FSCast #225

January,  2023

GLEN GORDON:  On FSCast 225, we celebrate Braille Literacy Month with two guests for whom braille plays a pivotal role.  Bill McCann, founder of Dancing Dots, has been helping blind musicians with all aspects of music creation for the past 32 years.  And Campbell Rutherford, a former Freedom Scientific Student of the Month, is now studying applied mathematics at Harvard.

Hello, everybody.  Glen Gordon welcoming you to our first podcast for 2023.  With New Year’s come New Year’s Resolutions, and sometimes rethinking how we do things that we’ve been doing in a certain way for so long that we’ve forgotten there might be other approaches.  This was driven home to me in the most unusual of ways last week.  A couple of years ago my wife Jan and I bought a new mattress.  And we were told that if we wanted the mattress to last, we really needed to rotate it every six weeks with the head moving to where the foot was and the foot moving to where the head was.

So the way we did it was Jan would put her foot on the frame, and that held the frame, which is on wheels, in place, keeping it from moving, and I could then turn the mattress.  But it’s a heavy mattress, and it was very awkward to turn because there were no handles on the sides.  So it took a while.

When it came to doing it last week, it suddenly hit me that it would be much easier to turn the whole bed.  The same goal is accomplished.  The head and the foot are reversed, but it’s much easier because the bed was on wheels.  It just never occurred to me before.  And I do wonder if you also have situations when it comes to screen reading or magnification, that you’ve just done them in a particular way for so long that you either have forgotten or you haven’t learned some of the techniques for doing those things more efficiently.

So in this new year I gently give you encouragement to go to freedomscientific.com/training and have a gander at all the training resources we have available.  And we try to meet you where you are.  So if you want to watch some webinars, we have those.  If you want to read documentation in bite-size chunks, we have those, as well.  Always to help you up your game when it comes to using JAWS, ZoomText, or Fusion.  Freedomscientific.com/training, all of these things available on demand.

January Power Tip

GLEN:  And speaking of on-demand, I’ve made speech-on-demand this month’s Power Tip because it works great in conjunction with braille.  With speech-on-demand turned on, JAWS only speaks when you issue commands that do speaking and nothing else, things like INSERT+UP ARROW to save the current line, or INSERT+TAB to speak the control that has focus.  Other than that, when you’re arrowing around or doing other things, JAWS remains completely silent.  So one reason that you might want to use that is you’re in a meeting, and you don’t want to be interrupted by JAWS.  But if you’re a braille user, the other reason is you may be navigating with a braille display and then editing text, maybe hitting an arrow key, but you’re going to be looking at the braille display anyway.  And so listening to speech at that point is just distracting.

So you toggle speech-on-demand on by pressing JAWS KEY+SPACE followed by S, and it’ll remain on until you do JAWS KEY+SPACE followed by S again, in which case it’ll toggle off.  There are a couple of speech-on-demand options that you might want to set.  You can explore those by going into Settings Center with JAWS KEY+6 on the number row and searching for speech-on-demand.

If you have a Power Tip, a little-known feature about one of our products, or something that you find particularly useful that you think a lot of other people don’t know about, you can send it in.  If we use it as our Power Tip, you’ll get a year added onto your JAWS, ZoomText, or Fusion license.  Write to us at fscast@vispero.com.

Interview with Bill McCann

GLEN:  [Trumpet music]  Those are the trumpet stylings of Bill McCann, someone who’s played music all of his life, and who you might know about as the founder and president of Dancing Dots.  Back in the late 1980s Bill had this idea that computers could actually create braille music on the printed page, and he made that a reality.  But he’s done so much more in the 32-plus years that Dancing Dots has been around, essentially helping people with all aspects of music production.  Interestingly, Bill was last on the podcast six years ago this month.  So it’s high time we have him back.  And this being Braille Literacy Month, we’re going to talk about being musically literate, being able to read and write braille music.  Bill, welcome.

BILL MCCANN:  Thank you, Glen.  Great to be here and great to chat with you guys and to be addressing this FSCast audience, of which I’ve been a member for quite a while myself.

GLEN:  Well, thank you.  You’re probably 30-plus years now into this dream of yours of creating software and other technology tools for blind folks.  Can you think back to when you began and what you hoped to accomplish versus what you have accomplished 30 years later?

BILL:  This dream that you refer to, and it certainly was a dream, was a dream that really began back in college, or maybe even earlier.  I remember my mom giving me sheet music and literally walking up to the corner mailbox and sending it off to some wonderful transcriber somewhere.  And then you never knew when it was going to come back.  Eventually it would come back, and I’d get the braille music.  But sometimes it was weeks or months.  And in some cases meantime the concert was over, the competition was over, the lesson had passed, or whatever it was.

