Profile of Sam Genensky, Mathematician, Engineer, Designer
Intro: Do you use a CCTV? Know anyone who does? If so, then you know the value of being able to read and write as a person with low vision thanks to Sam Genensky, the person behind this ingenious device.
The Story: I was born July 26, 1927 in New Bedford, MA. I'm told that I was quite normal and that all parts were functioning normally. However, within 24 hours, a medication error was made when a hospital staff member put either a highly concentrated solution of the correct medication in my eyes or the wrong prescription altogether, I am not sure which. This resulted in corneal burns which severely damaged both of my eyes and left me legally blind with no vision whatsoever in my left eye and a central visual acuity of 20/1000 in the right. (Note: 70% of the legally blind have better central visual acuity than this.)
My elementary school education took place in "sight saving" classrooms where I had one teacher for grades 1 through 4 and another for grades 5 through 8. Fortunately, neither of my elementary school teachers was in the business of "saving sight." They allowed me and my classmates to use whatever methods we chose to accomplish our work. In my case, I read and I wrote at the end of my nose and used the chalkboards by bringing my nose very close to the surface. In this elementary school environment I learned to read, write and do arithmetic, and I also learned geography and some American history.
After finishing the 8 year elementary school program in 7 years, I spent the next year at the Perkins School for the Blind in Watertown, MA. There I was introduced to braille and learned how to touch-type, all the while asserting that I was not "blind."
The following 4 years brought graduation from the high school in New Bedford, my home city. While in my second year, I discovered what binoculars could do to help me in obtaining my education. With their help I was able to see the chalkboards. Before using the binoculars, my grades in my academic subjects were three Bs and a C, and after using the binoculars for three months, my academic grades rose to three As and a B. (No, I didn't suddenly grow "learning neurons," but I was now able to see so much more with the help of the binoculars.)
Upon completing high school, I went to Brown University where I earned a Bachelor's degree in Physics, magna cum laude. The accommodations I asked for were to be allowed to take my final examinations in the same room and under the same lighting conditions. I took those exams at the same time as my classmates and did not ask for any extra time in which to complete them. Another helpful strategy I used was to meet with my professors at the beginning of each semester, tell them that I would be using my binoculars in their classrooms to read what was on the chalkboards, and asked them to say out loud what they were writing.
Upon graduation from Brown, I went to Harvard University for a Master's degree in Mathematics. It was at Harvard that I started to use a drawing board, the upper surface of which could be inclined at a variety of angles relative to the plane of the desk upon which the drawing board rested. This drawing board is what I used to write and occasionally read. When my Master's degree was completed, I decided it was time to join the work force until I felt I was mature enough to continue my graduate education.
After some time and some rejections, I landed a job at the U. S. Bureau of Standards in the Fire Protection Section of the Building Technology Division. There I worked on problems involving heat flow through multilayered walls and ceilings and also contributed to the study of spontaneous combustion. Most important though, was in early 1952 when I learned to program the third oldest computer in America, Standards Eastern Automatic Computer (SEAC). It's possible that I may have been the first legally blind programmer in the country.
While living in the District of Columbia, I met Marion, the woman who became my wife in 1953. She and I had 12,917 glorious days of marriage and two terrific daughters before she died in 1989 from multiple myeloma, a cancer of the plasma cell. Later, in 1993, I married again and have been blessed with a second very successful marriage. My second wife, Nancy, is a woman who is there for me at every turn and plays a major role in my life, which I deeply appreciate.
In 1954 I returned to Providence, RI with Marion so that I could work on a Ph.D. in Applied Mathematics at Brown. I received that degree in the spring of 1958 and then drove with my wife and mother to Santa Monica, CA where I joined the Department of Mathematics at the Rand Corporation. (The reader may be interested to know that I was hired by Rand via an interview at Brown with John D. Williams, the chairman of the Rand Mathematics Department, while I was still a graduate student. During the interview, he handed me an application for employment. I nosed the application and found a question that wanted to know if I had a handicapping condition. I asked for John's advice about what I should do with this question. But instead of answering, he asked me to walk over to a window in the room. I thought this request was strange, but walked over to the window anyway, where I took out my binoculars and looked down at the street. He then asked me to come back to the table where he continued talking about the early part of his life in northeastern Pennsylvania. Finally I said, "John, I like what you are telling me, I like your Mathematics Department, but I still need to know what to do about the handicapping question." He said something to this effect, "Look, if I decide to hire you, I won't make my decision based on the fact that you have a severe visual impairment, but will make the decision based on what I feel you have going for you between your ears." I tell the reader this because I want you to know that there are enlightened people who will judge you on what they think you can do and not on whether you have a disability. Oh yes, there will be people who will focus on your disability, but don't let these people get under your skin. I firmly believe that you will find people who will judge you on what you can do and will give you the opportunity to show them that you can do the job you are applying for.)
