On the Closing of the Computer Center for Visually Impaired People (CCVIP)
by Karen Gourgey, Ed.D.

In 1977 I worked for a grant-funded project out of Columbia Teachers College, where I was studying for my doctorate in Education of the Visually Handicapped (pretty old language). The project assisted colleges and universities as they sought to follow the new regulations with section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which mandated that any program receiving federal funds needed to be accessible to students with disabilities. I was tasked with doing site visits for the project, and one of those was at Baruch College, in their School of Business. It seemed they were beginning a program that had something to do with computers and blind people. I was intrigued.

I met with two faculty members, who explained that most basic principle of computing: namely, that underneath anything anyone ever sees on a computer screen is an unending series of zeros and ones. With these zeros and ones one can generate a picture, a sound, or potentially even a braille dot. As I grasped the concept, the seeds of a career change and a revolution began to grow in me. What might this mean for literacy and equality for our community?

These two professors, Dr. Sam Ryan and the late Dr. Dina Bedi, had been approached by Leslie L. Clark, an extraordinary researcher with the American Foundation for the Blind, and a grad student named Herb Klitzner. Clark and Klitzner, aware of the new computing utility taking shape at Baruch, had the idea that this technology might have enormous implications for people who are blind. Early demonstrations were already happening in the UK, where engineers had developed computer technology to produce the Psychological Abstracts in braille for a blind researcher in their country. Could such a service be inaugurated here in New York? The College helped us find funding, and the first braille terminal was installed at Baruch’s Educational Computer Center in early summer, 1977. March, 1978 saw the official launch of CCVIP, with Dr. Dina Bedi as Director and Ms. Randi Baker as Chief Administrator and fundraiser.

The Center began with an emphasis on teaching people how to program without the use of flow charts. Dr. Ryan developed the concept of “structured sentences,” which took the pictures and connections that a flow chart displays graphically and turned them into precise words to achieve the same result. The Center offered programming classes during the first three years, and immediately it sought to connect with organizations teaching programming to sighted students, to help blind and low-vision people move toward employment opportunities. Most notably, it teamed up with several local banks to train and hire COBOL programmers who were blind.

In 1983 the personal computer came on the market, as did speech and large-print programs to make newly emerging word processing and spreadsheet programs accessible to blind and low-vision users. CCVIP took a directional shift. We committed to a mission that expanded the idea of computer usage and computer literacy to the entire vision loss community and to those who interacted with us either as friends and family, or as rehabilitation or educational professionals. Above all, our mission was to get the word out that accessible computing is a tool that can open up the lives of anyone with the capacity to read or write. One of our first slogans was “Crashing the print barrier.” An early article describing our work was entitled “Tools for Living.”

We sought to enhance the potential both for employment and for enjoying life fully for all people with vision loss. I’ll mention two projects with big implications and big results on this front.

Short Document Braille Production. Until computers came into the mainstream, short documents had to be hand-copied by people with full knowledge of braille and the ability and time to read and copy the desired print documents. In the late 70’s, the first translation programs were developed, tested, and refined. As personal computer use became a reality, programs became simpler and one did not have to be a programmer or have full knowledge of the braille code to produce braille copies of class handouts, conference programs, or programs for public events. CCVIP launched its own short document braille production service in approximately 1985, and the service continues to this day. In 1987 we were asked to produce braille concert programs for Lincoln Center’s various concert venues; it was the first concert space in the country to offer the service. In the early 90’s we assisted Lincoln Center as they took over responsibility for their own braille production, and the service is still available.

Tactile Graphics. We took on the very challenging task of adapting a system to produce tactile maps piloted by Dr. John Gill in the UK. The goal was to utilize standard microcomputers, as they were then called, and available software to make possible the production of a wide variety of tactile products. It took ten years. The first concrete result was the production of multiple copies of braille/tactile/large-print maps of the New York City Subway system. We realized that not only did accessible computer technology make possible equity in the world of print information, it also had a role to play in enabling our understanding of and ability to travel through the physical environment. We brought on board a team headed by architect Steven Landau. They took the computer-assisted system to produce tactile graphics from the very basic microcomputer system we had developed to a system that used professional-grade software, making possible the creation of increasingly sophisticated drawings. Simultaneously, we learned of crucial contributions made by other researchers from across the world. Dr. Don Parks of the University of New South Wales created the first touch pad that could be programmed, so that a blind user could place a tactile drawing on the pad, place her hand on it, and have a computerized voice name and explain what she was touching. We were able to build on that seminal work as a way of extending the robustness of the maps we created. The result was the country’s first accessible kiosk using tactile graphics, large print, and human quality speech to provide way-finding information in a public facility, the Long Island Railroad Concourse in Penn Station. Through the 90’s and early 2000’s, talking tactile graphics projects included the development of an accessible curriculum for the teaching of calculus, and later, a fully accessible curriculum for the teaching of basic applied statistics.

