A Visionary Scientist


It's hardly news that faculty members are busy. John Gardner, who until early this year ran a flourishing laboratory in the physics department at Oregon State University in Corvallis, while simultaneously heading up an award-winning scientific innovations company, is no exception to that rule. In any given semester, Gardner oversaw graduate students and postdocs, taught at least one undergraduate class, and attended scientific meetings around the world. Pretty much all scientists are busy, but one thing sets Gardner apart from other harried scientists. If one of Gardner's students hands him a note or a reprint of a scientific paper, he can't read it. John Gardner is blind.

Vision, or the lack of it, has always been a struggle for Gardner, who at the age of two lost sight in one of his eyes. But this optimistic go-getter never let a small issue like lopsided sight get him down. Instead, he cultivated a healthy lifestyle filled with skiing and camping, and minted several awards for discoveries in physics during his early years at Oregon State. "When I was younger I never could see the board," he says, "and it was often difficult to do detailed experiments in the laboratory. But I never considered myself blind." It wasn't until 1988, at the peak of his career, that complications of glaucoma cast him into total darkness.

Going blind would, no doubt, send the average person into a tailspin. Not John Gardner: He was too busy. With student theses to read, stressed-out postdocs to placate, and pending grant deadlines, Gardner felt that he had no choice but to plunge right back in.

It wasn't easy: Gardner found that his scientific and mathematical haven was not a friendly place for the sightless.

Gardner's first and most formidable obstacle was that there was--and still is--no easy way to access information. To solve this problem Gardner turned to the computer, but it was no panacea, since, he found, there was no easy way to read documents.

The non-vision-impaired population (which comprises 99.5% of the world) assumes that Braille is the preferred form of reading for blind folks, but Braille is very difficult to learn, especially for people who lose their sight late in life. As with any new language, learning Braille is no easy task, especially for a 48-year-old newly blind physicist with equations on his mind. There is a Braille code for mathematics, but it is complicated and rudimentary; it doesn't include symbols for integrals, derivatives, and cosines. Frustrated, Gardner set out to design a way to communicate with his students and the scientific world. "What was I going to do," he asks, "sit down with my students and teach them all Braille?"

A graph embossed with TIGR

A year after he lost his sight, Gardner sat in his program manager's office at the National Science Foundation in Washington, D.C., brainstorming about how to improve his situation, when the program manager handed him a $30,000 exploratory grant and told him to give his ideas a shot. With this seed money and hundreds of hours of work, Gardner and his graduate students developed a unique printer, which they called the Tactile Graphics Embosser (TIGR). TIGR prints Braille, mathematical symbols, and graphs. The letters and graphs look exactly like what any other non-vision-impaired person would use except they are bigger and embossed so that they can be explored by touch.

Before TIGR, the only printer available for the blind used wax to print letters and numbers. Gardner quickly found that the wax approach was imperfect: Wax was sticky, not pleasant to the touch, and came off easily. "I remember, at one point, holding an integral sign in my hands because it peeled off," Gardner says. Stymied by wax, he decided to give embossing a try, and it worked.

The TIGR printer, along with an accessible graphing calculator, led to a new company, ViewPlus Technologies. In 1996, ViewPlus was what Gardner calls his "garage, part-time hobby." By 1999 it was a thriving company. Under the guidance of Gardner, the company's CEO, ViewPlus is developing innovative software to work with TIGR and other hardware.

"Real change seems to happen when someone has a loved one or they themselves acquire a disability that is new to that family or that person," says Jeff Gardner, vice president of marketing for ViewPlus and John Gardner's son. "In this case it happened to someone who was a brilliant scientist," he adds.

During the time that ViewPlus was starting up, John Gardner was teaching full-time in the physics department at Oregon State. And although he couldn't see the board, he continued to use it for all his lectures. Students let him know when the writing became illegible, and when he had started to overwrite previous equations.

The hardest thing about teaching while blind, Gardner says, is the loss of spontaneity. Without being able to see what he just wrote, he couldn't go back and ask on-the-spot queries like, "if we took x out of here and added y, then what would we get?" Nevertheless, he favored using the board, he says, because lectures using predesigned materials like Power Point presentations and handouts were so dull that even he got bored. So he just made do.

Gardner is reluctant to just make do, but sometimes he has no choice. For instance, before he lost his sight, he remembers subscribing to and reading some 20 scientific journals a month. In the beginning, he hired a reader to read each journal's table of contents out loud. If a particular title caught Gardner's attention, the reader would tape record the abstract, and if that passed muster, the whole article. "I tried valiantly to keep up for a couple of years [using this method]," says Gardner. But without access to the graphics, math, and figures that accompanied the articles, he was only able to capture a little of what a paper was all about. Eventually, his pile of journals withered down to one or two. "I sort of lost contact," he says. In recent years, things have definitely become better on the journal-accessibility front. Gardner thinks that it is just a matter of time before full articles with accompanying graphics and math will be available to blind scientists: the TIGR embosser already prints scanned figures or PDF files. "It's just too late to help me," he says.

Kent Cullers, director of research and development at the SETI institute in Mountain View, California, (who is also a blind physicist) agrees that they have a long way to go before science books and texts are easily accessible to the blind and the visually impaired. But he is pleased with Gardner's progress with TIGR and ViewPlus, "because I've learned so many forms of Braille, I know how valuable John's work is," he says.

In addition to the technical innovations, Cullers says that Gardner has also worked to manipulate old-school Braille forms into simpler, straightforward styles, and, as any mathematical scientist knows, mathematical economy is very important. Mathematical equations translated into traditional Braille can be very complicated. Take the simple Pythagorean theorem ( x2 + y2 = z2) for instance; using one type of Braille called Nemeth code the equation becomes much more complicated ( x2 end + y2 end= = z2 end)--there is even an extraneous equal sign stuck in the middle. Using Gardner's way, an x looks like a Braille x and a y looks like a Braille y etc., but they are placed more sensibly with superfluous characters thrown out. Adding TIGR's image-making capabilities to this equation makes simple math simple again.

With the steady growth of ViewPlus (which sells a few thousand TIGR embossers every year), Gardner eventually had to make a choice: to remain split between the academic and industrial worlds, or devote more time to the company. At the beginning of 2003, he retired from the university and launched into full-time work at ViewPlus. "My attitude is that my whole life is something different," he says. Morphing from successful professor to full-time CEO of a thriving company seems to agree with Gardner, who at age 63 is not finished reinventing himself or his products. ViewPlus recently introduced a smaller version of the TIGR embosser that is less expensive, easier to manage, and marketed toward younger users. The company also hopes to turn a profit this year. This is not a field to be in if you want to make a lot of money, Gardner notes, with such a small population of blind people in the world (0.5%), there just isn't a large enough market. "We'll never be a Fortune 500 company," he laughs.

Maybe the coffers aren't overflowing, but ViewPlus is getting noticed. Just last month the company, a member of the National Business Incubation Association, won the 2003 Outstanding Incubator Client award in the technology category.

With all of his success, accessing information remains difficult, and this still troubles Gardner, who notes that 75% of all blind people are unemployed. "Part of our mission is to increase education for the blind," he says. "If you can't do math and you can't do science and you don't have access to ... information, think of what else you don't have access to."