That’s all I wanted when I started was let’s do this.  Let’s get to work instead of weeks or month, maybe this could happen in hours or even minutes.  And that’s where we are, actually, which is pretty fun to say.  But that journey started with that, and it took a lot of turns, and had me meet up with a lot of interesting, fascinating, gifted people who really made it all happen.  I started the fire, I guess you could say, but then I met up with my business partner, Albert Milani, and Albert was just a guy I would see at Christmas or holidays in the family because he was dating my wife’s sister, and the next thing you know they were married.  And I still didn’t know anything about Albert.

And I sat down at Christmas one year, and I said, well, I just applied to get some funding from the U.S. Department of Education, and I’m trying to make some music software, and I have to learn this programming language called C.  And Albert says, oh, I’ve been using that for years.  I knew he was an engineer, but I didn’t – I said, “You what?”  So anyway, it’s interesting how you find the right people as you go along.  And I certainly found the right guy with Albert because he was my consultant for that grant, and then I was able to hire him, and he got my simple prototype and made it into a product with menus and dialogs and the whole deal.

So in the beginning, that’s what we had.  Now, as we got to know you and JAWS and Freedom Scientific, and we got to know more about synthetic speech, and I was blessed to know a wonderful guy who I know you know, David Pinto.  And to be historically accurate, we were not the first people to make a musical score talk.  David did that with his scripts for Sibelius.  But for a lot of technical and business reasons he decided not to continue with that product.  But our own kind of version of Sibelius is a program called Lime, and we made some scripts to make JAWS make Lime talk.

So in Lime you see the score on the screen.  You see, okay, the first note is second line G, sitting there on the staff, and it’s in print.  And when the cursor goes over it, we had it say something like G4 half, which would tell you the pitch is G; it’s in the fourth octave; it’s a half note.  And as that’s happening, you hear the pitch of the note sound.  So we have synchronized the presentation of print, braille, speech, and the musical tone.  So what you’re about to hear is one example of how it might work and how it does work.  I have a piece...


BILL:  ...loaded here in Lime.

JAWS VOICE:  Demo one dot...

BILL:  I called it Demo One, but it’s a tune you may know, “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.”  So what I want to show you first of all is if I press the RIGHT ARROW key...


BILL:  Actually I have it set to a mode where it plays the pitch and only says the lyrics.  Well, let’s do that first.

JAWS VOICE:  For it’s one, two, three strike you’re out at the old ball game.

BILL:  Or we can go back to that measure.


BILL:  And I will change the verbosity.

JAWS VOICE:  Edit with P, play.  Set Lime lyrics and basic note info radio button checked.  Normal Lime allowed verbosity radio button checked.

BILL:  Okay.

JAWS VOICE:  Three of three ENTER.  Demo One.lim:

BILL:  So I can find out where I am.

JAWS VOICE:  Bar 24 beat one.

BILL:  I’m on beat one of bar 24.  And if I hit the NUMPAD 5, I get a report on everything that’s happening there in the print score, which is onscreen.  And the braille is on my braille display.

JAWS VOICE:  Treble clef.  No sharps or flats.  C major.  Quarter rest.

BILL:  So there’s a quarter rest happening here.  And since we’re at the start of the print line, we are told about the treble clef sign and the fact that we’re in the key of C with no sharps or flats.  Now I’ll move ahead.

JAWS VOICE:  Beat two, for.  I4 quarter.

BILL:  So on beat two it said the word “for.”  That’s what you’re going to sing.  And then it said I4.  Unfortunately, this Microsoft synthesizer says A4 like I4.  Have to fix that somehow.  The next note.

JAWS VOICE:  Beat3, it’s.

BILL:  It’s, for it’s.

JAWS VOICE:  B4 quarter.

BILL:  And that’s on B4 quarter, meaning the pitch is B.  It’s in the fourth octave.  It’s a quarter note.  The next note for it’s one.  You’re going to sing the word “one,” as in “for it’s one, two, three strikes you’re out.”

JAWS VOICE:  Bar 25 beat one.  One.  Bar 26 beat one.  Two.  C5 half dotted.

BILL:  Okay.  So that’s on C5.  We’re going to move back a couple measures.

JAWS VOICE:  Bar 24 beat one.  treb

BILL:  Now we’re going to use what’s called the “hear option” to play it back in tempo.  And we can vary the tempo as we like, slower or faster.  I won’t do that.  I’ll just play it back at the assigned tempo.  And what’s happening is you see the print music tracking, and the braille is also tracking on my braille display.  And this again is all thanks to JAWS scripting, integrating what JAWS can do best with what we can do best with Lime and our GOODFEEL braille music translator running in the background.