Fiscal constraints hindered our ability to continue to grow this phase of our work, but Landau was highly committed to the effort; he started his own company called Touch Graphics. The technology we had developed and fostered was thus guaranteed a permanent home. It continues to this day to enhance lives around the world. Touch Graphics

Information increased as technologies became more available. And in 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act was signed into law. The act provided a nationally recognized legal structure mandating access for people with disabilities to employment, local government programs and services, public accommodations, and telecommunications. It extended the legal requirement for accessibility beyond government and into the private sector.

As ADA’s implications for access to the public sphere began to trickle out, CCVIP became increasingly committed to empowering the vision loss community and to informing the community around us concerning our rights to access and to the technology that was beginning to make it possible. In addition to learning and then training people on the seemingly eternally changing versions of Windows, we looked for opportunities to bring CCVIP together with the college community, local politicians, and large employers.

In 2003 we created our 25th anniversary celebration. We gave “Access Builder” awards to Larry Goldberg of WGBH Boston for the creation of TV’s first Video Description service, and to CBS, the first commercial TV network to incorporate video description into several of its prime time shows. We honored Chase Bank for the first accessible ATM in New York City, and the Transit Authority for its talking Metrocard machine.

In 2008 we held the inaugural conference on “Visual Impairment and Employment: Policy and Practice,” with then City Council Member Gail Brewer as keynote speaker. Over the ensuing 10 years, keynoters included Jim Kutch, President of the Seeing Eye, Chen Guangcheng, lawyer and activist who escaped from China in 2012 and who studied at CCVIP to help hone his assistive technology skills, Kathleen Martinez, Undersecretary of Labor for Disability Policy, and Jenny Lay Flurrie, Chief Accessibility Officer at Microsoft.

In 2009, with funding from the New York Community Trust, CCVIP inaugurated its Demonstration Center, which had a twofold purpose. First, we wanted to be a place where people new to vision loss could come and get a glimpse of assistive technologies that might benefit them and to meet with people who were living proof of that idea. Second, we wanted to invite the community to come and learn about new and emerging technologies whether specifically assistive, or tech in general, that could be useful to people with vision loss.

Where we are Now. The world of assistive technology has exploded several times over. State and private agencies who provide both rehabilitation and educational services to people who are blind or low-vision have incorporated it into their services and curricula; they have come to realize that ability to use assistive technology is crucial to anyone needing access to information. ADA regulations and case law are very slowly reaching the place where accessible information is as basic and essential to a blind person as a curb ramp is to a person using a wheelchair.

So, what do I think of the closing of CCVIP?

First, CCVIP is looking to find another partner interested in taking over the brand and the work. A number of groups are making proposals, and the Center has drawn up a list of priorities it wants to see maintained in any new setting. The Center has also invited the community to weigh in on any aspect of CCVIP that individuals believe to be unique and would like to see continued in any new environment. A decision is expected by the end of May.

Financially, CCVIP has always struggled. Baruch never considered us central to its mission. As such, we never enjoyed a place of priority in any of the college’s considerable fundraising efforts. We did receive strong support from those who actually worked on bringing in money, and when we had proposals to submit, we were given the necessary assistance. Those proposals, various gifts, and fees for service kept us afloat for 41 years. This was a constant challenge. But through our many classes, our work in tactile and talking tactile graphics, career mentoring programs, Demo Center, other individual events, and most especially our eleven annual conferences, we always showed the individual student as well as the whole community a face of empowerment.

If a new home can be found that will value the Center and its work and make it a priority, then the future can be absolutely exciting and the new structure will have my wholehearted support.

If this is not to be, we have done our job. From the outset, CCVIP has been a center for demonstration and innovation. We have made clear the pivotal importance of digital technology to every aspect of living for people with vision loss. Every private agency in New York State, as well as the Commission for the Blind itself, has embraced this understanding. It has been codified in law, though the realization of these principles has yet to be fully realized in the public sphere. But in New York State we pioneered it; we showed what it was and is, and we promoted it by every means open to us. Now we have valuable services, such as the Heiskell Library, which ensure that tech resources will always be available to low-vision users, thanks to state and federal funding. Every contract agency supported by the Commission has some level of digital training.

We have changed New York’s understanding of the possibilities of technology for people who are blind. If the community values the mission of genuine accessibility for the vision loss community, then CCVIP can continue to expand, and there is still much to do. If not, the Center can exit gracefully, knowing that many have embraced its mission and that the principles we have stood for will maintain an enduring influence.