FSCast #216

June,  2022

GLEN GORDON:  On FSCast 216, in answer to the age-old question “What do you do about applications that tell us too much?” consider using the new JAWS Notifications History feature to make them more polite.  I’ll show you how it all works.  Then we’ll get to know Richard Oehm, electronics engineer, entrepreneur, doctor of Optacons, and all around interesting guy.

Hello, everybody.  Glen Gordon back with you with our podcast, this time for June of 2022.  Got some nice feedback to my interview with Joe Stephen, talking about his pursuits in the short wave arena in particular.  One of those was from Kim Kline, who has a similar interest and in fact has written some JAWS scripts for the programming packages developed by RT Systems.  These apparently are for Kenwood and Icom transceivers.  If you have one of these, and/or are thinking about getting a programming package from RT Systems, Kim is happy to share his scripts with you.  I’ll be the intermediary, so write to me, and I’ll put the two of you in touch.

Let’s talk a little bit about Freedom Scientific being out and about this summer.  And we turn first to Omaha.

CLIP:  Gee, what’s so hot about Omaha?

GLEN:  Well, that, of course, is the site of this year’s ACB National Convention.  Douglas Gerry is going to be doing his annual presentation on What’s New With JAWS, ZoomText, and Fusion.  This’ll be on Saturday, July 2nd, at 10 a.m., and we’ll have goodies to pass out.  So if you want to partake, you should come to that presentation on Saturday, July 2nd.

If you won’t be at ACB, but you will be at NFB, we’ll be there, too.  Eric Damery does his What’s New in JAWS, ZoomText, and Fusion presentation on July 5th.  That’s a Tuesday, at 8:30 in the morning.  And he, too, will have some swag to make available to you.

Also at NFB we’ll be running some accessible escape rooms.  Now, you may recall back in 2020 on FSCast 190, Rachael Bradley Montgomery was here on FSCast, talking about how we made escape rooms accessible, first in person, then virtually, and now in person again.  Those will be what we’re running on the 6th and 7th of July.  If you want to take part, the important thing is that you register in advance.  We have a blog post talking about all of this at blog.freedomscientific.com.  And in addition to the details, it has that very important link where you can register to take part in an escape room.

We have a long tradition of running convention product specials, and there’s no exception this year.  But it’s a little different.  You don’t physically have to be at the convention.  You just need to call our customer service department between July 1st and July 15th to take advantage of some of these.  If you are an SMA user of one of our products, renewing every two years, for JAWS it’s normally $150.  But if you renew during this convention window, it’ll only be $120.  So you save a little bit of money there.  If you’ve been thinking about buying a PEARL camera, this would be a good time.  It’s only $200.  And if you’d like OpenBook, which is still, after many, many years, a great OCR program, it’s only 195.  We’re also running equivalent specials on many of our hardware magnifiers.

To find out more specifics, the best thing to do is go to our events page.  That’s freedomscientific.com/events.  And from there we have a convention page with all the details for the National Federation of the Blind and American Council of the Blind.

JAWS Power Tip

GLEN:  Time now for this month’s Power Tip.  And I’m offering it up this month having to do more with searching on the web than specifically about one of our products.  But I mention it now because it’s going to come in very handy as related to one of the topics I’ll be discussing with Richard Oehm in a few minutes.  And it has to do with how you can do a search using your favorite search engine on the web, and restrict it to one website.

So, for instance, if you’re looking for something on our Freedom Scientific blog page, you obviously could go to blog.freedomscientific.com and search from there.  But you could just go to your favorite search engine and type in whatever you’re interested in finding, followed by the word “site,” S I T E, a colon, and the name of the website.  You don’t need to include the https: portion, just the name of the website.  And the more specific you get, the more limited the search will be.  So if you say site:blog.freedomscientific.com, it’ll just look there.  And if you say site:freedomscientific.com, it’ll look at everything it can find on our entire website.  Hope you find this useful.

And if you have a Power Tip you’d like to contribute to the rest of us, by all means write to me, fscast@vispero.com, fscast@vispero.com.  What we’re looking for primarily is something about one of our products that most people don’t necessarily know about, things that don’t appear in the early training materials and that don’t get talked about very often.  If you have one of those things that is particularly useful to you, let us know.  And if we use your Power Tip, you’ll get a year added onto your JAWS, ZoomText, or Fusion license.

 JAWS Notification History Feature Demo

GLEN:  We’re going to spend some time now showing off the new JAWS Notification History feature.  If you have the June update of either JAWS or Fusion installed, you have access to this.  But I want to set the scene for you first because back when we first started writing JAWS in the mid-1990s, there was no need for a tool like this because most applications had no knowledge of what a screen reader was, and certainly weren’t pushing information to us to speak.  Which meant that JAWS had ultimate control over what did and didn’t get spoken.

That often created a much more predictable environment.  But we were also unable to capture some information automatically that would have really helped us get things done faster.  And so over time applications became more accessibility-aware, and different techniques were introduced to allow those applications to tell screen readers, or at least recommend in the strongest possible terms that we say or braille things.

The first of these came along as part of live regions for web pages primarily.  And they were intended to be used in the case of a chat log or a stock ticker symbol, or other times when having information announced immediately when it appears is more efficient than going off and trying to find it with a virtual PC cursor.  The technique worked well when applied judiciously.  Some developers did that.  Others did not.  And the same thing has remained true as the technique has been extended to a large number of Windows applications, including the operating system itself, as well as Microsoft Office, Teams, and others.

