Braille Monitor                                                 February 2012

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I Am a Blind Electrical Engineer

by D. Curtis Willoughby

Curtis WilloughbyFrom the Editor: Ramona Walhof is working on a book to honor the memory and accomplishments of our past president, Dr. Kenneth Jernigan. She has been kind enough to share with readers of the Braille Monitor some of the articles that will be a part of it.

I particularly like this article by my friend Curtis Willoughby because he and I were fascinated by the same things growing up. Electronic devices were magic, and I wanted to be a magician. Like Curtis, I wanted to work at or own a repair shop for radios, televisions, and tape recorders, and my degree was in electronics technology. Ham radio was the introduction to our learning things others in our families didn't know--a way to see reading as more than a school task and to understand it was the key to learn almost anything others had taken the trouble to write down.

Curtis presents his tribute to Dr. Jernigan, not by trying to write the great man's biography, but by relating a bit of his own and showing how the influence of our former leader helped give substance to Curtis's dreams. Here is what he says:

From as far back as I can remember, I have been interested in mechanical things. When I was three years old, my dad opened a machine repair shop for farm equipment, and our family moved into a house adjacent to it in a small town in southwest Iowa called Griswold. By the time I was six I was in the shop asking questions and getting my hands on whatever he permitted. Before long I was putting away tools, so I learned to identify wrenches, hammers, pliers, and screwdrivers of all types and sizes. Later I learned to use power tools and larger machines. In my teenage years I often did portions of projects for customers using machines such as the band saw, hydraulic shears, drill presses, and the metal lathe.

When I was seven, Santa Claus brought me an electric train. My dad screwed the train tracks to a Masonite board which could be leaned up against the wall when not in use. From time to time we made additions to this train set: more tracks, more cars, switches, a train station. I played with this train and learned quite a bit about electricity and mechanics. Sometimes Dad took me to see train layouts that some of the men around town had built, but, since I couldn't get my hands on them, they were not as interesting to me as they were to my dad.

When my mother decorated the Christmas tree, I liked to help with the lights and see how they worked. In those days each string of lights at our house was wired in series, with just one wire from one light to the next. Therefore, if one light didn't work, the whole string went out. It was a big job to fix enough lights for a big tree. Each time a string went out during the Christmas season, we had to test all the bulbs on that string until we found the bad one. We kept only a few spares on hand because we could not afford to replace the whole string if one failed.

I was very interested in how these strings of lights worked and why. We had a few bubble lights, which had a tube of liquid sticking out of the top of the bulb. When the bulb heated up, the liquid at the bottom would boil, causing a bubble to rise to the top of the tube. I wanted to know how these worked and drove my mother crazy asking about them. When one burned out, I would take it apart.

When I was in junior high, one of the teachers at the school for the blind became interested in ham radio, so the local ham radio club often met at the school for the blind. Some other students and I also began to study to take the exams for licenses. The school established a ham radio station. I also talked my dad into buying me a ham radio station and putting up antennas at home. I got to do the design work on the antennas and helped put them up. These antennas were supported from the top of the shop, the house, and a tree. One of them was sixty-five feet long, and one was one hundred and twenty-five feet long.

I learned about a magazine called the Braille Technical Press, published by a blind ham radio operator in New York. Uncharacteristically for me, I read this magazine extensively and learned a great deal from it about electronics. I was drawn to radio and TV shops in Griswold, and I hung out with an older student at school who repaired radios.

As a very young child in public school, I had tried hard to read print, both large and small. I could not see well enough to read it, though my mother tried darkening and enlarging it. I knew the letters and could print them. I could read the largest newspaper headlines one letter at a time, but this was frustrating. My mother read to me and to my sisters, who are also blind. She did this from the time we were toddlers, and we all enjoyed it.

When I started attending the school for the blind in second grade, they began teaching me Braille, but I had already come to regard reading as a struggle. I worked at Braille but never got fast. There weren't more than a few Braille books in the school library that I really wanted to read, and there were a great many print books everywhere that I wanted to read if I could get someone to read to me. I found a few recorded books about radio and other technical things I enjoyed, but they didn't help my Braille skill or my attitude toward it. When I found Braille materials that were interesting, such as a booklet about atomic power, the American Brotherhood for the Blind's Book of Basic American Documents, and the Braille Technical Press, I read them, but I was still slow.

While I have always used Braille daily for notes and lists and have read articles in Braille occasionally, the Braille Technical Press was the only magazine I have ever read extensively. Whenever I could get my mother to read to me, I took full advantage of it. Her time for this was limited, and she would fall asleep before I was ready to quit reading. I guess she was not as interested in electronics as I was.

Through my junior year of high school I hoped to attend trade school and then open a TV repair shop as a career. In the fall of my senior year, one of the school staff encouraged me to go to college and study electrical engineering. I'm not sure how serious he was. He joked about getting a degree from Stanford University. It took me a while to make up my mind to do this, but I decided to go for it.

