I was born with a serious heart defect. If it was not for modern medicine, I would not be able to write these lines, neither to have a normal life, a family, a child, travel around the world, climb mountains, go for skiing, write many lines of computer programs, enjoy my hobbies (astronomy, music, ...), work on research projects (muscular dystrophy, bionics, molecular pathways, parallel computing, bio-informatics...). I was lucky to belong to the first generation of kids, who had the chance to have an open-heart surgery and walk away from the hospital as a completely normal and healthy person. So, to start with, to all those folks, who will suggest not to visit the doctor, never to allow my child to be vaccinated, or to drink grass-tea against cancer - you belong to the darkest part of the Middle Ages, and please stay there - thank you!
The next stop of my accessibility journey. I was working at the European Molecular Biology Lab in Heidelberg. An almost completely blind lady started working at the lab next-door. At that time the first braille displays were hitting the market, but they worked almost exclusively with PC's. Our labs were full of SUN stations, NeXT computers (mostly because of the magneto-optical drives, but this is a story for another blogpost), SGI's, VAX, and a few Macs to run Word and to print our scientific papers, but no PC's. So, one day I gathered all my courage and wrote an email to Steve Jobs, asking him whether it was possible to write a braille driver for the NeXTSTEP operating system. Three days later I got a typical one-word 'Steve' reply: "Yes". That was all. What followed was a call by an interim engineer, who told me Steve had asked him to help me. A month later the first braille driver was born, and two German manufacturers of braille displays could claim their hardware works with PCs and NeXT Stations. What followed was a long and prolific friendship with NeXT and later - Apple engineers that has grown around many gallons of beer and accessibility related chats. The fact that I had the privilege to be invited by Steve for a two hour lunch I guess, will be the topic of a yet another blogpost.
Writing the braille display driver had another profound effect - I was welcomed in the visually impaired community. There I met many very intelligent and thoughtful people, who helped me to see the world from a completely different point of view. The lessons I learned there I am able to apply almost every day - no matter whether I write computer programs, or think about the accessibility of the labels of our bio-products. Another side-effect was that I started observing the world around me not only visually, but also with my other senses - to take notice of the sounds (or their absence) around me, to relate smells with the surroundings. The most profound change however was how I started observing the world with my tactile senses. It turned out that the hand is the best sensor for quality. It immediately distinguishes between a quality product and cheap crap. The trained hand "feels" the thoughts of the engineer who designed the smooth, but elegant edges, or the careless lack of such thoughts. The hand "feels" the quality of materials, their durability, the quality of the casts used, the final polish. The hand feels the thermal conductivity and the electrical properties, and a trained hand could even feel the electrolytic properties of the material and therefore its corrosive properties. It is an amazing mobile lab, that we always carry with us. Pity most of us lost the ability to use this super sensitive device.
During my research years in Heidelberg I also developed a very fast method to compare protein structures. A research visitor from Brazil discovered that one can use my method to identify where small poisonous polypeptides, often found in plant toxins and animal venom, are attached to essential enzymes. (An example is a poison, that blocks the production of mRNA in cells and leads to almost immediate death.) This method is used as part of software packages to discover antidotes. To be able to save human lives (even if very indirectly, by writing about 50,000 lines of C source code) is a feeling I cannot describe, but wish everyone could experience. Finally, all these molecular "games" lead me to my almost life long interest in muscular dystrophies and related conditions. LGMD 2A (or Calpainopathy) is something that keeps my brain busy every other day. I have this strange feeling, or intuition, that it is one of the key components in understanding complex molecular pathways and how they relate to cell-clocks. And also how diseases like MD, Alzheimer, and Diabetes are evolutionary related.
Many biology students in Heidelberg worked in hospitals to mitigate the permanent need for more nurses and lab personal. I worked too - in the orthopaedic hospital. It was during the Gulf War I, when the hospital were full of badly injured soldiers. There I learned yet another aspect of assistive technologies - assistive mobility. When we talk about accessibility on iOS or Mac OS, we normally think of VoiceOver. Unfortunately, no operating system pays any close attention to people in wheelchairs, or experiencing conditions like Cerebral Palsy, Parkinson, Muscular Dystrophy, Friedreich's ataxia, Multiple sclerosis, etc. I am not sure, but the number of people with such conditions by far exceeds the number of severely visually impaired (or completely blind). There are thousands of ways a computer device could help people with such disabilities. "Smart" wheelchairs, assistive household robots, specialised maps (with wheelchair accessible roads, information about wheelchair accessible transport, shopping malls, public toilets, restaurants, ATMs), computer aid communication, "smart" homes, remote monitoring, etc. These are just a few technologies that should be build into any mobile device or computer (as VoiceOver is), but are inexplicably and unfortunately missing.
For most of us working in order to pay the bills is perhaps all we experience in our professional career. I was blessed to spend a few unforgettable years in research, and later, in my own company to work on extremely challenging projects, that normally could be only handled by large teams working in large corporate environments. We had also the chance to occasionally work on a few cutting edge research projects that kept my imagination and that of my colleagues alive. Paying the bills, of course, is important. But to change people's lives for better, to push the boundaries of technology, to transform sci-fi into reality, these are the things I live for (and I hope many others too). My goals for the coming years is together with my colleagues to push the boundaries of assistive computer technologies even further. KenColour and KenWorld are just the first few steps we are willing to take. We have far reaching plans for the future to explore places in the wide accessibility prairie - not only related to visual impairment, but also to assistive mobility. Teaching disabled people to make use of modern technologies and developers and device engineers to construct accessible products is another goal of mine. A textbook on mobile accessibility is already slowly taking shape. Oh, and returning to fully blown research projects is something I will never stop looking for.