These announcements often are useful and often are overwhelming.  The problem, of course, is what’s useful for you might be overwhelming for me and vice versa.  And up to this point there’s really not been a granular way for someone using JAWS to control which of these messages was and wasn’t spoken.  You can always turn them off as a group, but that of course left open the possibility that you’d actually miss things that are really useful.  And I mentioned these heavy-hitting approaches because you out of frustration may have turned these off for one or all applications.  And if you find that Notification Manager isn’t working as expected, those are the first two things to check.

I would go into Settings Center and look for two options, Announce Live Regions and Enable Accessible Notification Events.  Those should be on in your default file, and any other files that you might have changed over time, because those two settings serve as the master circuit breakers.  And when either one of those is off, that will reduce or eliminate the amount of information that gets sent to Notifications History and therefore prevent you from customizing on a per-notification basis.

So enough of the preliminaries.  Let’s go into Notifications History.  And the way to do that is with a keystroke you’re probably familiar with:  JAWS Key+SPACE followed by N.  And you may say, that’s the keystroke to say the most recent notification.  And indeed you would have been correct.  But that functionality has been moved to a similar address, JAWS Key+SPACE followed by SHIFT N.  I’ll do that now.

JAWS VOICE:  Loading complete.

GLEN:  So that’s the most recent message that I had.  I know for a fact it’s from Microsoft Edge.  And we’ll see it again when we do JAWS Key+SPACE followed by N.

JAWS VOICE:  Notification history.  Recent notifications list box.  Loading complete Edge 7:50 a.m., 1 of 103.

GLEN:  So what this is, is a list of all the notifications that came in while JAWS was running during the last 24 hours.  So messages that came in while JAWS was shut down will not show.  But those that came in during a prior run of JAWS will continue to be here.  So I’ll arrow down and just give you a little bit of a sampling of some of the messages that have come in for me.

JAWS VOICE:  Loading page Edge 7:50 a.m., 2 of 103.  Loading complete Edge 7:50 a.m.  Loading page Edge 7:50 a.m.  Restore pages.  [Fast forward]  Opening new window Edge 7:29 a.m., 8 of 103.

GLEN:  So you see that I have a lot of messages in my history from Microsoft Edge.  And this is no coincidence.  I picked it because it’s one of the bigger offenders in terms of how much information it spews forth.  Notifications History is a great way to get an idea of what’s been spoken and shown recently.  But it’s also the place where you start if you want to set up a rule to prevent a message from being spoken or play a sound or shorten what’s spoken.  And there’s equivalent settings, as we’ll see, for braille.  So let me press HOME to get to the most recent message.

JAWS VOICE:  Loading complete Edge 7:50 a.m., 1 of 103.

GLEN:  So in addition to the list in this dialog, there are some other controls.  I’ll just tab through them.

JAWS VOICE:  Enable Rules checkbox checked.

GLEN:  That’s the master switch to determine whether or not any rules are going to get processed.  More about that later. 

JAWS VOICE:  Create a rule dot dot dot button. 

GLEN:  So that’s how to create a rule.

JAWS VOICE:  Manage rules dot dot dot button.

GLEN:  How to see all the rules that you’ve created before.

JAWS VOICE:  Close button.  Recent notifications list box.  Loading complete Edge 7:50 a.m., 1 of 103.

GLEN:  And I’m back to the list.  So I’m going to arrow down one more.

JAWS VOICE:  Loading page Edge 7:50 a.m., 2 of 103.

GLEN:  I personally don’t find that message to be useful, so let’s do something about that now.  I can either tab to the Create Rule button – I actually prefer using the context menu key to bring up the context menu.

JAWS VOICE:  Context menu.  Create a rule dot dot dot, 1 of 2.

GLEN:  That’s a single keystroke, where tabbing to Create Rule is two.  I’ll press ENTER here.

JAWS VOICE:  Leaving menus.  Create Rule.  Receive notification contains colon, contains colon edit, contains text.

GLEN:  And I’ll do a say line here.

JAWS VOICE:  Loading page.

GLEN:  So that’s the text of what was sent.  I’ll tab. 

JAWS VOICE:  Limit two notifications from Edge checkbox checked.

GLEN:  This means that this rule will be for Edge only.  I’m going to leave that checked.

JAWS VOICE:  Speech or sound action.  Speech action combo box.  Mute.

GLEN:  Mute is what I want to do.  There are also ones to shorten the message or to play a sound.  We’ll get to that later.

JAWS VOICE:  Braille action.  Braille action combo box.  Show the last message.

GLEN:  I’m going to arrow up.

JAWS VOICE:  Show nothing.

GLEN:  Which is what I want to do in this case.  There’s also “show a shortened flash message” if you want to configure that instead.

JAWS VOICE:  Don’t show in history checkbox not checked.

GLEN:  I think what you’ll find is that certain messages make no sense other than at the time they come in.  There’s no point in reviewing them later.  And loading page is a perfect example of that.  So by checking this box, it’s going to say not only shouldn’t I speak this message ever, but also don’t even bother to keep it in history.