GLEN:  That’s an example of a single note of a single instrument.  How does it work when you have, you know, multiple fingers of multiple hands on the piano or multiple instruments all combined into the same score?

BILL:  Well, let’s say you have a piece, and one of our examples is a simple version of “My Country ‘Tis of Thee.”  And it’s set basically like a four-part harmony with soprano, alto, tenor, and bass.  And basically when you’re in our software, in Lime, it basically presents the score as a table.  So if you’re on the soprano line, you’re moving left to right along a row, and it happens to be a row of notes.  Now, if the soprano is playing or singing, if you will, say an F, the software can play that note for you as the current note, or there are keystrokes to say, hey, while I’m playing that F, am I supposed to be playing anything else with my right hand?  And so there’s a keystroke to interrogate that.  And, oh, wow, I just heard two notes.  I heard the F, and I heard the C below it.  Ah.  I’m supposed to play two notes with my right hand at that point.

And then there’s another keystroke to say, while I’m playing that F, and now I know I’m playing that C, what else is happening in the bass, in the left hand?  And so you press that keystroke, and you hear, oh, wow.  So under that F and C I hear A and F.  And that’s an F major triad.  And so when you press that keystroke you hear the F and the C sound together, you feel the braille, and you move up and down, left and right, and kind of you can go through and see, okay, all this stuff is happening at the same time.

GLEN:  How good is the interplay between GOODFEEL, Lime, and other software in terms of getting scores in and getting scores out so that you as a blind person are not isolated in your own little world.

BILL:  It’s getting better.  And one of the things that’s made it way better is a technology called MusicXML.  And MusicXML is an example of one of those kind of electronic curb cuts, you know, that we heard about, where something was developed for the mainstream to benefit the mainstream user that just happens to be awesome for us.  And MusicXML is one of those things because before MusicXML, somebody had to pretty much rekey everything into another application.  With MusicXML, you go into your Finale, you save, you know, symphony dot, well, it becomes symphony.xml.  You click on an export button to become symphony.xml.

Then in our case we run Lime.  We go to File Menu Import MusicXML, point to that symphony.xml, hit ENTER, and bang.  All of a sudden we have an accessible score to your symphony.  Nobody had to scan anything, nobody had to sit down with a Perkins Brailler, nobody had to do anything.  It’s the same information.  It’s there.  And so all of the tools we described earlier become available.  You can use the Talking Braille Score feature.  And ultimately you can launch GOODFEEL from Lime, and GOODFEEL makes the entire thing into a braille score that you can take to rehearsal or study for your music theory homework.

On the other end of it, Lime allows me to go to the file menu and instead of like in Word where you make a new document, I make a new music document or a new piece of music.  On the screen it’s empty staves, a collection of empty five-line staffs or staves.  And you can put notes on them.  And it’s all accessible.  So you can compose and arrange the music.  You can play it back in different tempos.  You can get it to where you like it.  And, yeah, you can launch GOODFEEL and make a braille score, but you can just do the good old CTRL+P and print it out on your ink printer and hand it to your friend to put on their music stand, your sighted friend.  Or you can even CTRL+P and send it to a PDF format and email that to your teacher or to anybody.

GLEN:  And how perfinicky is it?  In other words, if you as a blind person think that the score reads properly and sounds correct, is the printout going to be good?  Or do you need to get someone’s eyes to validate for you?

BILL:  Excellent question.  And the answer is most of the time it’s fine.  But I always tell people, if this is for a grade, or if this is a professional situation where you are putting this in front of musicians and asking them to sight-read, it is a good idea to show it to someone you trust because there are times where the notes may be too crowded together left to right, or the staves may be too close together top to bottom.  And we’re trying to build in some things that automate this idea of, you know, making it – trying to guarantee that it’s going to look, in most cases, it’s going to look okay.  But we have a lot more work to do with that.

GLEN:  There are so many directions I want to go off in, and I think the first one is what are the best resources for someone who wants to learn braille music?  Because if you’re taking a music course in college, no professor is going to teach you braille music.  That’s going to be an extracurricular activity.

