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Leading the Blind 

Engineer Bill Gerrey builds devices to help other sightless people navigate the world. He's not looking for miracles, just a few small victories.

Wednesday, Aug 29 2001
Bill Gerrey is going home, but first he's going shopping. He tells the cabbie to drop him off near a produce stand a few blocks from his Lower Haight home. The cabbie, eager to assist a blind fare, helps Gerrey out of the back seat and leads him to the sidewalk. From there, Gerrey begins the slow process of getting around, as his cane feels out some steps leading into an apartment building. Almost there. He guides himself a few more feet forward, and his right side collides with a dumpster. Closer. Finally, his hands feel a basket of cantaloupes. There.

The cabbie doesn't notice this small trek; he's already in the car, turned around and tearing toward downtown. But he's thinking about this blindness thing, and at a stoplight he muses out loud, "I can't imagine what it would be like, living with that."

Bill Gerrey lives with it constantly. He has been blind since infancy, but blindness is also his job: For more than 30 years, he has worked as an engineer at the Smith-Kettlewell Eye Research Institute, which studies vision-related issues. Gerrey's work concentrates on mobility and independent living, and over the years he has created and built dozens of devices to help blind people get around or to assist them in their jobs. In theory, engineers like Bill Gerrey shouldn't be necessary today. Between the Americans With Disabilities Act, private industry, and charitable organizations, blind people are better supported than ever. In theory. But there are lots of holes to be filled, small groups of underserved people -- which is where Gerrey comes in. And, simply put, nobody is going to understand what a blind person needs better than a blind man.

The impact of what he does, however, can be wide-ranging. Gerrey played a leading role in the creation of Talking Signs, a hand-held technology that announces information -- such as room numbers or street names -- so that blind users can better navigate buildings and intersections. Today it is used on street corners, buses, and buildings throughout San Francisco and around the world, and that fact has a lot to do with what happened to Gerrey one night 22 years ago, when he lost his cane and wandered the city for four hours in the middle of the night.

In more shameless moments, some people will refer to Gerrey with that hoary cliché "miracle worker." But in truth, Gerrey prefers working on the small stuff. None of the dozens of things he has helped design -- stuff that beeps and squawks and chirps and vibrates, sometimes built for just one person -- has saved lives, or cured blindness. "Saving lives" and "cures" are tiny prayers people say when they wish the problem would go away. For Gerrey, there's just an understanding that blind people want to do something, not a Pollyanna conviction that they can do anything.

The cab driver, however, can't get his head around it all -- the idea of living in a blind world, let alone creating in it. "Maybe someday they'll invent something," he says, gesturing toward his head as if inserting a magical device into his eye socket.

Maybe. Someday. But sitting around waiting for miracles to happen is no way to live, for a blind man or anybody else.

The elevator door opens at the fourth floor of the Smith-Kettlewell Eye Research Institute, and right away, there is Bill Gerrey. He is holding a Talking Signs receiver, a palm-size box with a button and a speaker. He's a tall, 54-year-old man, stout and balding. His voice has a deep lilt to it. He has a tendency to break into song on occasion; saying "Hi" takes about five seconds and three syllables.

Gerrey doesn't actually need the receiver; he just wants to show it off. Walking down the hallway, a push of the button announces what's on your left or right, depending on which way you're pointing. Eventually, in a tinny voice with a vague Southern accent, the receiver announces, "Room 425. Vocational Rehabilitation Engineering Laboratory. William Gerrey. Thomas Fowle."

"Bill" and "Tom" are just fine, though, and "vocational rehabilitation engineering" is a fancy way of saying they build things that help blind people get around and do the sort of jobs they want to do. They're both eager to show off what they've produced, though it takes a while. That's partially because things simply move at a slower pace with blind folks; Bill and Tom spend a lot of time feeling around for things. If you need to run into something to know where it is in the future, so be it. But the main reason things take a while is that the place is a mess. The floor is cluttered with chairs. A desk in the center of the lab is piled high with manuals and the beginnings of a vibrating alarm clock gadget for a deaf-blind user. Oscilloscopes, voltage testers, soldering guns, and a row of solid-state measuring devices fill two workbenches on opposite sides of the room; there's a talking Braille cash register taking up a corner that Gerrey will have to get to at some point. The place looks like a Radio Shack supply closet, and not a particularly well-maintained one at that.

"We destroy myths here," says Fowle, feeling in his office for a talking tape measure he has worked on. "And one of those myths is that blind people are organized."

The Smith-Kettlewell Eye Research Institute is housed in a four-story building in Pacific Heights. It has studied vision since the '60s, and since the '70s has been a government facility. In 1973, federal mandates created research hubs devoted to various disabilities. Today there are 15 Rehabilitation Education Research Centers, or RERCs; each is devoted to a specific issue such as aging, prosthetics, hearing, telecommunications, and, at Smith-Kettlewell, vision.

Gerrey and Fowle are two of a handful of engineers who work on devices for the blind. Over the course of an afternoon, they show off several of their inventions: beeping carpenter's levels, stud finders, and tape measures; and clacking "echolocation" devices that allow a blind person to orient himself by the sounds bouncing off nearby walls and objects.

About The Author

Mark Athitakis


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