JAWS VOICE:  Checked.  Okay button.

GLEN:  I’ll press ENTER.

JAWS VOICE:  Notification history.  Recent notifications list box.  Loading page Edge 7:50 a.m., 2 of 103.

GLEN:  We now have a rule for what happens when the loading page message is sent.  I’m going to arrow up.

JAWS VOICE:  Loading complete Edge 7:50 a.m., 1 of 103.

GLEN:  And let’s create a rule for it, as well.

JAWS VOICE:  Context menu.  Create Rule dot dot dot, 1 of 2.  Leaving menus.  Create Rule.  Receive notification contains colon.  Contains colon edit.  Contains text.

GLEN:  I’m going to do a say line.

JAWS VOICE:  Loading complete.

GLEN:  I’ll tab twice.

JAWS VOICE:  Limit two notifications from Edge checkbox checked.  Speech or sound action.  Speech action combo box.  Mute.

GLEN:  And I’m going to arrow down a couple of times.

JAWS VOICE:  Shorten, play sound.

GLEN:  That’s the one I want, and I’ll tab a couple of times to get to the button for selecting a sound file.

JAWS VOICE:  Path to sound file colon edit.  Select sound dot dot dot button.

GLEN:  I’ll press ENTER.

JAWS VOICE:  Create Rule.  Open dialog.  Filename colon edit combo.

GLEN:  I’ll SHIFT TAB twice.

JAWS VOICE:  Explore sent, 1 of 209.

GLEN:  And I’m on the list of sounds that ship with JAWS.  I’m going to press D a couple of times to get to descend.

JAWS VOICE:  Dead bolt close, 44 of – dead bolt open, 40 – descend.  46 of 209.

GLEN:  I’ll press ENTER.

JAWS VOICE:  Notification history.  Create Rule.  Speech or sound action path to sound file colon.  Select sound dot dot dot button.

GLEN:  We’re back in the Create Rule dialog.  I’ll press TAB once more.

JAWS VOICE:  Play sound button.  [Tone]

GLEN:  And that’s what will now play when a page is loaded.  Tabbing once again gets me to...

JAWS VOICE:  Braille action combo box.  Show flash message.

GLEN:  And I’ll arrow up again.

JAWS VOICE:  Show nothing.

GLEN:  Press TAB.

JAWS VOICE:  Don’t show in history, checkbox not checked.

GLEN:  Press SPACE to not show it in history.

JAWS VOICE:  Checked.

GLEN:  TAB to okay.

JAWS VOICE:  Okay button.

GLEN:  And press ENTER.

JAWS VOICE:  Notification history.  Recent notifications list box.  Loading complete Edge 7:50 a.m., 1 of 103.

GLEN:  So we’ve now created two rules.  But what if you want to review them or change them in some way?  I’ll press TAB until I get to the managed rules button.

JAWS VOICE:  Enable Rule.  Create Rule.  Manage Rules dot dot dot button.


JAWS VOICE:  Manage notification rules.  Rules list box.  Loading page Edge mute show nothing, 1 of 2.

GLEN:  That’s the first rule we created.  It says loading page.  Edge means it’s limited to Edge.  Mute means don’t say anything.  And show nothing means don’t show it in braille.  The one thing that’s not announced is whether or not you’ve hidden it from history.  The only way to see that at the moment is by going into the rule itself.  We’ll arrow down.

JAWS VOICE:  Loading complete Edge play sound show nothing, 2 of 2.

GLEN:  And that’s the one where we’re going to play the descending tone after a page is loaded.  I’ll tab through here so you can hear the other options.

JAWS VOICE:  Modify dot dot dot button.  Delete button.  Close button.

GLEN:  Press ENTER to close it. 

JAWS VOICE:  Notification history.  Manage rules dot dot dot button.

GLEN:  I’m going to go over to Microsoft Edge now.

JAWS VOICE:  Opening new window.  Address and search bar edit.  Search all enter web address.

GLEN:  So there’s another message that theoretically you could suppress, the opening new window.  I’ll just press F here to get Freedom Scientific to autocomplete.

JAWS VOICE:  Freedomscientific.com.  Selected.  Blank.  [Tone]  Page has four regions, eight headings, and 59 links.

GLEN:  The loading page message went away.  And rather than hearing page loaded, we got the sound.  I’m going to go back to Notifications History now.

JAWS VOICE:  Notification History.  Recent notifications list box.  New notification from Dropbox, copied link on FSCast215–May2022.mp3. 

GLEN:  And I’ve spared you from hearing the arrow down past many messages from Edge that appeared in Notifications History because I had failed to prevent them from showing up.  Once you say don’t show this particular message, it will keep it from showing up in the future, but it won’t eliminate the previous occurrences of it.  But Notifications History keeps at most 500 messages or 24 hours’ worth.  So they quickly recycle, and the annoying ones will fade away once you’ve made changes.

So I’m on this Dropbox message. 

JAWS VOICE:  New notification from Dropbox.  Copied link on FSCast215-May2022.mp3.

GLEN:  I think I’d be just as happy hearing the word “copied,” rather than a whole link.  We’ll make that happen here in a second.  I’ll press the context menu key.

JAWS VOICE:  Context menu.  Create Rule dot dot dot, 1 of 2.

GLEN:  Down arrow once.

