Thursday, July 16, 2009

Blindness was just a legal technicality

Samuel Genensky, who created solutions for the blind, would observe paintings one section at a time and then reassemble them mentally.

This is a great story.

Sam Genensky liked watching baseball, birds and women -- not necessarily in that order. So it might have come as a surprise to those who never met him that Mr. Genensky was legally blind.

A RAND Corp. mathematician who had been left almost sightless by an accident in infancy, Mr. Genensky developed a system for projecting magnified text on video screens that has helped millions of the partially sighted people around the world to read.

"The technology had a dramatic impact," says Mitch Pomerantz, president of the American Council of the Blind. "Up until then, people with low vision had no alternatives, except perhaps magnifying glasses, and they were clunky."

At RAND in Santa Monica, Calif., he programmed early computers, and modeled fluid dynamics and spontaneous combustion. But he continued to be dogged by his limited vision that made reading into a neck-craning chore. He described the way he read as "nosing."

Mr. Genensky declined to patent the invention to encourage other companies to develop and manufacture video magnification systems. He said he could read 130 words a minute with his system, slow for a sighted adult, but a near-miracle for many of the legally blind.

That is one of the best parts: he refused to patent the invention for the good of others.

As a result of cataract surgery in the early 1990s, Mr. Genensky's vision improved dramatically for a time, and he was stunned to realize that his wife was a redhead, not a brunette, as he'd thought. But the improvement was temporary, and in recent years he'd had to dust off his Braille-reading skills.

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