A week or so after I graduated from high school, I enrolled as a student at the Orientation and Adjustment Center of the Iowa Commission for the Blind in Des Moines. Dr. Kenneth Jernigan was director of the agency at that time. In addition to standard classes in cane travel, shop, and others, I was scheduled, along with several other students, for grammar with Dr. Jernigan. The class met weekly in the evening. That's when I really began to get to know him. He taught a way to analyze grammar that was new to me, and I took more interest in grammar than I ever had. Some Saturday mornings Dr. Jernigan invited students for breakfast and spent the morning with us.

One of the people I met when I arrived in Des Moines was Don Nading, chief of maintenance at the Commission building. I began to visit with him in his office when he worked in the evenings. One of his projects was to install an intercom system in the building. Another was to install a telephone system to allow people inside to admit others at the front door without going down several floors to let them in. I took a strong interest in both of these projects. Don found my interest and suggestions helpful. When Dr. Jernigan became aware of my interest, he also encouraged my involvement. By August I was spending my shop class working with Don Nading.

I was planning to study electrical engineering in college, and Dr. Jernigan encouraged me. I was accepted at Iowa State University (ISU) and went there in July for freshman orientation. I knew that Dr. Jernigan had already had some conversations with people at ISU. Clearly they had some concerns about blindness. Part of what I learned at the training center at the Commission for the Blind was to present myself to professors and department heads in order to put them at ease about the way I dealt with blindness. I wanted them to know that I was motivated to succeed and had the skills to deal with blindness, so they didn't have to worry about it. I knew I needed to do good enough work in college that my professors and department heads would want to recommend me to employers who trusted them. We had discussed at the training center the need for recommendations from our professors when we were seeking employment. Only a limited number of employers in Iowa hired electrical engineers, and they worked closely with university staff.

During college I learned discipline, especially as math became tougher, but techniques to do the engineering work were not really a problem. By the time I graduated, the department people believed in me enough to recommend me to the in-state employers who trusted them. I applied for and was recommended for jobs at Collins Radio and at the phone company. Many contacts were made on my behalf, and I was offered a job at Collins about a week after I was interviewed. I was expected to design pieces of radio equipment under the leadership of a project engineer. Within a couple of months we established that a known weakness in the existing design was more serious than anticipated, and I proposed a design approach that would overcome the problem. With the support of my colleagues I set to work to redesign the equipment using my new approach. Because of time pressure we tested the new design using the old circuit boards with major extra wiring. While we were still testing, we had customers visit from Canada. I was out of town, but the design worked. Since my design was an improvement on something many others had contributed to, this visit from Canada helped eliminate any doubt that may have remained about my ability to do the work. Both my colleagues and our managers became aware of what I was doing.

I got the same pay raises as others. After about four years Collins Radio hired another blind electrical engineer who had just graduated from Iowa State. The company began having financial trouble, so the second blind engineer took an early layoff. Eventually I was also laid off.

Because through the years I had worked on a variety of equipment at the Commission for the Blind, I was hired short-term to do several projects there. I designed a radio studio and a Braille adapter for a telephone operator using a new telephone console. All that time I was sending out résumés looking for work everywhere in the country. I was not aware how much Dr. Jernigan was working with the phone company to get them to give me a chance to compete, but I now know he did quite a lot. I received an offer and started a new job there.

A few years after I started working at the phone company, I received a letter from Bell Laboratories thanking and complimenting me for "helping to solve a problem." I gave a copy of this letter to my supervisor at Northwestern Bell. I also gave a copy to Dr. Jernigan, thinking he might be interested. A few days later he called me up and asked what I had done. I told him that the phone company had a serious problem causing communication lines to some large industrial customers to quit working during the heat of the summer when electrical power consumption was at its maximum. After studying the problem, I determined that signals were being passed between two locations using a method highly susceptible to interference from power lines. I realized that all of the necessary components for a less susceptible signaling method were present. All that was necessary to eliminate the problem was to make some wiring changes and remove a piece of equipment. The hardest part of the solution was to convince the equipment designers at Bell Laboratories that it was a good solution. Because I had carefully and clearly documented the problem and the proposed solution, the Bell Labs engineers understood. This was a long-standing problem, so others had previously tried to solve it. It was my work that made the solution happen. Dr. Jernigan thanked me for the explanation and hung up.

Later I heard in speeches that this letter caused him to do some soul searching about blindness and electrical engineers. He said he asked himself if he had really, deep down, believed that I and other blind electrical engineers were truly competitive. He said he had to admit to himself that he hadn't been sure. Even though he had said the right words and helped several of us get jobs, even though Collins Radio hired not just one but two blind electrical engineers, and even though his contacts at the phone company seemed happy with my work, Dr. Jernigan was not totally convinced that a blind person could be effective in this job until he read that letter and heard my explanation. He said he never again had any doubt about my ability or worried that blindness might present an insurmountable barrier for blind engineers.