BILL:  That’s for sure.  That is for darn tootin’.  Well, we actually wrote a little book, my friend Richard Taesch and I wrote a book called “Who’s Afraid of Braille Music?” that you can learn some basic braille music from.  But our goal in writing it was more to kind of dispel some of the myths about braille music, that it’s super hard, that you have to be a rocket scientist to understand it, and we wrote the book not just for sighted people, but for blind people, because unfortunately a lot of blind people I’ve met said, you know, I tried to learn it back in fourth grade, and I just couldn’t do it.  And I’ve realized why, because people don’t know how to teach it, for the most part.

Again, my friend Richard Taesch has written an entire series called “An Introduction to Music for the Blind Student.”  If you look at dancingdots.com, you can read more about it.  But it’s a very detailed curriculum that’s really based on music theory and on a system of singing called solfege, or solfeggio, where C becomes do, and D becomes re, and E becomes mi, going back to the famous song from “The Sound of Music.”  But that song was based on a real system that’s used by musicians all over the world that’s called solfeggio.  And I’m happy to say it’s helped a lot of people to learn braille music.

Braille music was an unintended casualty of mainstreaming.  You know, 50 years ago, if you wanted an education for your blind child, they went to the state school for the blind.  When it was  math class, they got their book in braille.  When it was history class they got their book in braille.  And when it was music class time, they got their music in braille.  And the teacher knew what all that stuff meant and could teach it to you.  When students started going to their local schools, which personally I think is generally a net plus, but unintended consequence was, well, the teachers of the visually impaired, they’re not musicians, typically.  And they may have heard there’s a system for music in braille, but they never studied it.  And the music educator was totally unprepared for a blind kid or anybody with any kind of disability showing up for band or orchestra.  So they don’t know how to teach it.  And so a lot of times nobody’s learning it until they express a vocational calling.

And as my buddy Marcus Roberts says, “Why can’t blind kids just be average?  You know?  Why do have to get the super gifted kids who want to learn and go to college, suddenly we’re teaching them braille music?  That’s great.  But we should have been teaching them braille music right from the get-go.”  And it’s not happening.  So I don’t know how to change that, but I’d like to try.  In fact, I’d really like to be the braille music czar of America, and I could see to it that any kid in this country who wants to learn braille music can.

And any teacher who has a kid who wants to be in the band, orchestra, or chorus, will have the tools to teach it, and teach it well, and not say, hey, would you like to learn braille music?  No, it’s like, you’re in the band.  We love it.  You’re part of the group.  We’re going to teach you braille music.  And you’re going to be like everyone else who’s sitting beside you who can see the print music.  We’re teaching them to read it, too.  Some of them are going to pay attention and learn it.  Some of them aren’t.

GLEN:  If I’m a parent, I have a kid who seems like they might be musically gifted, where do I go?  It doesn’t feel like there’s any place to go for one-stop shopping to figure out everything there is to know about blindness and music and what the tools are that are available.

BILL:  A good starting place is look at a website called menvi.org, M E N V I dot O R G, Music Education Network for the Visually Impaired.  And Dancing Dots sponsors MENVI.  But it’s not just about our software.  In fact, we talk about software once in a while, but a lot of the questions are from parents.  Hey, my kid wants to be in the marching band.  Is this doable?  Does anybody – what have you guys done?  Anybody else done this?  And other people write in to the listserv and say this is what we did, and this is what we did.

The other one is, as you know, there’s something called an IEP, an Individual Education Plan that by law has to be written up for every student in the country who has a disability.  And it’s not just with music.  If it’s something that you want your kid to learn in science or math or whatever it is, it really is good to get it documented and get a plan in place, and it will happen.

GLEN:  But you have to know what’s possible.

BILL:  Exactly.  And sometimes you don’t know what you don’t know.  The classic example; right?

GLEN:  Yeah.

BILL:  But, I mean, I had a parent who was so frustrated with his school district because they weren’t teaching his son braille music.  And he went to the IEP meeting and presented the idea of him learning braille music.  And the people at the meeting said, well, that’s a good idea and everything.  But since he has perfect pitch and a great memory, why don’t we just have someone make a really good recording of his band parts, and he can study them, and that’s the way we’ll accommodate him.

And the parents said, “I will accept that solution under one condition.”  And they said, “What’s that?”  “That you do that for everyone in the band, and you don’t give anybody any sheet music.”  And of course you could have heard a pin drop.  And he made a wonderful point.  But he kind of voted with his feet because a year later they were home schooling their son.

And let me say this, too, to people who have musical kids.  Take them out to hear real people playing music together.  That’s something that I didn’t get to hear until I was 14.  My parents played the radio.  And when I was 14 a neighbor kid called me and said, “My mom’s making me go to hear this thing called ‘The Messiah.’  Would you go with me?”  And I was like, “I’m not doing anything.  I’ll go.”  I didn’t even know what that was.  I sat down, there was a little chamber orchestra, it was a good chorus with some good soloists, and I was – I was like George Gershwin, who wrote that song, you know, “How Long Has This Been Going On?”