JAWS VOICE:  Don’t show in history dot dot dot, 2 of 2, selected.

GLEN:  So the difference between Create Rule and don’t show in history is a subtle one.  In both cases you’re actually creating a rule, which is why you’ll see the same dialog box.  But in the case of Create Rule, don’t show in history isn’t checked, and mute is.  But when you choose don’t show in history, we assume you still want to hear the whole message when it comes in.  And so that option is selected for speech.  But the “don’t show in history” checkbox is checked.  So let’s press ENTER here on don’t show in history.

JAWS VOICE:  Leaving menus.  Create Rule.  Received notification contains colon.  Contains colon edit.  Contains text.

GLEN:  I’ll do a say line here.

JAWS VOICE:  New notification from Dropbox.  Copied link on FSCast215-May2022.mp3, a link to.

GLEN:  That message is about copying a specific file.  And if we were to use it as the search pattern for the rule to match, it would only match if I happened to copy that same file again.  So I want to make the search pattern short enough that it will just match something having to do with Dropbox copying a link.  So I’m going to select all with CTRL+A.

JAWS VOICE:  Selected.  New notification from Dropbox.

GLEN:  And I’ll type in copied link, do a say line.

JAWS VOICE:  Copied link.


JAWS VOICE:  Limit two notifications from Dropbox, checkbox checked. 

GLEN:  Yes, that’s a good thing.

JAWS VOICE:  Speech or sound action.  Speech action combo box.  Speak the full message.

GLEN:  And the reason it says that by default, instead of mute, is because we entered this dialog from the context menu and chose don’t show in history.  So in this case I actually want to shorten the message.  I need to arrow up twice to get there.

JAWS VOICE:  Play sound.  Shorten.


JAWS VOICE:  Shorten text colon edit.

GLEN:  And I’ll just type in “copied.”

JAWS VOICE:  Braille action.  Braille action combo box.  Show flash message.

GLEN:  Might as well show a flash message.

JAWS VOICE:  Don’t show in history checkbox checked.


JAWS VOICE:  Notification history.  Recent notifications list box.

GLEN:  And now I’ll switch to my Dropbox folder. 

JAWS VOICE:  C:\users\glen\dropbox.  Items view multi-select list box.  Get started with Dropbox, 12 of 15.

GLEN:  I’ll press the context menu key and then L to copy the link.

JAWS VOICE:  Context menu.  Leaving menus.  C:\users\glen\dropbox.  Items view multi-select list box.  Get started with Dropbox, 12 of 15.  Copied.

GLEN:  So we have a much shorter notification that the Dropbox link has been properly copied.  Much easier on my ears.

We encourage you to give this a try.  And my recommendation for how to get started is simply to go into Notifications History with JAWS Key+SPACE followed by N, and look at what’s built up for you.  And my guess is there will be some messages that happen so frequently that they just sort of keep you from noticing the others that happen less often.  And the first thing I would do is go in and make sure that those don’t show in history, and at the same time decide whether or not you want to mute them, or whether or not you want to hear them when they’re initially announced.

Setting up a couple of rules like that will make your message history much more interesting.  It’ll take 24 hours probably for the old messages of those types to fade away.  But when you come back a day later, your message history should be a lot shorter.  And you may start seeing things that you didn’t see the first time because they were dwarfed by messages from things like Microsoft Edge.  So you can do the same thing in round two and so forth.  Over time, and probably really not that much time, you will get your notifications tuned exactly as you want.

The good news about computers is that they are nonjudgmental, and you can always go back and undo what you’ve done.  There are two things that may help you in this regard.  There was a checkbox that we passed over at the very beginning called Enable Rules.  So if suddenly notifications that you’re expecting to hear have stopped, you can go in and uncheck the Enable Rules checkbox and run for a little while, and see if the notifications you’re expecting come back.  If they do, you’ll know that a rule you created has somehow suppressed them.

In that case, I would choose the Manage Rules button, go in and review all the rules that you’ve created, change them as necessary, or go through and delete the suspects.  Then go back out and make sure that the Enable Rules checkbox is once again enabled and refine what you’ve done.  So no harm can be done.  You can always get out of a bad situation by deleting all your rules.  I encourage you to go play with it.  And I think you, like us internally at the company, are going to find this to be a very useful feature.  We will be adding more, including regular expression support in JAWS 2023.  So stay tuned for a more and more powerful Notifications History feature.

Interview with Richard Oehm

GLEN:  When I talked to Robert Englebretson a few months back on the podcast, he suggested that I interview Richard Oehm, one, because he’s an electronics engineering genius, but also because he repairs Optacons and has saved Robert’s life on more than one occasion.  So I reached out to Richard and figured that if he had heard of me at all, it would be because of my work on JAWS.  He called back and said, “Yes, I’ve heard of you, in fact.  You did some really clever radio stuff back in the early ‘80s.”  And that completely baffled me because it was mostly college radio, and not that many people knew about me.

But Richard is an old friend of my vocational rehabilitation counselor, Steve Thompson.  And apparently I had given Steve some recordings of things I had done.  He had passed them on to Richard.  And Richard remembers them to this day, which is a very scary thought.  And despite that, even though he knows things about me I’d rather he didn’t, he’s here with me for the podcast.  Richard, welcome.

