When talking about Matt Campbell, his friend, business partner, and mentor, Mike Calvo, frequently and affectionately referred to him as "the boy genius". Calvo is somewhat legendary in access technology circles himself, as chronicled in this AccessWorld article from September 2007, From Street Kid to CEO. Campbell has been connected to Calvo’s own journey in this field for 20 years now. When Calvo uses that handle to describe his younger friend, the respect, admiration, and love is palpable. Matt Campbell, aka "boy genius," is no longer a boy—he celebrated his fortieth birthday recently—but he is, arguably, well deserving of the "genius" half of that affectionate epithet.
While his name may not be immediately familiar to you, Campbell's brilliance has touched many of the programs and products that probably are. He has been lending his talent to the community of blind computer users since he was a sophomore in college. He was the secret weapon of the company that would become Serotek, went to work on Narrator for Microsoft, and is now Chief Technology Officer for Pneuma Solutions. His is a story not only of how an innate talent for programming can become a successful career, but can serve as an example of how one among us can work to lift up the rest.
Born with optic nerve hypoplasia, Matt Campbell has always had limited vision. He went to programs for blind and visually impaired kids in a series of three elementary schools (the program moved around, so the boy had to follow!), and ultimately, when he was in eighth grade, his parents enrolled him in the same private school attended by his sighted siblings. In first grade, he was touch-typing. In third grade, he was learning braille and, although he never became a fluent braille reader, depending instead on audio and magnification, his early understanding of multiple formats helped establish his overall awareness and spirit of inclusiveness.
At eight, he was programming on his family's Apple II computer. To see the results of his coding explorations, he pressed his face close to the screen, not knowing anything that early on about audio output alternatives.
At Sunrise Christian Academy, the private school where he ultimately enrolled, the principal parlayed Campbell’s flair for programming into a positive publicity opportunity for the school. A fundraiser to buy Campbell a laptop equipped with screen magnification software led to inspirational media coverage for the boy and the school. With some amusement, he recalls how he showed off for the TV camera, touch-typing Bible verses on his shiny new laptop to dazzle the adults. As an adult, Campbell finds the memory a bit embarrassing, but as a kid, he admits that he relished both the media attention and the resulting computer! He’s quick to point out that he wasn’t always an angelic kid: “Sometimes during study hall, I would work on programming projects on that laptop rather than studying like I was supposed to. And I spent lots of time on the internet at home when I should have been doing homework. But … all of that led me to the work I'm doing now.”
As a college sophomore at Wichita State University, he garnered a different kind of media attention. In perhaps his first major contribution to the computing community of blind and visually impaired consumers, Matt developed a tool enabling Linux users to play audio content—movies, music, spoken recordings—on their Linux machines, and to do so completely accessibly. He wrote it and he shared it at no cost to any blind or low vision person who might find it useful. A journalist for Linux News, a publication promoting all things Linux, profiled the 19-year-old programmer with clear admiration for both his programming talent and his generosity.
It wouldn’t be long before he met Calvo..
Matt Campbell was still in college when he went to work on FreedomBox, a somewhat revolutionary product that brought not only blind and low vision people but people with limited dexterity or use of their hands to the table of desktop computer users.
Mike Calvo’s brainstorm, the FreedomBox was first developed by a team in Russia, but Campbell eventually took it over. As the small company’s only software developer, Campbell saw the concept take flight, so to speak, and evolve into an amazing network of features and capabilities. AccessWorld reviewed that product around its fourth birthday in the May 2006 issue, The Liberty to Use a Computer,.
Eventually the company was called Serotek, and the flagship product renamed System Access and its network SAMNet (the System Access Mobile Network).
The all-in-one product offered word processing, web surfing, email, books, newspapers, games, social media, and more. Campbell was like the wizard behind the curtain making all of it happen.
In 2009, the year that the iPhone took center stage in the worldwide blind community as the first completely accessible mainstream computer product, apps designed specifically for blind and low vision consumers began emerging as well. One of the first and most dazzling was iBlink Radio. The original app was designed by a contractor, but by the end of the next year, Matt had tweaked and expanded it to incorporate much of the amazing SAMNet content. Subscribers with mobile phones could install iBlink and access radio broadcasts, newspapers, podcasts, and thousands of movies, TV programs, and documentaries with description (audio only, no video, thus only useful to the intended blind audience). An Android version was added in 2011 and Campbell worked on that as well.
When he launched FreedomBox 2.0 in 2002, Matt Campbell had incorporated a basic scanning program with optical character recognition. In 2010, the basic program, now called DocuScan Plus, was improved dramatically and continues to be an integral component of the software.
In 2011, he improved DocuScan Plus further and, over the next four years, worked on enhancing various features within System Access and SAMNet and both versions of iBlink. Finally, as Campbellsummarizes: “In 2016, we unified iBlink and SAMNet into what is now called Sero, with mostly consistent functionality across Windows, Mac, iOS, and Android, and basic functionality on Apple TV. In 2017, we introduced the Sero skill for Alexa.”
Serotek had flourished, but times were changing. Mike Calvo stepped down in 2013, and his business partner, Michael Fox, became ill. Matt Campbell was still plugging away, but there was nothing bright and new on the horizon.
Then, one day, Calvo called Campbell from Cuba and demanded that he look at a job posting. “He woke me up,” Matt recalls and, essentially, “ordered me to apply.”
The job posting was with Microsoft. Just a few months later, Matt Campbell was moving from Wichita, Kansas, to Washington state, where he would serve as Microsoft’s only visually impaired developer on the Windows Accessibility Team.
Working on Narrator for Windows was a joy and an honor for Campbell. He worked in an office where developers worked together, where there was plenty of mutual respect, camaraderie, and acceptance of people with disabilities. While Matt was the only developer with low vision, he worked alongside many other talented blind and low vision people on the Microsoft team. With the arrival of COVID-19, of course, the collegial environment was somewhat diminished, as Matt and others began working in quarantine from their own apartments. Still, he says, technology made it easy for him to do what he needed to do, getting groceries and other services delivered.
Meanwhile, some exciting new ideas were emerging as Calvo and Campbell, now friends for 20 years, brainstormed solutions to meet the current needs of blind and low vision people. How can blind people access needed documents from websites that are inaccessible? How can students and employees working from home access the slides presented visually for screen sharing by teachers and team leaders?
Solving those and other problems led to the formation of an entirely new company: Pneuma Solutions.
Campbell was happy at Microsoft, but felt he’d accomplished his mission there and was ready to go home to Kansas. No little red shoes, but he did go home, moved in to a new apartment, plugged in his keyboard, and is now throwing all his ingenuity and energy into the products of Pneuma Solutions.
The “boy genius” is no longer a boy, but the genius component is still flourishing. And the blind guy, now Chief Technology Officer, is using his talent to benefit other blind people everywhere.
This article is made possible in part by generous funding from the James H. and Alice Teubert Charitable Trust, Huntington, West Virginia.
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