GLEN:  Yeah.

BILL:  I was like, whoa.  What’s this?  So, yeah.  Along with all the practical stuff with the IEP and going to MENVI.org, really get your kid out there and listening.  Recordings are great.  I’m not saying don’t listen to recordings.  But the best thing is to go and hear people making music together.

GLEN:  If you are a blind musician, and you’re part of an orchestra, how does the conductor conduct you?

BILL:  Wow.  I love talking to you, Glen, because you’ve either done your homework or you just naturally think about – you’re a problem solver, and this is a big problem.  For me, at least, in my experience it’s a communication challenge, and it’s a marketing issue.  I had a conductor in college, and he expressed the same concern.  And I told him some things like, well, you know, what I do is I listen to everyone around me.  And when you raise your hand to give the downbeat, I’m kind of ready, and I hear them breathe in, and I know it’s time to play.  And that would work for me.  I also, you know, in college and high school you rehearse a lot, and you kind of get to know.  And I would memorize the piece.

And this was my college conductor.  I wanted to be in the wind ensemble.  And he said, you know, we have a really good jazz program here.  I said, yeah, I know, I’m going to do that, I want to do that, but I really want to play this kind of music.  And he said, “Well, then, you know, I don’t know how you’re going to follow me.”  And I said, “Well, unless we try it, we’ll never know.”  And so he said okay.  And we tried it.  And it went, from my perspective, it went really well.  But he never brought the subject up again.  But then I got an A for the course.  So I guess, well, okay, I guess it was good.

And a couple years later I met up with a kid who I had known from my high school band festival days.  And he said, “Oh, you’re the guy I’ve been hearing about.”  And I said, “What do you mean?”  He said, “Well, our conductor” – he’s the same guy that conducted our group, did something with them.  He said, “He’s always telling us when we come in at the wrong time, ‘I got a blind guy over there at the other University, he never misses an entrance, and you guys are blowing it.’”  So it was a very left-handed compliment, but I accepted it.  It was really fun to hear that.

GLEN:  But it sounds like there’s no...

BILL:  But it’s a problem.

GLEN:  But it sounds like there’s no direct way.

BILL:  There’s no direct way right now.  But the bottom line is, for anyone who’s listening who is a conductor, who is worried about it, I really have found that if you’re perceptive enough to play music as a blind person, you’re going to find a way to do it.  And there were cases, in rehearsal mainly, where if I felt like I’m not sure, I just didn’t come in because I wasn’t the soloist.  There were three or four other trumpet players.  So nobody was going to miss me for a couple beats.  But that was rare.  I think with preparation and rehearsal, it can be done.

GLEN:  There’s so much more we could talk about.  But this is a podcast with a definite beginning and an end.  And we’re nearing the end.  So I want to thank you for being with us, but also give you the opportunity to tell folks how to get in touch.

BILL:  Take a look at dancingdots.com.  There is a contact form there.  I will get a copy of that.  And you can give us a call, if you like.  It’s 610-783-6692.  All that contact info is at dancingdots.com, but we’d love to hear from you.  I’ve been doing this now for over 30 years.  We first released GOODFEEL in 1997.  I don’t know if it’s a sign of how bad I am at marketing or how much noise there is out there in this big world, but I still meet people who call or meet us at conferences and say, “I had no idea you guys existed.  Boy, this would have come in very handy a few years ago.”  So I appreciate the time to talk to you and kind of, well, just wide-ranging area and kind of zoom out at the whole picture.  But I also appreciate it because it’s a way for us to kind of reach people who maybe didn’t even know this stuff was out there.

GLEN:  Bill, thank you very much.

BILL:  It’s my pleasure.  I really enjoyed the conversation, sincerely.

Interview with Campbell Rutherford

GLEN:  [Piano music]  That is the music of Campbell Rutherford.  She was our Student of the Month back in February of 2021.  And at that time she was underage so we could not reveal her true last name.  But it is Rutherford, and she is our guest for the next little while on FSCast.  And although music is not her specialty in college, she’s at Harvard starting this year, it is something that she spends much of her time doing.  So one of the many topics we’ll be discussing here on FSCast.  Campbell, welcome.

CAMPBELL RUTHERFORD:  Thank you so much for having me.  I’m very excited to be here.

GLEN:  One of the things I discovered when researching you is that the eye condition that led to your blindness also is associated with perfect pitch in like 70% of the blind people?  Is that true?