RICHARD OEHM:  Thank you.  Thank you very much.  Yeah, and I played that for a few friends of mine as just, I said, well, look at what this crazy guy Steve sent me.

GLEN:  Cool.

RICHARD:  So whether you knew it or not, your audio exploits got some traction.

GLEN:  Well, thank you.  I had friends when I was young who were really into electronics.  And it didn’t occur to me that I as a blind person could do things at the time that I thought were really visual.  And I couldn’t as easily envision how I could do something with electronics the same way I could do let’s say with an audio recording, where I could try something and immediately go back and listen to it.  How did you conclude that electronics would work for you, and how did you cross some of those original barriers?

RICHARD:  Well, the problem was I was a lazy kid.  I, you know, all I wanted to do was to be a radio personality.  That was my goal.  That was my big-time thing.  And I knew you had to get an  FCC radiotelephone license to be there.  And I also had an interest, a different kind of an interest in radio because I was interested in ham radio.  I got a hold of everything that the local Braille Institute Library had, and there were about maybe five books on ham radio.  And I read them cover to cover.

And that’s how I started to get involved with electronics both on two different parallel tracks.  One was to come up with the equipment that would allow me to monitor the parameters that would be required in broadcasting, and the other was quite frankly to be able to monitor those similar parameters in ham radio because in ham radio you have a transceiver, and those days transceivers, you had to tune them up, and you had various parameters that you had to keep track of and that sort of thing.

GLEN:  So this is late ‘60s, early ‘70s; right?  Am I right?

RICHARD:  Right.

GLEN:  So at that point, I mean, there was no such thing as researching things online.


GLEN:  There were no such things as braille editions of diagrams and other things that might help.  How did you actually research these topics?

RICHARD:  Well, actually there were some resources available to the blind.  There was a ham radio magazine called Braille Technical Press.  And it had been around for about 15, 20 years.  And in that magazine there were verbal descriptions of circuit diagrams for various projects that a blind person could ostensibly assemble and build to help them with their ham radio projects.  So that was a real resource.

And then I have a mentor, you’ve probably heard of him, Bill Gerrey from Smith-Kettlewell Eye Research Institute.  I started to get acquainted with him.  And he was like my mentor because he had done all this stuff already, and he was already soldering and working in rehabilitation engineering and so forth.  And so I became good, sharp, hard friends with him and a few other blind folks.  So with all that, all those different things available to me, I was able to feel that electronics was a realistic thing for me to do.

GLEN:  And how did you finally solve the metering problem?

RICHARD:  Well, a couple of different ways.  Actually, the one way was to build a measuring device that would just connect across the meter, and it would be an audible and tactile replica of the printed meter, and you could read it directly.  Another thing that I did, which helped me to get my first job, ironically, is I used the Optacon to read some meters.  And I got the restriction lifted off my license that way, and it got published in a trade magazine, and I think some people at Telesensory Systems read about that and are like, bingo, he’s our guy, we need to get him over here and see what he’s worth.  And they hired me.  For a couple of years I worked there.  I’m not sure how good of an employee I was at the time.  But that was a real blessing.  So that was my first job.

GLEN:  I think there are a lot of people who are listening who may have heard about the Optacon but don’t really know how it works.  And it’s played such an important role in your life, I think it’s worth describing.

RICHARD:  Yeah, well, sure.  And especially since it’s still in my life playing a role.  But at any rate it’s a device that was invented by John Linvill, a professor at Stanford, for the benefit of his daughter, blind daughter who was going through college.  But the Optacon is an instrument that – the whole instrument itself is about the size of a textbook, and it’s battery powered, but you can also connect it to AC power.  And it has a camera that’s about the size of a pocket knife with a zoom control on it.

And in practice what you do is you pass the camera across a page of print or whatever it is that you’re trying to discern, and an array of tactile pins are part of the instrument, and that array of tactile pins vibrates and allows you to feel the shape of the character, the number, the symbol, whatever the camera sees.  You have to know all the printed – what the printed letters of the alphabet look like, what numbers look like, what various symbols look like.  And then you can use the adjustments and capabilities of the Optacon to reproduce those images from a page of print or from whatever the camera is viewing.

You know, it really does help you to see the relationships that are obvious to your sighted peers, especially when you’re looking at graphics or a table or that sort of thing.  It’s very difficult to orally communicate those concepts, but it’s very easy to see them when you’re looking at it with an Optacon.  So you get a lot of spatial information.  And the device was sold from basically I think 1973 until Telesensory went bankrupt in 1996.  And there are still people using it today.  And I hope that there will be people that will use it in the future.

I would like to see another Optacon get developed and be available.  And of course if it’s going to be valuable today, it would have to also have some sort of capability to interface with mobile phones, maybe computers, stuff like that.  But it’s really one of the best ways that a blind person has access to graphical material and material other than just straight-ahead print.

GLEN:  How did the Optacon impact your career beyond reading meters?

RICHARD:  Well, I was able to look at schematic diagrams.  So, for example, if I wanted to troubleshoot a problem with my stereo receiver or a problem with my family’s television set or whatever, and if I could get a hold of the schematic, I could understand what was connected to what, how the circuit worked, and maybe be able to hone in on whatever the issue was.

