Founder's Autobiography

John J. Boyer

I was born on a farm in Minnesota in 1936 in Wadena County. My family is of German descent on both sides. They are devout Catholics. My parents ultimately had 12 children. My youngest brother had Down Syndrome.

My mother told me later that she knew there was something wrong with my eyes because they were white inside, not black like the other kids'. So she took me to the doctor, and he told her I was blind. One of my older sisters has suggested that our mother may have had rubela while she was pregnant with me, because the kids had measles about that time.

I was sent to the Minnesota school for the blind at a young age. Neither I nor my parents were enthusiastic about this, but at that time it was the only way for a blind child to receive an education. There I was taught Braille and became a proficient Braille reader, a skill that has served me well ever since. However, at the age of seven I got an ear infection that took most of the hearing in my right ear, and a year later the same happened with the left ear, though it left enough hearing to understand people if they were close.

The next few years were spent in and out of school. However, I became an even more avid reader, especially of books on science. This was true in spite of the fact that good scientific reading in Braille was then, much more than now, in short supply. This lack was to motivate me many years later to do something about it. I also established a lab in the basement and had dreams of becoming another Edison.

At the age of 13 I was sent to the New York Institute for the Education of the Blind, because they had a deaf-blind department. My first three years there were not happy, partly because of the long separations (ten months) from my family. This increased my appreciation of family life. My parents had already provided an excellent example. However, there was a priest who worked with the deafblind students and gave me a good grounding in my faith. I also had my first look at the New Testament in Braille. I found the verse which has guided me ever since "These things happened to him that the works of God might be manifest in his life." (John 9:3)

High school was much better. I graduated in 1956 as salutatorian of my class. My enthusiasm for science continued. I took the radio and electronics course offered by a fabulous blind teacher and thought I would become an electronics engineer.

Next I went to the College (now University) of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota. I majored in mathematics and took a lot of psychology courses. The math major was a preparation for a career as a computer programmer. At that time there were no real departments of computer science. I graduated in 1961, second in the class.

Sometime during the colege years I read "Give us the Tools" by Henry Viscardi. It told of how a man with no legs set up a company to employ disabled people. This gave me the idea of perhaps doing the same. Years later it was realized.

There were no suitable jobs immediately available. My hearing had deteriorated to the point where I could no longer understand people unless they spoke directly into a microphone. I learned to live alone in an apartment, to do most of my own shopping, and to ride the city buses to an assembly-line job. In my spare time I designed and built a hearing aid. It was a big box, but it had better features than anything I could afford. During this time I also became an agnostic, primarily because I was unable to marry my high school sweetheart.

In 1964, I went to one of the first courses to train blind computer programmers at the University of Cincinnati. After completing this, I worked as a programmer at various places for a number of years.

In 1972 I took a job at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside. A few months later I trained my own "seeing eye" dog, because at that time the guide dog schools would not accept deaf-blind students. At this time I also met Hazel, who became my wife in 1973. I had become a Unitarian and met her in church. We were happy for a few years, but then she was diagnosed with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis or Lou Gehrig's disease. She had a son from a previous marriage who has now also been similarly diagnosed. She died in 1977. (Her son died in 2001.)

The evening of the day she died I had my only paranormal experience. She seemed to return to me with the message that she had learned something and wanted me to share it. This brought about a religious reawakening. I decided to return to my Catholic traditions as recounted in the history of the godtouches Internet Ministry. I left my job at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside and moved to Madison to continue my education in computer science. My objective now was to use my knowledge of computers in God's service. In practice this amounts to using it to benefit others. In 1982 I obtained a master's degree in Computer science, with a minor in electronics engineering and began studying for a Ph.D. My dissertation was to be on a robotic guide dog.

In 1981 I had started the nonprofit company Computers to Help People, Inc. (CHPI). It was intended to employ people with disabilities in the computer field. Gradually this organization assumed more importance than completing my Ph.D. I never did finish my dissertation.

About 1983 I had also slid into depression, precipitated apparently by the failure to find another marriage partner. This was a great detriment to my work. However, CHPI did grow slowly. In 1994 we moved to a new building with much more office space and an apartment upstairs for me.