CAMPBELL:  It seems to be.  So several years ago I think there was a sort of informal poll that was taken at one of the conferences that was specific to my eye condition.  And it was found that about 70% of people with my eye condition have perfect pitch.  And I don’t really know if anyone knows why, whether it’s anything to do with that specific set of gene mutations, or if it’s just a coincidence, or what. 

GLEN:  And what is the condition?

CAMPBELL:  Leber’s congenital amaurosis, or LCA.  And my gene type is one of the stable versions.  So I was born with very little vision, but it’s not really supposed to change.

GLEN:  And what does that functionally mean?

CAMPBELL:  For most intents and purposes, I consider myself totally blind, meaning that I use braille, a screen reader, and a cane to accomplish most things.  I do have a little bit of residual vision that allows me to see crosswalks when I’m traveling independently, or to distinguish between black and white keys on the piano, as long as the lights aren’t too bright.  But I am very photophobic.  And so I do – I am often the blind person wearing sunglasses indoors.  And I often wear them during piano performances because spotlights are quite brutal to my eyes.

GLEN:  I’m actually really jealous about you being able to see crosswalks because that’s always been my problem crossing streets is going straight.

CAMPBELL:  Yes, that has been very helpful to me.  And I realize it when I come to a road that has like a very faded crosswalk, especially if it’s a really bright sunny day, and I can barely see anything.  And then I start veering, and I’m like, oh.  I use that vision a lot more than I realized I did.

GLEN:  I know that home schooling played a big part in your education.  But did you start out going to public schools?

CAMPBELL:  So I went to a private Montessori School from preschool through kindergarten, which was a great thing for me because everything was hands-on.  We can perhaps discuss that a little later.  And then I went to a public school for first through fourth grade.  And then the teacher of the visually impaired, or TVI, with whom I was working, she was actually an outreach TVI from Tennessee School for the Blind.  She got a more permanent position at the School for the Blind.  And so I wasn’t going to have a TVI in the classroom.  And so that’s when my mom said, okay, well, we’ll try home schooling for a year and see how it goes.  Well, that year turned into the rest of my education because we loved it when we started it.  So that’s how that transition occurred.

GLEN:  And it sounds like hands-on has really been valuable to you throughout your life.  Will you talk a little about that?

CAMPBELL:  Sure.  So I think it first became evident at the Montessori School because for those who might not be familiar with the Montessori Method, the idea is for the students to learn through play and through hands-on lessons.  And so the things that I chiefly remember are the lessons that related to mathematics.  So we had this basket of three-dimensional figures called the “geometric solids,” or “geometric salads,” as I called them when I was little because I didn’t know what solids were.

And then there were also lessons regarding, you know, just arithmetic that had us learning how to carry and borrow using beads for mathematics.  And we, through using those beads, we were able to cover concepts like square roots and variables.  And of course we didn’t know what we were doing.  We didn’t know that all of those things would become relevant to, you know, later mathematics.  But I think it was crucial in my foundation in that subject because those lessons sort of cemented the idea that numbers represent quantities, like actual real-world things.  And they aren’t just these abstract ideas.

And hands-on models did not cease to be important, especially when I was learning about graphing in Algebra I.  I remember specifically because I just couldn’t understand how an equation would relate to a graph.  And my dad is also a very mathematical person.  And so he was working with me, and his idea was to get this cookie sheet that looked like a grid, and he tied some wire around it to make the X and Y axes.  And then he had some little round magnets that we used as points, and then some metal rods that we used as the lines that we were graphing.  And so then I understood how an equation was related and represented by a graph.

And of course as the graphs got more complicated, I couldn’t quite model them in a hands-on way.  I used Desmos instead.  But because I had that hands-on foundation, I could interpret what Desmos was telling me when it would give me audio traces of graphs.  And I could interpret tactile graphics and even get to the point where, if I saw an equation, I could sometimes get a general idea of what the graph might look like.

GLEN:  For your early years of school, how much technology actually was in the mix?

CAMPBELL:  Pretty much just my iPad.  And even then in school I really didn’t use that much technology because there was no one trained to use it.  My dad actually was the one who taught me to use voiceover originally on my iPad.  And so I use that at home.  But I didn’t learn about Bookshare until around fourth grade, and then I started using it with a school iPod that they had.  I know that JAWS was provided to my school district when I was in third grade.  But as I said, there was no one who knew how to teach it.  So I didn’t know how to turn on, even turn on a computer until the end of eighth grade, I would say.  And so finally I did get some assistive technology training.

