Roger Smith: Learning The Alphabet With Electronic Help

By Jo Rector, City Editor

With a reader, matrix and battery contained in a pouch no larger than a small tape recorder, Smith scanned The Times-Union for the first time recently with the new reading device. The Optacon's microphone size reader in his right hand and his left index finger on the matrix, Smith revealed the operation of the amazing Optacon.

Although Roger Smith, a former Warsaw resident, has been blind since birth, he just recently has learned to read the English alphabet. A systems analyst with the Naval Avionics Facility in Indianapolis, Smith has discovered a new world of printing through a miniature electronic device called an Optacon.
Through 144 photo cells in the reader, electronic impulses surge back to the matrix under Smith's index finger, popping up tiny vibrating pins in the shape of the letters the reader sees.

The tactile sensation is similar to Braille, Smith explained, but the characters on the printed page spring into his finger in their alphabetical form, a diversion from the Braille method which uses various raised dot patterns to code letters and words. The son of Mrs. Helen Smith, who operates the Unique Bake Shop, 107 South Buffalo St, Warsaw, and the late Russell Smith, the Indianapolis man must scan pages of computer printouts in his job with Naval Avionics.

"Being able to read is extremely helpful." Smith said, patting the Optacon's battery pack "In my job as systems analyst I must determine the automation needs of the plant, which manufactures some new Navy electronics equipment and is a maintenance facility for additional equipment. "I came up with the system for the automation and have it computer programmed. Now that I have the Optacon, which the company bought for me, I'm able to read the results instead of tying up other employees' time having them read it to me". Smith explains.

Smith acquired the Optacon in January after a 10-day training session in its use by the manufacturer, Telesensory System, Inc. Palo Alto, Calf. It was the alphabet's debut for Smith. "Telesensory sent me a packet of letter shapes to play with so I could become familiar with them before the training period. But it was still difficult to associate the letters I had learned with the tactile matrix in the Optacon. It is still rather slow, and I don't use the Optacon for handwriting since each person's penmanship differs. Speed depends on the amount of time spent using the Optacon," Smith said.

With one year of experience Telesensory estimates the user should be able to read 50 to 55 words per minute. The fastest speed so far, to their knowledge at least, is 85 words per minute. The Optacon supplants a program Smith produced to print Naval Avionics computer output in Braille and a recording tape service that required a one month wait from computer output to the time Smith received a recording of the contents.

Smith, who teaches a Sunday school class at Windsor Village Baptist Church, Indianapolis, from a Braille Bible, learned to read the Braille code when he was six years old and beginning his education at Indiana School for the Blind. Today Smith reads Braille at 300 to 400 words per minute.

Smith, always fascinated by radio and a Citizen Band operator, attended Manchester College, North Manchester, after graduating from the school for the blind. He matriculated as an English major but in his sophomore year, encouraged by summer and part-time jobs with Radio Stations WRSW AM and FM, Smith enrolled in a college physics course.

His professor lauded his work and gave him further encouragement to pursue a physics major. At WRSW Smith engineered basketball games and summer stock car races from the Kosciusko County fairgrounds oval while hosting a Saturday evening program of music and entertainment.

At Purdue he met his future bride, Mary, an Attica girl, and after their February through August romance they were wed. "Those days at Purdue and Lafayette were the best of our lives. We didn't have any money, but we didn't have any bills either," Smith recalls with a smile.

The day after his Purdue commencement, Smith interviewed with Naval Avionics and has been there the past 17 and one-half years. Although he has worked with computer programming, attending a programming school in 1968, Smith confesses, "Working with people is what I really like to do."

Recently he and other Naval Avionics employees developed a new program to compute employee retirement benefits in a fraction of the time previously used in manual computations. From his home on the northeast side of Indianapolis, it is a short 10-minute walk with his boxer guide dog, Winnie, to Naval Avionics. The distance symbolizes Smith's close ties with his work.

Until eight years ago when he underwent surgery to remove his nucleated eyes, Smith had experienced light perception but could not depict visual forms. He does not think in visual images because he has no reference point to them. "It is impossible for a sighted person to change roles with someone who has been blind since birth, "Smith contends " We would describe things in entirely different terms." For an example, Smith said when he thinks of the concept of a tree he imagines something that comes up from the ground, is round and at a certain point sprouts branches and possibly leaves. Never having seen one seems to make the tree easier to describe.

Smith relates colors in technical terms, "I can tell you that red has a certain frequency or that blue has another frequency, but that is not what you see, I have not acquired the experiential data that you have." Since Smith never had sight, he said, "I never had an adjustment problem. Blindness has not been a handicap to me although it has been an inconvenience."

"When my sister and I were youngsters, our parents were very free with us, In fact, I think the neighbors thought they were too free. We had fun and played with all the other kids and both lived through it. We never had any broken bones, anyway, and the kids were always breaking something." Smith remembers of his Warsaw neighborhood.

His sister, Roselynn, who was also blind from birth, is married to Carl McHugh and now lives in Columbus Ohio. "She will soon purchase one of the $3,500 Optacons. At 4.2 pounds, Smith calculates that the Optacons costs just over $833 a pound and is well-worth every penny. His tactile sense developed above average, Smith has been aided by a guide dog since 1957 but he can walk to a wall and perceive it before he actually reaches it.

His religious beliefs preclude acceptance of the concept of extrasensory perception, Instead, Smith explains his extraordinary development of tactile response as facial vision. "I believe scientists have studied this ability and have called it facial vision, I expect it occurs from two senses combined," Smith explained. "First, there is the perception of an echo in the footstep. The closer the wall gets, the echo changes and seems to become higher in pitch.

"Second, I expect there is also some change in the air pressure between the body and the wall that is also related to the facial vision." Smith said "I don't run into walls, it seems to be somewhat of an automatic response to avoid them and other looming objects."

His guide dog, Winnie, helps, walking with Smith to work and back each day. "Winnie stays at work with me all day and is pretty much the office pet. We finally arranged for a table behind my desk for Winnie to stay under during the day to avoid trampling."

And there are the office cut-ups who greet Winnie each morning instead of the boxer's master. Smith takes it all in stride.

A piano-tuner part of the time during his college days, Smith's appreciation for music and his skill led him to the church organ, where he plays both by ear and by note. He studied harmony in college and prefers attending a good concert more than any of his other hobbies. He is also a patient fisherman and enjoys basketball, lobbing shots at a netted basket hung outside his Indianapolis garage.

In his spare time he also communicates on his Citizen Band radio, and admits he aspires to an amateur (ham) radio license, "but I'm too lazy to learn the code. One of the men at work has a few of us interested in starting a code class, so that might be my next project."

In spite of what most sighted persons would consider a nearly insurmountable handicap, Smith had retained his faith in both God and mankind.

He views life this way: "The Lord has been awfully good to me, so I strive to do things that will please Him. I don't ever want to leave anyone in worse shape than I found him.

In my opinion, we are all here to benefit each other," Smith concluded.

Warsaw Times-Union Spotlight March 23-30, 1975
Transcribed by Jane Leedy

Back to YesterYear in Print