Of course blind engineers have to find a way to show the people around us what we want them to understand. Like blind people in many professions, each blind engineer must work out his or her preferred methods. The subject needs to be given considerable attention by blind people preparing to attend college in a wide variety of fields. Blind people need to develop techniques for making raised-line drawings and some facility for explaining complex diagrams and for persuading those who don’t think they can to explain them to the blind person. They must also teach themselves to visualize two and three-dimensional objects as they are represented on paper. Blind people with some residual vision need to learn what visual techniques they can use effectively. Those without usable vision need to have the opportunity throughout their education to touch and examine the widest possible variety of objects. They need to ask to touch things that most other people do not touch. If a blind engineer has mastered these things, then communicating concepts to and from colleagues will not become an issue.

In 1977 I got an opportunity to work for a year as a consultant to Bell Laboratories in New Jersey. While there I became acquainted with a computer operating system called "Unix," which was not widely known outside Bell Labs. Most of its programs were written in a language called "C," which was developed along with and for Unix. I had the opportunity to be a student in a course on C, in which the printed textbook was not available until partway through the course. I attended a seminar in which a brand new system command language, or "shell," was introduced by a young PhD named Bourne. Those who are familiar with Unix, Linux, or any of several other Unix-like systems, will recognize the Bourne shell. At that time Unix was entirely a text-based system, and therefore accessibility was not an issue.

A few years after I returned to Iowa, I met a blind high school librarian who wanted access to her card catalog in order to help her students use the library. This was before libraries commonly had computerized catalogs. I proposed that a Unix-based computer, with a speech synthesizer to make it talk, would solve her problem. The Iowa Commission for the Blind agreed. I formed a company called Willoughby Enterprises to develop the system and sell it to the Commission for its client.

A year or two later Willoughby Enterprises developed a system to allow a blind court reporter to record steno notes and read them back from a direct Braille representation of her key entries. This was before court reporting was computerized generally, so this young woman functioned much the same way sighted court reporters did. Dr. Jernigan encouraged me in all the Willoughby Enterprise projects.

In 1992-93 the office where I worked in Des Moines at the telephone company was closed. When I wrote résumés to seek other jobs, I had two basic skill sets that I thought would be valuable to employers. One was the circuit-design work I had been doing, and the other was my knowledge of Unix. I circulated résumés highlighting both skill sets. Inside the phone company at that time, résumés had to be customized for each job opening. In July of 1993 I had a telephone interview with a hiring manager and two of his assistants for a Unix job in Denver. I had enough Unix knowledge for them to make me an offer. I accepted the job and moved, beginning work September 1. The work was to provide technical support for computers located throughout fourteen states. Members of my group installed these computers, supported the network that interconnected them, provided telephone technical support for them, and supported the applications that ran on them. In a couple of years several hundred of these computers were in operation. Not many years after that these computers began to be replaced by computers using Windows. Of the four people who started when I did in September of 1993, one left within a year to work for a development group, two were laid off, and I was the only one who continued through even more changes until I retired in 2001.

Since retiring from the phone company, I have continued my NFB work and have been volunteering with the Tuesday Crew, which does a variety of building maintenance and improvement projects at my church. I have also been doing substantial work at Colorado's reading service for the blind, where I support computer and audio systems.

I attended state conventions of the NFB while I was in college and a few Des Moines chapter meetings. When I graduated from college and moved to Cedar Rapids, I joined the chapter there and served in several positions on the chapter board and on the boards of several statewide divisions. Eventually I came to serve on the NFB of Iowa board and for several terms as its treasurer. Since moving to Colorado, I have held office in two chapters.

My first national NFB convention was in 1966, and I haven't missed one since. I married Doris Koerner in 1967, and she has been a partner with me in the Federation ever since. She was a school teacher when I met her, and she very early volunteered to be the supervising teacher for a blind student teacher who was enrolled in the State University of Iowa. Then Doris decided to become certified as a teacher of blind children. She went on to teach blind children and blind adults until she recently retired. She has been the primary author of four books about the education of the blind, all of which have been published by the NFB and have become important parts of Federation literature. The books are definitely hers, but I played a significant role in writing some of the chapters. I am pleased and proud that Doris has been interested and active in the work of the Federation and has made such major contributions.

Since I first learned about the Federation, I have believed that its work is important and that concerted action is the only way that conditions affecting the blind can be improved. I have been a member of the NFB research and development committee and president of the NFB Amateur Radio Operators Group for about twenty years. In this capacity I have been in charge of a project to provide special receivers so that conventioneers who are hard of hearing or need Spanish translation of the convention program can listen to it.

For almost fifty years I have been active in the Federation in a wide variety of ways. Those that I am best known for are technical, which is not surprising since that is my profession. I have also supported the Federation with my presence, my leadership, and my financial contributions. If my experience has been helpful to others, I am glad. I have also had a rewarding career.

It is hard for me now to sort out Dr. Jernigan's influence from all the other influences on my life and my work, However, his influence started immediately after high school graduation and continued as long as he lived. In fact, it continues today. I am not the only person who received unexpected phone calls from Dr. Jernigan from time to time, and I enjoyed talking with him whenever they came. When I had the opportunity to share a meal with him, it was always a special occasion. My life has been richer for having known him. It was his guidance that brought me to the Federation and helped me find places where I could contribute most effectively. He was an important mentor for me, and for me this has made all the difference.


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