Cool Stuff in Every Pocket: An Interview with Fred Gissoni
My friend, Michael Lichstein, a clinical psychologist who is blind, once told me I was reminding him of Fred Gissoni. I considered it the highest of compliments. We were having lunch, and I had pulled a few of the latest "gadgets" of interest to blind people, maybe a Book Port, a Victor Reader Stream, or an Olympus 40, whatever I was reviewing at the time, out of my bag to show him. When Michael was a child, he said, he and his mother would sometimes meet with Fred, and it seemed, as Michael recalled, "He just kept pulling amazing objects out of his pockets to show us."
I love that image of Fred Gissoni, the legendary blind pioneer who has a droll sort of humor that has me smiling throughout any conversation with him, and who has gently, humbly devoted his life to learning and sharing that learning with other blind people. Since 1988, Fred Gissoni has been with the customer relations department of the American Printing House for the Blind (APH). That was a job he took, incidentally, after a 30-year career and retirement from the technical services unit of the state agency that was then called the Kentucky Department for the Blind. He provides tech support for various APH products, but he also just generally answers questions. So renowned is he for answering questions, the popular APH database and blog created to disseminate tidbits of information of relevance to every aspect of blindness was named for him: Fred's Head.
Caption: Fred Gissoni
Fred Gissoni was born in New Jersey. Blind since birth, he did not, as he tells it, go to one of the five widely renowned schools for the blind in that area, but rather, to a resource room in a public school, first in Garfield, NJ, and later in Hackensack. He was interested in amateur radio at age six or seven, and although it would be a while untill he actually obtained his license, that marked the beginning of a lifelong passion for all things technical.
His first job was in a factory, drilling holes in radio brackets. He had already obtained a four-year degree from Rutgers University (or "universable" as he says in his whimsical way) and had begun work on a master's degree at New York University. During his internship with the New Jersey Commission in 1954, he met the love of his life, Betty, who was also working as a teacher for the commission. The two were married in her home state of Kentucky in 1956, the same year that Fred took a job with a subsection of Kentucky's Department of Education. His boss was the legendary Tim Cranmer, a combination that would bode well for blind people everywhere.
Gissoni and Cranmer learned the abacus together, and Gissoni wrote detailed instructions for its use. That book, "Using the Cranmer Abacus," is still available from the American Printing House, as is the abacus itself. Fred wrote and taught a course on use of the abacus for the Hadley School for the Blind as well.
His passion for sharing information and teaching others has been so widespread and abundant, it's difficult to catalog. While he worked some conventional resume builders into his full-time career (part-time teaching at the University of Kentucky, for example) he has written and shared how-to and other information far and wide throughout the blindness field. He wrote for Dialogue magazine for four years, and developed materials for the Hadley School for the Blind. He was one of the earliest contributors to TACTIC magazine, a quarterly publication on access technology I founded and edited from 1985-1999. Whenever I received an article from Fred, I knew it would be interesting and require little editing. What made his contributions particularly unusual, though, was I never had to ask. If Fred learned something new or interesting, or just thought of a new or interesting way of accomplishing a task, he would write an article about it.
In terms of the technology blind people are using today, what stands out most notably in the work of Fred Gissoni would probably be the development of the Pocketbraille and Portabraille, collaborations of Fred Gissoni and Wayne Thompson, while the two were colleagues at the Kentucky Department for the Blind. The Pocketbraille was built to be housed in a videocassette box (one for a VHS cassette, which was state-of-the-art in the mid 1980s.) One could enter data from a Perkins-style keyboard and hear it spoken through speech. When Fred learned of a braille display manufacturer in Italy, the project grew into a refreshable braille device called Portabraille. With the Portabraille, a person could enter data and read it in braille, and could transfer that data to a computer for storage or manipulation. You couldn't store the data; you could simply write it and "dump it" as Fred explains, but it represented an astonishing breakthrough in terms of braille and portability at the time. The Kentucky Department made only 12 Portabraille units -- two of which enabled blind people to retain their jobs. Rather than making a profit from the machines themselves, Gissoni and Thompson sold the detailed instructions for building the device for $5, and directed interested individuals to Southland Manufacturing for the circuit boards. About 200 copies of those instructions were purchased -- by individuals representing 45 states and 20 other countries. One of the people interested in those plans and circuit boards was Deane Blazie, who had worked as a teenager for Tim Cranmer and became a lifelong friend. Deane Blazie's interest in those plans, of course, led to the birth of the Braille 'n Speak, a truly revolutionary product for the blind.
