Monday, May 24, 2010

Sorry for You, or Sorry for Them

Bill Gerrey is one of the many mentors I count myself lucky to have studied under. He is an engineer at The Smith-Kettlewell Eye Research Institute where I have worked in one capacity or another for over ten years. In his more than four decades at S-K, he has developed all kinds of accessible tools for electrical engineering, wayfinding, mobility, home maintenance and repair, ham radio and more. He has been a subject and collaborator in practically every rehabilitation-related experiment ever done at Smith-Kettlewell. For years he was the founder and Editor in Chief of a ground-breaking electronics how-to magazine for blind people (The Smith-Kettlewell Technical File), and remains the irreverent and unvarnished (except where it suits him to be otherwise) institutional memory of the organization. He loves gadgets, the older the better. His home and lab are home to pieces of equipment that were built more than seventy years ago, thrown away more than 40 years ago, and rescued and stacked more than 30 years ago. He has cylinder players, army field telephones, vibrotactile stimulators, oscilloscopes, and microwave ovens stashed in every possible location just waiting to be useful in prototyping his next invention.

Bill is famous in a modest way. He has been featured in many newspaper and magazine articles, and has appeared on TV, radio, and podcasts. Sometimes it’s for projects he has been involved with, but sometimes people write about him simply because he’s interesting and fun to talk to. He’s a font of history, opinion, old jokes, wisdom, and irritability – mostly in good measure. When he’s in a good mood, bill is amazingly interesting and fun to talk to. I’m pretty sure that his secret to PR success is that reporters simply like chatting with him.

I started at S-k as a summer intern while getting my Ph.D. at Berkeley. I was in awe to be working with Bill Gerrey. They squeezed me into his electronics lab by piling higher the stacks of plastic project boxes and ancient shortwave radio chassis's to yield a few square feet of bench space for my computer and keyboard. My space was right outside the door to Bill’s inner office so he had lots of opportunity to mentor me.

The biggest benefit of sitting there was that I got to listen to all of Bill’s phone calls. With so much of his business conducted over the phone, I was educated in all sorts of unanticipated aspects of rehabilitation engineering research. I learned the business from the inside out, so to speak. While the sausage of the rehabilitation world is nothing compared to politics, I did learn some distasteful truths that summer.

In particular, I noticed a recurring type of disturbing phone conversation. Once or twice a week Bill would field a call from some complete stranger channeled to him through one of his loving connections, or possibly self-propelled through sheer force of will or religion. It would start with Bill calmly, if tiredly saying something like, “That’s interesting, but blind people don’t really need that,” or “Actually, that already exists,” or “Have you talked to any blind people about this?” It would generally proceed to a long discussion of basic Braille reading, how screen readers work, cane technique, or some other incredibly basic aspect of the routine conduct of blind business.

It turns out that there is a type of person – usually a retired white guy (sorry) – who has invented something that’s going to really help blind people. Unfortunately, these guys don’t usually know any blind people, and they don’t generally have any idea what needs doing in the blind world, technologically or otherwise. They seem to be inspired mostly by pity, which is a powerful motivator, but poor preparation for addressing real problems. They are reasonably well-meaning, but they generally show little interest in learning anything about the field or doing any kind of market research. You see, they’ve already invented the thing that blind people need, and they just need a little help – usually with obtaining funding – to get it into the hands of the needy blind. One guy had invented a special telephone that would call 911 if you gave it a hard bump or knocked it off the table. The guy was convinced that it would be perfect for blind people because if you needed help you could just… knock it off the table. I guess he thought blind people couldn’t dial 911. Or maybe he just figured we were really good at knocking things off tables. Either way, Bill had a hell of a time convincing him that it was not only a thing that blind people didn’t need, but would constitute a serious problem for responders in the event of an earthquake.

Throughout these conversations Bill was always polite and friendly, but firm and instructive. The calls always seemed to really drain him, like the thankless task of dashing the hopes of these poor old guys was exhausting physical work. The calls would inevitably conclude with Bill offering to send some information, make a connection, or help in some other minimally committal but magnanimous follow up.

When the call would finally end, Bill would put the phone down and lean back in his chair. There would follow a long sigh and a laugh. “That guy has it all figured out,” Bill would say. He’s going to invent a new Braille system with three extra dots and it’s going to solve everything.”

Although I have mellowed with age, I have to admit that I have never suffered fools gladly,, and I greatly admired Bill’s ability to remain calm under extreme conditions. My accidental audits of Bill’s involuntary re-education classes would inevitably get me riled up. I told bill once after a particularly bad one that I wasn’t sure if I felt more sorry for him, or more sorry for them. Bill got a great big laugh out of that. We both knew that it was a toss-up as to who was getting the shorter end of the stick: Bill having to try to educate resentful people who thought he was simply unappreciative of their genius, or the misguided geniuses themselves for intellectually leaping without first looking at the problem from the proper perspective.

Now that I’m a big fancy scientist I field calls like that, too. Not as often, of course, because I’m not as famous or as friendly, but inexorably they trickle in. We probably all get them from time to time, but those of us in Rehab research are particularly prone. There seems to be an endless supply of well-meaning ignorant sighted inventors who have come up with just the thing to keep Blind Timmy from inadvertently stepping in puddles, and they’re really bummed when their contribution to blindkind is so badly misunderstood and under-appreciated. From an informed perspective, so many of these inventions are unwanted, unnecessary, and dare I say kind of stupid, but it is incumbent on my colleagues and me to at least try to instruct them gently. The worst part is not their inevitably bruised feelings, it is that it’s such a waste of effort. If only they would take a little time to learn and understand, they might really make a contribution. If only they would learn about blind people, our methods, and our needs *before* deciding what we need, they might come up with something truly useful. What a shame to so badly under-utilize this seemingly endless enthusiasm.

Recently I’ve been thinking about these guys again, and how cool it would be if blind people could help guide them. Wouldn’t it be great if we could somehow tap this resource? What if we could somehow get to these people before they invented their head-mounted escalator detectors. What if we could give them some kind of course or training materials that would educate them enough to at least start asking the right questions. How wonderful it would be if we could tell someone about the 71 ways we have already tried and failed to invent full-page refreshable tactile displays before they re-invented #27. If we could only direct their technical creativity before it goes into yet another laser cane or face identifier, we might be able to help them solve some of the more pressing blind problems of our time.

But how can I get a training program like this going? Maybe I should try appealing to your pity. Don’t you want to volunteer your writing, film-making, and blogging skills for this worthy project? ? Just think of the benefit you could help bring to future blind generations. Imagine yourself deftly guiding eager garage inventors to important solutions to real problems. Think of how you could help Bill Gerrey by relieving him of the burden of explaining the same issues twice a week to an unreceptive audience. And think of how you could help me – I wouldn't have to feel sorry for either of them anymore.