In 1989 I received a cochlear implant. By this time my hearing had deteriorated to the point where I was deaf without a powerful hearing aid. The implant greatly increased my ability to hear environmental sounds, but it did not enable me to understand speech.

In 1996 I began to consider becoming a deacon in the Catholic Church. Over the years I had come to enjoy solitude and contemplation, and I had developed a strong desire to do something more direct for the spreading of the Gospel. I also realized that I had been specially called even as a child. I investigated the diaconate quite thoroughly, but in the end it seemed that God's will for me was to keep on doing what I was doing - using computers in his service - just doing it better. What this "better" was became clear a few years later.

In 1996 I also sought counseling for depression. This helped a great deal.

In 1998 I started the Technical Braille Center at CHPI. I had developed mathematical translation software for the MegaDots Braille translator. This made it more feasible to start such a center to ameliorate the dearth of good scientific books in Braille that I had noticed even as a child.

In 1997 I enrolled in Sister Maureen Langton's Ministry Formation Program for Catholic Deaf Adults. This gave me a firmer grasp of my faith and experience with other deaf people. It also provided insights into my own personality and training in pastoral counseling. This led to the establishment of the godtouches Internet Ministry later that year.

In 2002 I began a long collaboration with ViewPlus Technologies, Inc.. They produce embossers (Braille printers) capable of producing not merely text but also high-quality tactile graphics. Originally I was asked to write a Braille translator program, so that they could have better control over their software. It also was to be ooen-source and available to all without cost. This resulted in liblouis. Over the years many features were added, including back-translation and special facilities for handling mathematics.

But simple translation was not enough. The Braille also had to be formatted into lines, paragraphs, pages, etc. The mathematical facilities also needed enhancement. So I wrote another member of the suite, liblouisxml. This could produce good Braille documents from files in plain text or in the html and xml languages. It could also produce mathematics in a number of different Braille codes.

But CHPI was having troubles. We never could get adequate funding. In 2004 we sold our building and moved into a suite in a commercial office building. I moved into an apartment in senior housing and set up a home office.

The next step in the collaboration with ViewPlus was the development of UTDML (Universal Tactile Document Markup Language), which could represent tactile graphics in addition to Braille text and mathematics. I implemented this and called the result liblouisutdml It is also available from the liblouis website.

By this time the liblouis software suite was attracting wide attention. Bookshare, an online library for people with print disabilities, was using it to make its Braille translations. Some Braille printing houses in Europe were using it in production. It was also being used in some screenreading programs, which show visually impaired people what is on computer screens. Other programmers were also contributing new features and enhancements.

Meanwhile CHPI continued to have problems. In 2006 it went out of business and I started Abilitiessoft, Inc. It has the mission of developing software for people with disabilities that is available without cost. So far we have produced software to increase the availability of Braille, but we are looking for opportunities to help groups other than the visually impaired.

in 2010 ViewPlus proposed another software application. This would have the ability not only to represent text and graphics but also be able to edit them and create new documents. It would also have a user-friendly graphical interface and be capable of running on Windows, Mac OSX and Linux. Java was chosen as the language in which to implement it. I proposed the name "BrailleBlaster" to signify that it was intended to let loose a blast of Braille for those who were suffocating for lack of good material, just as I had felt as a child and even in high school. This was accepted. I implemented the initial version of BrailleBlaster together with some great volunteers. Development of BrailleBlaster continues. It has been taken over principally by The American Printing House for the Blind.

I have now (2014) retired from active programming at the age of 78, but it was time to let younger,, more knowledgeable and more vigorous people take over in any case. They are maintaining the liblouis and brailleblaster websites. Work continues on liblouis as well as on BrailleBlaster.

Because of the damage to my ears by the early infections I have now developed serious balance problems, so I go out very little. My objectives now are to encourage others to develop software for people with disabilities through Abilitiessoft, Inc., to write Christian science fiction and to become ever closer to God through prayer and contemplation.

Through all this my faith has remained firm and deepened. I am more convinced than ever that "These things happened to him that the works of God might be manifest in his life." (John 9:3.)