GLEN:  How did you begin to understand schematic diagrams and how they worked?  Did you explore with the Optacon and figure it out that way?  Or did someone describe them to you and therefore the Optacon could then sort of verify what the verbal descriptions were?

RICHARD:  I worked both directions actually.  When I was going through school and taking electronics classes, I had readers and my mom and other people take a Raised Line Drawing Kit, you know, the thing with the cellophane, and you can write on?

GLEN:  Oh, yeah.

RICHARD:  Yeah.  And I had them draw out the symbols.  And then I would memorize those symbols and look for those with the Optacon when I had a schematic in front of me.  So, and then the other thing is I would sometimes see symbols on the diagram that I didn’t have a library of in my Raised Line Drawing Kit cellophane collection, and in that situation then I would ask a sighted partner or somebody, what the hell is this?  And then I would get it that way.  So actually I came from both directions.

GLEN:  We probably should mention that for a limited time only, for a limited number of users, you probably could assemble an Optacon and sell one to someone, right, from your collection of spare parts?

RICHARD:  That is correct, yes.  I can do that.  It’s expensive.  I mean, this isn’t cheap.  But the prices run anywhere from – I try to keep the thing low.  But anywhere from around 8 or $900 to about $1,400 is the most I’ve ever charged for a used, warrantied replacement Optacon.

GLEN:  I can’t imagine teaching it to myself from scratch.  I remember I think having two weeks of instruction with a woman named Susan Sumner from Sensory Aids Foundation.  And that was enough to get me going.  But I think it might be hard for someone to pick it up completely on their own from scratch.

RICHARD:  Well, amazingly, it is.  It is very much so.  But amazingly, your company, Freedom Scientific, made the training materials available on your website as PDF files.  And many people downloaded those files and printed them out and had their own Optacon training manuals.  And those training manuals are very complete, and they are incredibly comprehensive.  And they start out with lines and shapes and drawings and then graduate you to letters and numbers.  And then they put words together.  And all of that material was available on the Freedom Scientific website.

GLEN:  As luck would have it, I actually went and searched for this before our interview.  And much to my surprise, at least one such training manual exists on our website.  And you do have to use the technique that I just talked about in our Power Tip, which is go to your favorite search engine, type in “Optacon” and “site:freedomscientific.com.”  You’ll find a couple of owner’s manuals for Optacons, but also this training manual.  I don’t know if it’s everything; but I assume; if people find it to be incomplete, that you might be willing to help out.

RICHARD:  Sure.  And also there’s people who are on the Optacon users listserv on the Internet who are also capable.  They have those files, as well.

GLEN:  Ah.

RICHARD:  So they are available.  But I can be a resource for that.

GLEN:  How was your job search after you left Telesensory?  Was it an easy path onto your next one?  Or was it challenging?

RICHARD:  Well, first of all, when I was laid off at Telesensory, they did some really nice things for me.  They gave me a really wonderful, glowing letter of recommendation.  And I immediately started to go on job interviews.  And I went on about 30 of them, and I distributed about 70 résumés, and I didn’t get too many takers.  But I employed everything I had available.

But the job that I did get at Kittell, it was amazing how that worked.  So I had gone on two interviews in the morning, and this particular job interview for the job I actually got was on a Friday afternoon about 2:00 was the schedule.  And so I had a little bit of lunch, and then I showed up there about a quarter to two or 20 minutes to two.  And the guy that was interested in me was Rodney.  And he goes, “We don’t have any job openings here.”  And he said, “We don’t really need anybody.”  But he said, “My wife is a good friend of this headhunter that you’ve talked with.  She calls every so often and talks to me.”

And he says, “Just to appease my wife,” he says, “I’ll have her send somebody over once in a while, and I’ll interview them.”  He said, “I haven’t hired anybody that she’s sent over.”  But, he said, “It makes peace in my domestic life, and so I do that.”  But he said, “But we don’t have any openings.”  And he says, “We have no need for anybody, and it’s all that.”

And he said, “But,” he said, “she read me your résumé over the phone.”  And he said, “I was somewhat impressed.  But then she told me you were blind, totally blind.”  And he said, “I didn’t believe her.”  And he said, “So,” he said, “I only had her send you over here because I didn’t fricking believe it,” he said, “that a blind person could even get around town, let alone do anything in electronics.”  So he said, so first he says, “Why don’t you tell me how the hell you got here?”

And at that moment I looked at my watch, and I realized that if I go home now, by the time I got back home it’d be around 3:30, 4:00, and that’s not a good time to be talking to people in personnel, scheduling interviews.  I really couldn’t think of anything that I could be doing at home that would be valuable.  And so I thought to myself, well, what the hell?  I’m here, I might as well educate this blankety-blank, is what I really thought.  So I was not nervous anymore.  I mean, because he had already informed me there was no chance I was going to be hired or anything.  And so I totally was not nervous.  And so I said, okay, fine, I’ll educate this jackass.

And so I started telling him how I got there, what bus I took and this and that.  And then he wanted to know how I did various things, and I did my best to explain.  And then he pulled out some schematics to some of the stuff that they were building there and that they had designed and were selling.  And he had me look at some of the schematics.  And we talked for about an hour and a half or so.  And then people started needing his services for various things.  And he would leave, and he’d come back, and then we’d talk a little more.  Finally, it’s almost 5:00.  And I said, “Ron, I’m going.  I’ll see you later.”  I’d already packed up my briefcase, packed up my Optacon, and I was going to head out the door.

