Beyond braille: Oregon-made ‘printers’ open opportunities for the blind in math and science

John Gardner’s work lives in charts and graphs, which the physicist once scoured for patterns that could reveal a breakthrough.

Then an eye operation meant to treat his glaucoma took his sight instead. He could no longer see the patterns, and he couldn’t find technology that would allow him to continue his work.

Gardner used the sudden change in his life as inspiration to help others who face similar challenges. He started a company making embossers that “print” raised dots instead of ink to form the pictures, maps and graphs he needed to interpret the information by touch instead of sight.

His Corvallis company, ViewPlus Technologies, ships its embossers from Oregon to countries all over the world, where they’re used by students, educators and groups that serve the visually impaired.

At the age of 48, Gardner took time off from Oregon State University to learn how to live without sight. He adapted to walking with a cane and learned how to get from one place to another without driving.

He returned to work a few months later, but quickly discovered the difficulty of using data he could not see. His research relied on charts to identify trends and errors efficiently and reach the most accurate conclusion.

“It’s hard to do data analysis of graphics when you can’t see the graphic,” Gardner said. “And I discovered that blind people didn’t have access to graphics.”

At the time, no technology existed to help him interpret the crucial data without the help of his seeing colleagues. Existing braille embossers couldn’t produce anything other than text.

So in 1996, Gardner and his students designed and developed an embosser that could print both braille and graphics. He asked several manufacturers to license the technology, but all turned him down.

Gardner took it upon himself to make the embossers, but even then, he encountered doubters.

He recalled a seeing woman who approached the ViewPlus table at a convention and told him no one would be interested in the devices. But she was taken aback, he said, when a line of people with visual impairments formed at the booth.

“People say blind people don’t need graphics,” Gardner said. “I believed otherwise.”

John Gardner, 79, founded ViewPlus Technologies after he lost his sight in a failed eye operation. (Gilberto Zabala-Olivar)

Today, schools and organizations around the world use ViewPlus products.

In San Francisco, the nonprofit LightHouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired uses ViewPlus embossers to create raised-line maps that depict streets, buildings and footpaths for people who are unable to see.

Scott Blanks, 41, senior director of programs at LightHouse, printed a map of the area where he stayed during a vacation in Santa Cruz. It allowed him to find the quickest, quietest footpath from his Airbnb to the beach.

“There really isn’t anyone else like them,” Blanks said. “You get something that creates rich, detailed graphics.”

Though John Gardner, now 79, remains involved in the company, his son, Dan Gardner, oversees the business as CEO. ViewPlus ships thousands of embossers each year.

Early on, the company attracted grants and sponsors, which allowed it to grow and expand, Dan Gardner said. Now, the Gardners want to invest in new products — including expanding on software to make their embossed graphics interactive when paired with a tablet.

They hope their advances will increase opportunities for visually-impaired people in fields such as math and science.

“Why should anyone be prevented from achieving full potential?” Dan Gardner said.

— Aslan Newson, Wilson High School

— Gilberto Zabala-Olivar, Liberty High School