While at Rand, in addition to doing some work on the flow of unusual fluids, I led a group that designed and built the first user-friendly closed circuit TV system for use by the partially sighted to read, write, and to carry out other operations that require precise hand-eye coordination. Equally important is the fact that I then sought out and found a company to manufacture and sell industrial designed CCTV systems and assisted one of my colleagues in entering into a business that went into competition with the first company. This guaranteed that partially sighted people would soon have a choice among the products that these manufacturers placed on the market, and at the same time, probably reduced the cost.
During the process of introducing people who came to see and try our prototype CCTV system at the RAND Corporation in the late 1960s, my conjectures concerning the partially sighted were confirmed by my conversations with them. They informed me that they were offered services that were appropriate for the totally blind or they were offered no assistance at all. To me, this meant that they did not have access to services that met their special needs as partially sighted individuals. One day a woman came to my office with her guide dog and told me that she had not been able to read any printed material for over a decade. When she told me this, I asked her if she would like to see the prototype CCTV in my office and I would explain to her how it worked. She said yes and turned her attention to the CCTV's monitor. I placed a piece of black cardboard below the CCTV's camera and she told me that the left side of the screen was dark and the right side was light. I reoriented the black cardboard several times and she detected what I had done in every instance. As this was taking place, I had what I believe the Japanese would call a "sartori," and from that time, I was thoroughly convinced that CCTVs were going to revolutionize the lives of thousands of partially sighted people and that it was my duty to make CCTV systems known to as many as possible. My drive and enthusiasm burst forth and over the next few years, my mission became making the CCTV known to thousands of partially sighted people and those serving them here in the U.S. and several other Western countries.
It was from this beginning that I decided to create a center that would provide these and other partially sighted people with a third alternative, namely one that would permit them to use all of their remaining sensory capabilities. So in 1976, I moved my research projects from the Rand Corporation to the Santa Monica Hospital Medical Center in order to lay the groundwork for an entity which I called the Center for the Partially Sighted. This Center was to provide partially sighted persons of all ages with a set of services that would allow them to function as independently as possible using their remaining vision within the framework of a fully sighted society. Start-up funding was provided by the federal government, and in the spring of 1978, the Center for the Partially Sighted began seeing patients.
Initially, the Center provided low vision optometric services as well as psychological counseling, orientation and mobility training and knowledge of other independent living skills. Later, other groups were formed that gave assistance to partially sighted people who had diabetes, and services were also given to people who had CMV retinitis, an eye disease associated with AIDS. Since its opening, the Center has assisted some 25,000 patients. Today, I still believe that CCTV systems continue to brighten the lives of partially sighted people of all ages around the world, and I thank God that I was given the opportunity to develop and make known the early systems.
As a side note that the reader might find interesting, during my employment at Rand I also had an opportunity to design signage to be used at the entrances and doors leading into restrooms. This signage is now used throughout the state of California and hopefully one day will be used throughout the entire country. If you come upon this signage on the doors leading into mens' restrooms, you will recognize it by a 12 inch equilateral triangle which has one vertex pointing up and is a quarter inch thick. The color and gray value contrasts sharply with the color and gray value of the wall or door to which it is affixed. This design also contains the international symbol of a man and the word "men" or "gentleman." Similarly, for ladies' restrooms, the design consists of a circle that is 12 inches in diameter, a quarter inch thick with a color and gray value that contrasts sharply with the color and gray value of the wall or door to which it is affixed, and contains the international symbol of a woman and the word "women" or "ladies."
Because technology is so important, I want you to know what I currently use. With the help of JAWS, I use my desktop digital computer to read and write e-mail, read and look up information on the internet, keep my phone numbers and addresses handy by using Microsoft Access, track my blood glucose using Microsoft Excel, write papers and reports with Microsoft Word, track my appointments using Anytime Deluxe, and listen to weekly Torah portions and other biblical material. I enjoy listening to talking books that I borrow from the Library of Congresses, and also listen to books on CDs that I obtain from other sources. I utilize the services of the National Newsline Network, which provides me with access to more than 150 newspapers each day. I get around using my white cane, municipal bus lines and by getting rides from my family and friends.
Here is my advice for people who would like to pursue a career in mathematics or who would like to devote their talent to assisting severely visually impaired persons. Diligently pursue and obtain the education that is needed to master your field as thoroughly as you can. Nothing substitutes for hard work and dedication in reaching your goals. Believe in yourself and over time people will believe in you too. Be assertive but not obnoxious. No one likes a wiseguy, and acting like one will only work to your detriment.
I am convinced that everyone has a gift to give to the world and one of the most exciting activities of life is to learn what your gift is. Each of you has value and deserves to be respected, but to deserve that respect, you must in turn respect others. Remember that respect is a two-way street, so don't treat it as if it only goes in one direction.
The Contact: Sam Genensky