tools, mankind began to apply scientific knowledge to create possibilities. The use of fire, for example, was essential in the development of the culinary arts and in the discovery of meaningful climate control. And later the wooden wheel (developed by the Sumerians over five thousand years ago) was instrumental in the transport of greater quantities of food and goods; not to mention providing a means of moving heavier materials over greater distances and at faster speeds than ever before believed practical or even possible.

Twentieth-century sociologist Read Bain suggested that technology includes both the tools and machines created by mankind and also the skills by which we produce and use them. Approximately fifty years later, metallurgist Ursula Franklin, in her 1989 lecture entitled “Real World of Technology,” defined it as, “practice, the way we do things around here.”

And French philosopher Bernard Stiegler in his book entitled, Technics and Time, published by Stanford University Press in 1998, defines technology in two ways: “the pursuit of life by means other than life,” and “organized inorganic matter.”

It has been said that technology is the result of science and engineering. Without a little technological ingenuity science and engineering would yield no result. To consider the point in a more practical way, let us examine for a moment the technological ingenuity of the famous Italian artist, Leonardo da Vinci (April 15, 1452–May 2, 1519). Da Vinci is, of course, best known for his creations, the Mona Lisa and the Last Supper, perhaps the two most widely recognized paintings in the world. But perhaps less widely known are da Vinci’s late-fourteenth-century illustrations of a variety of flying machines.

Those who are familiar with modern-day aerodynamics tell us that da Vinci’s depiction of a four-seat helicopter is flawed and would have severe design defects if built according to his specifications. On the other hand, not all of his sketches of flying machines were mere products of science fiction. A test conducted late in the twentieth-century of one of his conceptualized flying machines, using materials which would have been available to da Vinci in the fifteenth century, proved that his hang glider was actually capable of flight.

However, when da Vinci conducted the experiment himself in 1496, it failed. Why? While Leonardo da Vinci had plenty of technological ingenuity and an adequate understanding of the mechanics of flight, he simply did not have the benefit of modern-day science and engineering to turn the concept into reality. A product of the fourteen hundreds, he lacked the knowledge of twentieth century aerodynamics and five hundred years of technological development. In short, it took the better part of five centuries for science and engineering to catch up to the technological ingenuity and fifteenth-century imagination and innovative spirit of Leonardo da Vinci.

In 1940 another man possessing tremendous imagination and an innovative spirit became the first president of the National Federation of the Blind. As the movement came into existence, Dr. Jacobus tenBroek told the assembly at Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, “Collectively, we are the masters of our own future and the successful guardian of our own common interests."

Dr. tenBroek continued, “Let one speak in the name of many who are prepared to act in his support; let the democratically elected blind representatives of the blind act as spokesmen for all; let the machinery be created to unify the action and concentrate the energies of the blind of the nation. The inherent justice of our cause and the good will of the public will do the rest.”

These were the words of Dr. tenBroek as he delivered them seventy years ago. All of the men and women gathered at Wilkes-Barre on that historic day are now gone. Nevertheless, is it possible for those of us living in the twenty-first century to gain an understanding of what our predecessors thought about technological development, particularly as it related to blindness? First of all let us put the matter in perspective. There were no laptops or fax machines, no cell phones, and no Internet service when the National Federation of the Blind came into being. In 1940 Ray Kurzweil was not yet born. There was no omnifont optical character recognition; no refreshable Braille, and no screen-reading software.

Clearly complex forms of technology were already in existence in 1940, such as airplanes and automobiles, but there were few or no means at the time to make technology accessible to the average blind user. So how did the first-generation Federationists approach the issue of technological development? Trapped within their time, did our predecessors simply ignore it?

On the contrary, let me direct your attention to an article which appeared in the New Yorker magazine on January 11, 1958. The article is based on an interview in which Dr. tenBroek talks about the technological ingenuity of some of his blind friends and what the reasonable limits were, if any, related to blindness and technological development in 1958.

Quoting Dr. tenBroek from the interview, “I’ve got a neighbor in Berkeley, a blind man I’ve known since we were classmates at school who built his house entirely with his own hands. … It’s quite a good-sized house, too, about twenty-seven hundred square feet. He built the forms, poured the cement, put in the plumbing, did the wiring--everything. The place is on a fairly steep hillside, and before he could start, he had to make himself a large power-operated boom for hauling his materials up to the site.”

The article continues, “We asked Professor tenBroek what jobs he himself thinks are impossible for the blind to hold. He laughed, stroked his goatee professorially, and said, `Well, airplane pilot, I suppose. Though, for that matter, planes fly most of the time nowadays on automatic controls, don’t they, and someday may be completely automatic. Actually, I can’t say what the limits are.

One of my friends in the Federation is an experimental nuclear physicist. … Dr. Bradley Burson is his name, and he’s at the Argonne National Laboratory, near Chicago. When he was working on problems involving the decay of radioactive matter, he invented some devices for himself that measured the decay in terms of audible and tactile signals, rather than the commonly employed visual signals. Some of the devices turned out to be more accurate than the standard ones and are now widely used at the lab.

I’d always assumed that being an electrician would be impossible for a blind man, but not long ago I found a blind electrician--a fellow named Jack Polston. I went and talked to his boss, and he told me that Polston does everything any other electrician can do--wiring, soldering, and all the rest. While I was there, Polston was doing the complete wiring for a service station, which I’m told is a particularly complicated job. … Now that I’ve found him, I’m pestering the Civil Service not to disqualify blind people automatically from trying out for electricians’ jobs.”

In this interview Dr. tenBroek expresses such faith in the abilities of blind people, without reservation, that his words are still remarkable in the twenty-first century. He believed that blind people have the capacity to act with the controls under our hands.

In the intervening years our faith in blind people has not changed, but technology has. In just over six months we will be debuting a Ford Escape on the world stage, but not just any Ford Escape. This particular Ford Escape will be equipped with a technological interface developed in partnership with our friends at the Robotics and Mechanisms Laboratory at Virginia Tech University’s Department of Engineering. The interface will be built with all of the knowledge and expertise that twenty-first-century science and engineering have to offer. And on January 29, 2011, a blind person will get behind the wheel of this Ford Escape and drive it on race day, before the start of the Rolex 24, on the track at the Daytona International Speedway.

Let the world come to see the technological ingenuity, imagination, and innovative spirit of the National Federation of the Blind. Let the world come to know blindness from our perspective: a perspective which endures through generations past and those to come. In the words of our third great president, Dr. Marc Maurer, delivering the banquet address in our sixty-fifth year, “Our perspective is not just for one day. It stretches back over the decades to the time of our beginning, and it reaches forward to the moment of the fulfillment of our dreams.”

We stand at the edge of another day, and we probe the possibilities that may exist. We have come together to forge a mighty movement of the blind, united and with one voice—a movement with ideals, a determined purpose, a bedrock philosophical foundation, and a membership committed to mutual support.”

If we are to justify the faith of those who came before us, we must continue to have faith in ourselves and our movement. We must dare to dream, commit ourselves to build for the future, and even push the boundaries of what we believe is possible. If we are to justify the respect of those who come after us, we must have the faith to plant the seeds of a harvest that we may not reap. And, if we remain true to the movement, fellow Federationists, with just a little imagination and innovative spirit, the inherent justice of our cause and the good will of the public will do the rest.

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