He said, “Hold on.”  He said, “Look.”  He said, “If you can do even a quarter of this that you say you can do,” he said, “I’ll make a position for you.”  And I said, “Really.”  And he said, “Yeah.  So just hang out here.”  So I hung out.  And by about 5:30, quarter to six, he’d made me an offer and opened up, you know, he created a position, just like he said.

But he said, “There’s one condition.”  He said, “Tomorrow,” you know, I had my auditory oscilloscope and some of the equipment that I had designed with the help of Smith-Kettlewell and all that to do my work.  And he said, “I want see how that stuff works.  Can I drive you and the equipment here tomorrow?”  It was a Saturday.  He said, “Can I drive you here, and can you demonstrate that?”  And I said, “Sure, no problem.”  He said, “Fine.”  He said, “Then you’ve got the position.  You’ve got the job.”  He said, “I’ll pick you up tomorrow morning.”  We started making arrangements.

And he said, “By the way, how are you getting home?”  And I said, “Well, I’m taking this bus, and I’m going to transfer to that.  Then I’m going to go this way and whatever.”  And he said, “Well, if you don’t mind riding on the back of a Harley,” he said, “I’ll give you a ride home.”  So that’s the guy who hired me, and that’s how I got hired at Kittell.

GLEN:  That’s a great story.  And this was the same company, right, where you subsequently became a one-man service department?

RICHARD:  Kittell was the name of the company, and they manufactured cable TV equipment, broadcast equipment, all that stuff for the industry.  Cable companies in those days were owned by a lot of individuals, and they were being swallowed up by companies that were buying these little cable concerns and consolidating and putting them together.  And what it resulted in is when they upgraded the cable facilities, we’d get huge, you know, two, three million, $4 million a month contracts.  And the company I worked for had been in business for about 30 years, but they started to really get used to those contracts.

And when that activity, that merger activity kind of took a breather for little while, the company had – they were overspent.  They’d gone beyond their, lived beyond their means.  And so things were taking a turn for the worse for them.  And they had a huge layoff.  And my boss comes to me after the layoff.  I was still there.  I was expecting to go with the rest.  And he said, “No, you’re still here,” he said, “but you are now the repair department.”  Like, what?  The repair department had a dozen employees in there, and a couple of administrative types that were running it.  And they said, “Yeah, you’re going to be the repair guy.  That’s it.  You’re it.”

And I thought they were setting me up to fail.  And maybe they were.  But so I ended up having to figure out how to handle all that.  And fortunately I had a lot of good friends who were coworkers, and people that worked in assembly and the test department.  And so I was able to secure with the company working with corporate to get them to – I could get their help and get them to put in some overtime hours.  And I started circulating, you know, I started having all kinds of people do little odd jobs and little, you know, contract work for the repair department.  I made it work that way.

And then I was on the phones all the time, and I was – that’s how I got into computers.  That was when I got my first PC because there was no way that I was going to be able to handle all this.  And I wanted them to help me by could you just get me a secretary, somebody that, you know, can take care of all this administration?  They said no, but if you want to use a computer, we’ll buy any access technology you want for your computer.  And so that’s how I got started.  That’s how I got it started with the PC was through that angle. 

GLEN:  So there are so many directions I want to go here.  Why do you think they picked you?  Was it like, oh, the blind guy will work cheap?  Or they believed that you really could handle it?  It just it seems to fly in the face of how most people deal with blind people.

RICHARD:  I would do anything I was asked.  And so I was asked a lot of times to do customer support stuff, to deal with customers on the phone and help solve their problems in the field.  You know, maybe they had a problem with a particular piece of equipment that wasn’t working as they thought it should or would or as was advertised.  And I would work out those issues with them and make sure they got the support they needed and whatever they needed to get those problems solved and to figure out exactly what they wanted.

And so I was doing a lot of work for the customer service and tech support folks in the department.  And then also I was called upon by marketing to do various things at various times.  And none of these jobs were part of my job description.  But I cleared it with my boss, and I went ahead and did those things.  Whatever anybody asked me to do, I attempted to do.  I tried to do it, a lot of times successfully, sometimes may not as successful. But because I was that kind of a person, I think that was one of the reasons why they did that.

And the other thing is I don’t think my boss wanted to lay me off.  I think he kind of liked me.  And so he said, well, all right.  If we’re going to let him go, we’re going to have to have a good reason to let him go.  So let’s give him this task, and he probably won’t be able to succeed.  But it’s better than letting him fall.  And so I think that also had something.  But I think it really was the fact that I already knew a lot of customers on a first-name basis.  And I was prepared and willing to do that kind of stuff.  And so it just seemed like a natural thing to them for me to just take over that side of it.

And the result of that actually was very positive for me because about four years after that happened, the company went under, went out of business.  And I wasn’t – I don’t think I was responsible for that.  But when it went out of business, all the customers, their previous customers, knew me.  And what happened was when they were going through bankruptcy they hired a couple of the people that were working at Kittell, a couple of gals to help with the liquidation.  And while those gals were there helping with the liquidation, they kept getting phone call after phone call from customers who had issues they needed to solve.  And one of the gals I had dated, and the other one knew me very well.  And there was like, “What can we do about this?”  “Oh, I don’t know, but let’s give them Richard Oehm’s phone number and see what happens.”  So anyway, they started giving out my phone number.

