September 2001 Issue  Volume 2  Number 5


The Human Touch in HumanWare

Many of the leaders in the field of assistive technology for people who are blind or visually impaired come to it because of their personal interest. They are blind themselves or have a child, a parent, or a close relative who is blind. None of those circumstances apply to Jim Halliday, founder and president of the 15-year-old HumanWare in Loomis, California.

In 1974, Halliday was working in media production for a community college in Cupertino, California, creating multimedia presentations to highlight course offerings and campus programs. On one occasion, that work involved people with disabilities. As Halliday recalls: "DeAnza had an unusually high number of students with disabilities and was something of a model campus in that regard. I was asked to put together a multimedia presentation on services to disabled students to be used in approaching the legislature for funding."

A public relations director at Telesensory saw that production and contacted Halliday to do a similar project focusing on blind customers using the Optacon and Speech Plus calculator. The project changed his life. Halliday did a 10-day tour of cities, from Kalamazoo to Boston to Memphis, talking to blind people who used Telesensory tools in their jobs. "I really got hooked on what blind people were able to do with this technology," he says. He saw that with the Optacon, blind people were reading office documents, correcting and proofing their own typewriting, and examining computer screens. They were using the talking calculator while assisting customers on the phone. "There was a whole other world out there of blind people doing wonderful things, and I'd never known about it. I think there are still many people today who don't realize the same kinds of things."

At the end of the trip, heavy snowfall kept Halliday in Boston for a few days. He stayed with the then-Telesensory representative, Jim Rogers, a former Catholic priest, and by the time he could fly out of Boston, he was convinced that it was time to change careers.

Halliday's first Telesensory assignment involved uprooting his family of three young children from California to Washington, DC. Two years later, because of his fluency in German, Halliday was working with overseas distributors. In retrospect, Halliday says that in the 1970s, Telesensory was everything that he wants his own company to be today. By 1986, he was ready to move on to something new. He had ideas that warranted testing. Always more an artist than an engineer or scientist (he is a gifted pianist and has a background in theater), he says that his ideas were always more people oriented than technical. "I've never been so enamored with the technology itself," he says, "as I've been enamored with what people could do with it."

Thus, in 1987, Halliday resigned from Telesensory with no inkling of what his next steps would be. "I quit on Friday," he remembers, "and my wife was so fabulous. She took one look at me and knew that I'd quit but had faith in me to figure something out. Monday morning, I went for a hike through the hills and had a kind of revelation." He recalls smiling at a fawn foraging for food, watching the rain begin to fall, and walking through a tunnel of overhanging branches into the sun on the other side. The next morning, Russel Smith called from New Zealand to see if Halliday would be interested in taking over Sensory Aids Corp., then located in Chicago.

HumanWare Is Born

The upshot was a redefinition of Sensory Aids into a brand-new California-based company called HumanWare. "I kept thinking about the technology that appealed to me most—technology that was so sophisticated it was simple. It wasn't hardware, wasn't software; it was HumanWare."

The new company needed braille—and it needed money. Halliday's next move was to go to Tieman of Holland. "I told them we needed their braille cells, whether they decided to invest in the company or not," he says. In the end, Tieman provided both. With one third supported by Pulse Data, one third by Tieman, and another third by HumanWare management, the new company was off and running with seven employees and $800,000 in gross sales its first year.

With the Keynote line of note-taking products from Pulse Data, CCTVs from Tieman, and the ALVA line of braille displays, HumanWare assumed a significant presence in the U.S. market for assistive technology for blind people. Then, Pulse Data wanted to sell CCTVs in the United States. HumanWare was already distributing Tieman CCTVs, and it became clear that one company or the other would have to buy HumanWare out. Tieman was in a better position to do so, and in the mid-1990s, Tieman became the full owner of the company.

The introduction of the BrailleNote notetaker in early 2000 represents the epitome of what Halliday has always wanted the company to be. "It wasn't designed by engineers, but by blind people telling us what they wanted," he says. "We asked Pulse Data to build it, and they did." Response to the product was tremendous, exceeding expectations, and spirits at HumanWare were soaring. But Tieman had one vision and Halliday had another. In March 2001, Halliday was removed as president of the company he had begun.

No one—not even Halliday—was prepared for what would happen next. Within five days, six key HumanWare employees announced their intention to leave with Halliday. "I'm not saying that I was right and Tieman was wrong," he says, "but we all had a vision for the company, and it wasn't going to happen." Tieman misunderstood perhaps that Halliday could not be easily replaced and that the HumanWare mission was about more than numbers. In any event, within 10 days, Pulse Data realized that if something dramatic didn't happen soon, the business in the United States would be gone.

The touching displays of loyalty and support from employees were thrilling, but not a new experience for Halliday. Over the years, as the company grew and shrank again by turns, there were many times when the staff voluntarily sacrificed vacations, took salary cuts, and otherwise demonstrated their commitment to the HumanWare dream. When Pulse Data decided to buy the company from Tieman (a purchase that became official on May 18, 2001), Halliday and all the HumanWare staff were reinstated. Currently, there are 18 employees, 3 of whom are blind, and new staff will probably be hired in the next few months.

With both the human and financial aspects of the company in excellent health, HumanWare is moving forward with energy and enthusiasm. The BrailleNote has proved to be a solid platform—with its siblings VoiceNote (a speech-only model) and a QWERTY version (introduced in summer 2001). "Now we want to explore where we can go from here to build on that platform," Halliday says. "We're looking to add e-books, GPS (global positioning satellite) capabilities, and a browser. Web surfing is an especially high priority." There are no dates as yet for any of these new capabilities, but for the time being, BrailleNote is selling itself as is.

Halliday is not an engineer, a user of assistive technology, or the relative of a blind person. Maybe his artistic temperament was exactly what the field needed at the time he entered it. Arguably, one piece of his dream is being realized: HumanWare products are both sophisticated and simple and are, in short, "human"-ware.

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