And then I started working with TechVision, the company with whom Professor Betsey works, Betsey Doane, who you interviewed a while back.  And then I learned how to present all of my academic work on the computer.  But I did have to take an extra senior year to catch up on technology skills a little bit because I had received so little training when I was younger.  And I found out, especially after I began working as an intern with TechVision and had some of my own students, there were many who were in the place that I had been.

GLEN:  I wanted to talk a little bit about braille.  And in particular, math in braille because I remember, it was years ago, but I do remember working math problems in braille, and I found it very convenient to do math on a Perkins, where I could feel multiple lines of text at the same time.  Is that true for you, as well?  Or are you able to do a lot of work with a single-line display?

CAMPBELL:  For a long time I definitely preferred using the Perkins to do multiple lines at a time.  And then I would go back and translate whatever I had typed on the Perkins using LaTeX and MathType, and then later on using the Braille Math Editor, which Freedom Scientific released in 2021.  But then I figured out that this was taking a lot of time.  So I started trying to just use the Braille Math Editor which allowed me to type everything in Nemeth, the braille math code.  And then if I hit ENTER, my single line of mathematics would be entered into my Word document and would appear in Nemeth and in print.

And so now I primarily use the Braille Math Editor, and I can use one line at a time.  However, if there’s a particularly grueling problem, I will still use the Perkins Brailler to write it out first and sort of sometimes even just to jot down numbers so that I don’t have to remember them.  So I always have my braille writer with me when I’m doing homework, and I always take it with me to exams because I do usually need it for something. 

GLEN:  What do you find the advantages of hard copy braille books versus digital braille books versus speech?  How do those all three fit?

CAMPBELL:  Hard copy braille books are very nice when you have a lot of tactile graphics.  So that’s why I primarily use them in math and science.  However, digital braille books are of course much more portable.  I think my geometry textbook, which was a hard copy braille book, was 110 volumes.  And fortunately we have a detached garage where we could store all of those except the ones that I was using at the time.  But with the digital braille book I just had it on my Focus 40 and could access it whenever.

And then what I think is even better than a digital braille book is if you can have an accessible book on your computer, either in Microsoft Word format or HTML, so that you can read the textual parts with speech, with JAWS, because you can – I can listen to JAWS a whole lot more quickly than I can read braille.  And then when I come upon anything technical I’ll use my braille display, which is connected to my computer.  So I do sort of a hybrid of speech and braille most of the time.

And now what my assistive technology person at school has started doing is linking Desmos graphs in my math documents.  So I would have Desmos graphs and alt-text and equations, and then whatever information was in the document.  And I could access that all on my computer.  So that’s my preferred way of doing things.  And I think that’s the most efficient way.

GLEN:  Have you found that braille is useful when doing presentations?

CAMPBELL:  Yes, I have.  Especially when doing foreign language presentations, as I found in my Spanish class last semester.  I just can’t listen to JAWS jabber in my ear and talk at the same time.  Maybe other people can, but I can’t.  It just distracts me.  So I usually have my speech-on-demand, and I sort of glance at my braille display or just look over it briefly and see what’s coming next.  And then I can either read directly what I’ve written, or I have my notes, and I can just speak based on my notes.

I’ve also found it useful when taking notes in class for that same reason.  I don’t like listening to JAWS at the same time as I’m trying to listen to my professors.  And so I can either type on my braille display or type on my QWERTY keyboard.  And if I’ve misspelled a word or something, I can see that on my braille display and determine whether it’s something I need to fix right now or come back and do later.  So, yes.  I find it helpful in presentations, and I find it helpful when taking notes, as well.

GLEN:  When you’re being homeschooled, the education is likely great if you have smart, intelligent parents.  But maybe the social situation isn’t so good because you’re not thrown together with a bunch of people where some of them might actually become friends.

CAMPBELL:  I actually think the social situation through homeschooling and extracurriculars that I did was much better than public school because in public school you’re sort of trapped with people almost exactly your age and from around the same area as you all the time.  And so you can become friends by proximity.  But I found that my public school friendships did  not last when I started home schooling.  The friendships that did last were those that I made through summer camps, through piano.

And because I had the freedom to choose my own friends and to find them in various places, I have friends who are older than me.  I have friends who are younger than me.  I have some who are my age.  I have people who are decades older than me that I would consider my friends because I’m not afraid to talk to adults.  And I noticed when I got to Harvard sometimes my classmates would talk about upperclassmen, and they would be like, these upperclassmen are so intimidating.  And I’m thinking, why?  They’re only a couple years older than you.  And, I mean, maybe they have more experience than you do, but that’s all the more reason to talk to them.