Meanwhile, I was out beating the pavement, going on job interviews, and you know how that goes when you’re a blind person.  You end up going on, I mean, I did, I went on hundreds of interviews before getting hired anywhere.  And so I was out beating the pavement for a few weeks.  And I’d come back home, and there’s like 30 or 40 messages on my answering machine.  And at some point, I’m not the brightest bulb on any string, but at some point it dawned on me, what in world am I doing looking for work when it’s right here?  And that’s what caused me to go into business full-time.  And that was back in like 1993, 1994.

GLEN:  And this was primarily analog equipment for cable providers?

RICHARD:  Exactly.  That was all that it was.  I was taking over all the Kittell products, you know, repairing, providing service.  Whatever these customers needed, that’s what we did.  We repaired things and did all kinds of other stuff.  And then I moved from Hayward to San Jose and bought a place in San Jose.  I wasn’t very fond of this town, but some of my coworkers at Kittell worked in this, I mean they lived in this area.  And I knew that they were very ambitious people and always anxious to earn a little extra income.  And I thought, well, you know what, if I’m going to do this business, I’m going to have to have resources available to me.  If it gets too busy and all that, I’m going to need some help.  And I knew that these people weren’t going to be happy about driving up 880 to Hayward or any other city to help out.  But if I was close by, they’d be happy to swing by after having dinner after working to help out for an hour or two if I needed them, if I could be close by to them.

So I bought a place here in San Jose just so I could be close to them.  And I figured, I’m going to have to find a way to make this work.  Little did I know that after I moved to San Jose, I met my wife, got married, and had the best chapter of my life ever for 26 years.  I had no idea all that was going to happen by moving here.  So ironically, the place I hated turned out to be the place that was the best part of my life.  What can I say?

GLEN:  Wow.

RICHARD:  And I’m still here.

GLEN:  Yeah.  It’s just so hard to know; right?  I would never have dreamed that in ‘85 when I finished at UCLA that 10 years later I would be working on JAWS and still working on it in 2022.  It just completely blows my mind.  There’s no way that mentally I would have gotten there.

RICHARD:  And I never thought I’d be associated with Telesensory and Optacons, except that I used it all the time, but for Bill Gerrey, the very guy that we talked about near the beginning of this.  And Bill Gerrey, back in 1996, 1997, when Telesensory went bankrupt, he called me, and he said, “Somebody needs to repair Optacons.”  And I’m like, yeah, so?  You know, and he says, “Can you repair my Optacon?”  And I said, “Yeah, if you need it.”  He said, “How much would you charge?”  I said, “Well, you’re a friend,” I said.  “You’ve got a problem, send me your Optacon.  I’ll take care of it.”

Well, damned if he didn’t send it to me.  I took care of it, sent it back to him.  And, you know, we were close.  But I said, “I don’t really have time for that,” because I was really busy, you know, working with Kittell stuff.  But the next thing that happens is I ended up getting calls from a gal that was going to San Jose State here, the University; and I got a call from another person, and they needed their Optacons repaired.  And they said, “Bill told us that you would take care of us.”  And that’s how I started doing the Optacon business.

GLEN:  What excites you in 2022?

RICHARD:  Actually, to be completely and total 100% honest with you, since my wife passed away in June of 2020, I’ve actually had a difficult time trying to get excited about things.  But I’ve been working on it.  I have a lot of good friends and a lot of good people in my life, and a wonderful family.  And I think what excites me now is being able to help people to continue to do the things they’ve done or be able to do something that they haven’t been able to do before.  That’s, you know, a lot of my business is around that now, and people are depending on me.

You know, if you have a purpose, that’s one of the most important, I think, components of life is to have a purpose.  And so whether I like it or not, and I’ll tell you what, there are many mornings when I wake up, and I’m trying to get up out of bed, I don’t really like having that purpose.  But that drives me forward, and that’s a wonderful thing.

GLEN:  Well, thank you, Richard.  I’m really glad we’ve finally had a chance to meet all these years after I first heard about you.

RICHARD:  Well, thank you.  And it was a joy and a pleasure to interview with you, as well.  And I’m sure I’ve talked more than I should, but that’s how it goes.

GLEN:  Well, that’s what you’re supposed to do when you’re the guest.

RICHARD:  Exactly.

Signing Off on FSCast 216

GLEN:  If Richard Oehm said something that causes you to want to correspond with him, his email address is Oehm, O E H M, elec as in electronics, @samobile.net:  oehmelec@samobile.net.  And if you want to get in touch with me, you can write to fscast@vispero.com, fscast@vispero.com.  It’s always great to hear from you, and I’ll do my best to get back to you in a timely fashion.

That does it for FSCast 216.  The next thing you’ll receive in this podcast feed will be around the middle of July, and that’ll be the archive of the June FSOpenLine.  And then we’ll be back a couple of weeks later with the next edition of FSCast.  I’m Glen Gordon.  Thanks for joining me.


Transcript by elaine@edigitaltranscription.com







edigitaltranscription.com  •  06/28/2022  •  edigitaltranscription.com