When Deane Blazie showed the Braille 'n Speak to Fred Gissoni, Fred was so excited he did what his generous teacher instinct always prompted him to do. He shared the information. He sat down and made a recording, explaining all of the amazing features of this brand-new product. He also wrote an article which appeared in the Fall 1987 issue of TACTIC, recommending the product as a portable, versatile, $895 constant companion. When asked about his own inventions, though, Fred Gissoni does not distinguish between high tech and low. He is particularly proud of the Janus Slate, for example, the double-sided interline braille slate that holds a three-by-five index card for brailling on both sides. When I asked him why the name Janus, he replied, "Well, Janus was the Roman God of portals. But I like to tell people that he was the Roman God of braille, and since we didn't actually have braille for several hundred more years, he didn't have much to do." And yes, that is a sampling of what I like to think of as vintage Fred Gissoni banter.
Other inventions he developed for APH were also small items including a pocket braille calendar and a gadget he called FoldRite, which simplified folding an 8-1/2 by 11 sheet of paper into thirds.
Similarly, when asked about his proudest accomplishments, he doesn't mention Portabrailles or courses teaching blind people to be competitive in math class. Instead, his reply involved people. "I think my proudest accomplishments would be introducing Larry Skutchan to APH and, on another occasion, letting a capable woman who worked switchboard know about a job in customer relations, hoping that she would apply. She did and went on to head the department."
Where does this spirit of generosity come from? Fred seems unaware of his own generosity, of course, but when pressed for explanation he points out that many people were generous with him when he was young. There was a high school teacher, he recalls, who made raised-line drawings for him (by hand and on his own time) to clarify concepts in science and math. And there were many people involved with amateur radio who shared information willingly as he was learning.
Although he has plenty of tech savvy (using a computer daily and providing tech support for such products as the APH Braille Plus Mobile Manager), he continues to use the abacus and is never without a slate and stylus. "Batteries die and chips fail," he says simply.
Ham radio has been a favorite pastime for Fred Gissoni since childhood, and still claims much of his time (although he says the apartment he now lives in is "electronically noisy." He is active with his church, on the parish committee and has a variety of duties including putting up signs for Sunday school. In the past, he enjoyed swimming, some cross-country skiing, and for over 30 years walked to work each day, but today he gets a ride to work from a friend and is more likely to be found exercising hands and brain exchanging emails or working out a technical problem. You can find him on the social networking site Linked-In, but he says this is only because he responded to the invitation of a colleague and not due to any personal interest. Don't ask him to sign up for MySpace or Facebook, he says, because he doesn't have time for that sort of thing.
Fred Gissoni will celebrate his 80th birthday on December 21, 2009. Yet, he still works five days a week, eight hours a day, at the facility he affectionately refers to as "the AP&H." Why doesn't he retire?
There are four things, he told me, which could cause that to happen.
- "AP&H says 'We've had enough of you; please go.'"
- "Health gets to the point that it is not possible."
- "I'd need to take care of Betty." (His wife of 53 years was diagnosed with Alzheimer's three years ago, and moved this year to a nursing home.) Or
- "It isn't fun any more."
Although Fred Gissoni has more than his personal share of health concerns, he apparently doesn't believe that the second criterion has been met. APH has clearly not had enough of him. His wife is cared for by others, and perhaps most importantly, he told me: "It's still fun!"
On the Fred's Head web site, APH refers to him as a legend. He is that. But Fred Gissoni is also a treasure -- who has shared his tips, techniques, knowledge, genius, and generous spirit with blind people everywhere for 80 years -- and is still having fun doing it. You might say his magic trick of pulling cool stuff for blind people from every pocket is not finished.
To learn more about Fred Gissoni, products mentioned in this article, or to visit Fred's Head, go to www.aph.org.
A note about Fred's Head: Fred Gissoni was initially hired by APH as a consultant, a person to answer far-ranging questions about blindness, assistive technology, or anything else -- because there was so much information stored in his head! Thus, the Fred's Head site evolved and was so named. Today, the site, which is maintained by Michael McCarty, is a constantly growing collection of tips and techniques on any topic -- e.g., abacus, advocacy, audio description, braille, carpentry, self-defense, travel, and more -- as it relates to blindness. Access the site directly at: <www.fredshead.info>.
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