GLEN:  Yeah.

CAMPBELL:  So, and in general, many of the home schoolers that I’ve met are much more socially and emotionally mature than a lot of public schoolers that I’ve met.  And that maybe a somewhat controversial thing to say.  But it has been true in my experience.

GLEN:  And what about mix of sighted versus blind?

CAMPBELL:  So I think most of my friends that I made in high school were blind.  There were a few who were sighted.  One who comes to mind is my piano duo partner.  We do two-piano repertoire together.  So that’s been a lot of fun.  But when I got to Harvard, I think I did make a lot of sighted friends there.  And there are other blind people there with whom I’m friends, as well.  But I’d say the majority of my friends are sighted there.

Everyone is a bit of an outlier in some way.  Blindness doesn’t necessarily feel relevant all the time at Harvard, which is very nice.  I notice this especially when we’re doing group work, like in my math class.  It allows me to feel like I can contribute to the conversation, and I can request help from other students without feeling as if they’re going to think that, I don’t know, I can’t do something because I’m blind.  Which I think is often what I thought when I was in public school and then later on any time I would need help.

GLEN:  Yeah.  And part of it may be that you are much more accomplished now than you were then.  So if you’re deficient in one area, you have more than compensated in another area.  So you’re giving and you’re taking.  You’re not just taking.

CAMPBELL:  Perhaps so.  I think that definitely helps in mathematics because I actually went back and started at the beginning with calculus at Harvard because I know that they do a slightly different approach than I had in high school.  And so a lot of it I was familiar with, and I could help other people.  But some of it, some of the approaches that were used I wasn’t familiar with.  Or there were topics that were covered that we didn’t cover in high school.  And so I give a little and take a little; and I think, like you said, I can compensate for, you know, when I need help.

GLEN:  You know, the small things are always the ones that tripped me up and continue to trip me up.  And one of them is how do you as a blind person happily make it through a cafeteria-style eating environment. 

CAMPBELL:  Yeah, that was a concern for me, as well, because I really can’t think of a good way to do it without assistance.  So one of my accommodations is to have someone from the dining hall walk through with me and help me get everything.  And that’s what the other blind people there do, as well.  And at first it took a little bit of swallowing my pride to do it because sometimes it’s difficult for me to request help in those kinds of situations, when it’s things that I can do myself at home, but not in other places.

But it ended up working out really well because I think the dining hall staff tend to sort of adopt the blind students and make sure that we’re eating healthy and check in on us, ask us how our days are going and all of that kind of thing.  So I’d say one of my favorite people that I’ve met at Harvard is one of the ladies who’s helped me through the dining hall.

GLEN:  Very cool.  We started out with a little snippet of you playing the piano.  What role has music played in your life?

CAMPBELL:  I always say that music is both an intellectual stimulant and a way for me to remain grounded, I think, because it allows me to dive into something that’s not related to school or anything, but that I can fully immerse myself in and, you know, produce good work.  I tend to carry a lot of tension just I think as a personality thing.  So it sort of provides an outlet for me to release that tension.  And I didn’t quite anticipate this, but it has been a bonding point between myself and pretty much all of my professors thus far at Harvard.

GLEN:  Really.

CAMPBELL:  Yes.  Which was shocking to me.  I found that one of them is a classical pianist himself.  And then the others don’t necessarily play themselves, but they have a great appreciation for classical music.  And I of course am always excited when I find other classical music nerds.  So I found that to be a point of connection between my professors and many other students, as well.  So I have one friend at Harvard with whom I always go to orchestra performances because the Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra is incredible.

But yes, music has played a huge role in my life.  I considered for a while the possibility of majoring in music.  But I eventually decided not to because I didn’t want it to become my job.  My mom owned a dance studio.  Dance is sort of her outlet.  And it became, you know, a business.  And so it sort of sucked the joy out of it for her.  And not until she sold her studio and just taught dance to the cast of our local high school senior musical did she sort of find that joy again.  And so I didn’t want that to happen to me.

GLEN:  Well, Campbell, thank you very much for being with me.  This was fun.

CAMPBELL:  Thank you so much for having me.  I really enjoyed talking.

Signing Off on FSCast 225

GLEN:  That pretty much does it for FSCast 225.  If you have ideas, thoughts, questions, just want to say hi, it’s always great to hear from you.  Write to me at fscast@vispero.com, fscast@vispero.com.  I’m Glen Gordon.  Thanks for listening.  We’ll see you in February.


Transcript by elaine@edigitaltranscription.com






edigitaltranscription.com  •  01/23/2023  •  edigitaltranscription.com