March 2003 Issue  Volume 4  Number 2


A Catalyst for Technology

If conversation with Harvey Lauer was a computer screen, then all applications would be running, with lots of dancing and singing in a multitude of windows. That's a Lauerist way of saying that Lauer has remarkably varied interests and a range of knowledge and experience to match. But for decades in the field of assistive technology for visually impaired people, his name has been synonymous with pioneer.

Maybe his pioneering spirit began as early as high school. He began his education in a public school in Milwaukee over 60 years ago and then transferred to the Wisconsin School for the Visually Handicapped in Janesville. For six years in that public school with only 15 classrooms, he could not go anywhere by himself. "It was miserable, humiliating," he says. "I was scared to go to the school for the blind in Janesville, but within a week, I could go anywhere I wanted to go.… It opened my mind to wondering, "What else could I do as a blind person that I didn't know I could do?'" Lauer has never stopped asking that question and sharing the answers with other people who are blind as well.

For 36 years with the trailblazing Veterans Administration center for blinded veterans (now the Central Blind Rehabilitation Center of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs) in Hines, Illinois, Lauer evaluated reading machines; experimented with talking computers; and, most important, dedicated himself to sharing knowledge and experience with other blind people. When I was about to launch TACTIC in 1984 (the technology magazine that was the precursor to AccessWorld), Lauer responded to a request for information by sending reams of brailled articles and evaluations he had written on a variety of products and approaches. That generosity and information sharing marked his career and, both directly and indirectly, helped countless blind people.

Hired in 1961 as a braille teacher by the Veterans Administration in Hines, Lauer became interested in reading machines in 1964. He says that he has used a total of 14 different electronic reading machines, some of which were never brought to market. His own passion for reading is what led to such involvement and experimentation, and his desire to help others with what knowledge he was able to acquire. In 1967, Lauer's title at the VA was changed to electronic reading specialist, and he began to devote all his time to evaluating reading devices, tape recorders with speech compression, talking calculators, and similar prototypes and products.

Eventually, Lauer became convinced that blind people needed a word processor every bit as much as a reading machine, but it was some time before he persuaded his employer. "People thought I was some kind of expert," he smiles, "and I didn't even have a computer!" In 1982, he purchased an Apple computer and an Echo speech synthesizer, took a three-month sabbatical, and concentrated on teaching himself to use this new technology. When his self-imposed training course was finished, he returned to work with the computer and told his boss, "You can fire me, or you can buy me a computer, but you can't separate me from this computer!"

From recommending fixes for the first Kurzweil Reading Machine in the 1970s to having a version of Braille Edit (the braille translation software for Apple computers developed by Raised Dot Computing) dedicated to him, his opinions of technology products for blind people helped move products forward. Of that first Kurzweil Reading Machine, he says in typical Lauer imagery, "They had an engine powerful enough to drive a car, and they were trying to fly an airplane." While the Veterans Administration was purchasing those machines for blinded veterans, Lauer's view that it was a mistake was an unpopular one. The first truly consumer-ready reading machines, he believes, came to market in 1989 with Kurzweil's computer-based PC/KPR and Arkenstone's OPENBook.

Not an Inventor

Although his role has been a major one in shaping technology for blind people, Lauer says he is not an inventor. Rather, he has offered "little ideas for improvement" that have enhanced various products. The only product for which he acted as the driving force was one that, although he still uses it, never came to market. The product was developed around 1980 and conveyed printed text through a combination of tactile and audio output that Lauer still believes represents the elements that would define the ultimate reading machine. Sometimes called the Opta-Audiphone, sometimes the Touch and Hear, the device combined the Optacon and Stereotoner into one unit. The Optacon, developed by Telesensory Systems in the early 1970s but no longer manufactured, displayed printed characters in a vibrating array of pins, so that shapes were literally felt exactly as they appeared visually on the page. The Stereotoner used a system of audible tones and patterns to represent printed characters. The Touch and Hear enabled the user to feel the shapes and hear the tone translations of printed text. About 10 units were produced, some of them still in use, including the one in Harvey Lauer's collection of technology. "I use the Stereotoner to check margins or page numbers," he says, explaining that he was never one to use the Optacon or Stereotoner for large blocks of reading. "Reading a book with an Optacon," he delivers another Lauerism, "is like going across town in a wheelchair" rather than using a car. "You can do it, but you shouldn't have to."

Other technological tools that Lauer maintains in his Hillside, Illinois, home are a fully working Apple II computer; two Windows-based PCs; one DOS-based system; and a Braille Lite, which he uses for writing daily. Always a prolific writer, he now lends his talent far beyond the scope of evaluating reading machines and talking consumer products. As chairman of his Lutheran congregation, he became immersed a few years ago in addressing a child molestation case involving his minister and children in his church. The tragedy led, for Lauer, to more than a year of research and the writing of a book on sexual addictions and how to protect children. Although the book is not yet published, he is seeking a publisher and continuing to work on myriad other projects. Lauer writes for a variety of church-related publications and has written about his own near-death experience when he suffered a life-threatening respiratory illness three years ago. Every week, he visits a local nursing home, where he plays his accordion, is "helping one guy get going on his guitar," and generally feels that he is giving back some of the support that his wife, two daughters, and eight grandchildren gave him during the long hospitalization.

Wandering from Windows

"I keep wanting to get serious about teaching myself to work in Windows," he explains, "but I keep being waylaid by these other branches." The other "branches" include his illness, the investigation of the child sex offender, teaching workshops for his church, participating in Toastmasters International (a worldwide organization that fosters public speaking), and enjoying his grandchildren and now his great- grandchild. Despite his humility about his Windows expertise, he obviously knows how to work in a Windows environment when necessary. One of his many projects is preserving uncontracted (grade-2) braille books for the Lutheran Library for the Blind, based in St. Louis. Using Optical Braille Reader software and a scanner, he scans the braille pages and saves them as Duxbury files for transcribing new editions of timeworn braille texts.

"Who Helped Us All"

Over the years, a variety of tributes have recognized the tremendous contributions Lauer has made. One of his most treasured is the award bearing his name, the Harvey Lauer Technology Award, which was presented to him in 1996 by the Association of Education and Rehabilitation for the Blind and Visually Impaired and then presented by him to Jim Allan of the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired at the AFB Technology Odyssey Conference in August 2001. "I especially like the braille error on that plaque," he says. The award reads, in print, "For a lifetime of service, mentoring, and spearheading accessible information through technology." In the braille version of the same words, however, the contraction for "st," rather than the one for "ch," appears in the word "technology," rendering it "testnology." "They swore it was a mistake," Lauer chuckles, "but I like to think it was intentional."

Figure 1

Caption: Harvey Lauer (left) presenting an award to Jim Allan. (Photo courtesy AER)

Another honor that deeply touched him, he says, was found in a book published in 1992 by National Braille Press. As he began reading his complimentary copy of Solutions: Access Technologies for People Who Are Blind, by Olga Espinola and Diane Croft, it gave him tremendous pleasure to recognize so many of the names of individuals who have made significant contributions to the field of assistive technology. Then his fingers came to the dedication, which read "to Harvey Lauer, who helped us all."

Lauer's humble assessment of his role during the past four decades is that he has been a good "consumer helper." There are four levels of that role as he sees it. First, there are the guinea pigs, then the trained seals. The next level is that of midwife or teacher, and finally test pilot. "I have been all those things at different times," he says. "Sometimes I've been a test pilot. With Windows, I'm still a trained seal.… Mostly, I like to think of myself as a midwife of technology."

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