Ever since its founding on January 23, 1858, APH has been showing the country – and the world – what can be achieved by people with vision loss, by providing them with the resources they need to excel. Ken Perry, a software engineer who has worked at APH since 2008, is one of the employees who are blind/ low vision and play a significant role in that. What’s more, he is a shining example of just how enterprising and talented people who are blind/ low vision are, no matter what career they might choose.
APH celebrates Founders Day each year, marking the day the nonprofit organization was chartered by the state of Kentucky. By 1879, APH was a national organization that has been serving people who are blind or low vision ever since. Although APH’s original and primary mission is the creation of educational materials for students from early childhood through high school, over the years it has evolved to develop inventive products that enrich the lives of people at every stage of life, going beyond braille books – which we continue to produce – to design and create a vast array of learning tools, including innovative technology solutions.
For Ken, who lost his vision when a discus struck him in the face in 1991 during some downtime while serving in the U.S. Air Force, becoming a software engineer wasn’t his first dream. He originally wanted to continue working in electronics, as he had in the Air Force. Although the Air Force provided him with education in braille, Orientation & Mobility, and more, he was told by many that it wasn’t possible for someone with vision loss to work in electronics. But Ken knew many people with vision loss worked in software engineering and decided it was the next best thing.
He went to college to earn his degree, using the Automatic Screen Access Program (ASAP) developed by Larry Skutchan. He would actually call Larry and talk to him frequently, sometimes letting him know about bugs in the software. On hearing there was a job opening at APH in Larry’s department, Ken applied right away – and landed the position he’s still in today.
But the scope and complexity of Ken’s work has expanded and elevated right along with APH’s offerings. In the early days, he wrote computer code and helped develop some products that have since been replaced by more advanced access technology. One was the first Android braille telephone, which Ken says didn’t sell very well because Android wasn’t very accessible yet, the way they are now.
“What we did was we pushed the technology into the future – which is why things like the HumanWare BrailleNote Touch and the Center for Braille Innovation (CBI) B2G Android devices started popping up after we showed how it could be done,” Ken says.
That was only the beginning. Ken has since developed some of APH’s most groundbreaking access technology. He worked as project lead on the Orbit Reader 20 refreshable braille device and Graphiti, the world’s first affordable tactile display developed by APH and Orbit Research.
More recently, Ken has returned to programming, working on projects such as APH’s BrailleBlaster, a braille transcription program, and the Nearby Explorer navigation app, which has now become GoodMaps. And he’s never lost his passion for electronics, encouraging APH to develop the Snap Circuits Jr. Access Kit – a tool that makes the widely used Snap Circuits Jr. commercial product, which teaches students 8 years old and up the basic concepts of electronics, fully accessible.
“My parents and brother got Snap Circuits for me for Christmas one year, and that brought me back to electronics,” Ken says. “Now I’m trying to bring electronics to kids in school and a lot of my products are currently in production.”
His latest project is an Arduino kit for the blind, to teach students coding and electronics. These kits, originally designed for sighted people, are little boards students can use to create nearly any kind of electronic product, including mini computers. “It’s just like Snap Circuits, but for real electronic parts,” Ken explains.
In his spare time, Ken also works with students who need help with access technology. In part, service – whether for the U.S. Air Force or people who are blind/ low vision – has always been part of who he is. But there’s more to it than that.
“We need more people who are blind working in fields where they can run the show and create the designs,” Ken says. “No matter what job people want to go after, they can do it. If it’s something they’re passionate about and really enjoy, they can make it happen.”