Leading low vision researcher talks Perkins Brailler and next frontier of accessibility

Gordon Legge has been using the Perkins Brailler, which he calls a “marvel of the 20th century,” for more than six decades

Gordon Legge sits with his back to the wall posing for a portrait.

Gordon Legge is a professor at the University of Minnesota and a leading researcher in the field of low vision.

February 22, 2018

When Gordon Legge first encountered the Perkins Brailler as a young student back in the 1950s, he couldn’t have known the braille typewriter would see him through the rest of his life.

But Legge, who acquired low vision as a child, says he’s had “one or more” in his possession ever since, referring to it today as a “marvel of the 20th century.”

“It just works so well,” he said. “Nothing goes wrong with it.”

Legge’s opinions are informed by years of professional experience. A longtime psychology professor at the University of Minnesota, Legge teaches a class called Perceptual Issues in Visual Impairment, which covers the history of different braille systems. Outside the classroom, he’s also a highly decorated and recognized researcher in the field of low vision with a specialty in reading and mobility.

In honor of Low Vision Awareness Month, Perkins touched base with Legge to talk about the brailler, low vision and the next frontier of accessible design.

You’ve been using the Perkins Brailler now for a long time. Why has it remained so valuable to you?

I think of it both technically and functionally. I do a lot of stuff with computer generated braille, but that takes a computer, a printer, all that stuff. People still use the Slate and Stylus, but it’s slow and effortful. There’s a niche in between that the Perkins Brailler is just perfect for. Both functionally and mechanically, it’s quite special.

How would you describe the current state of assistive technology?

So much of it has migrated into digital technology. There’s wide use of iPhone apps, computer based stuff, closed circuit TV, magnifiers. I’ve got a computer, I’ve got a CCTV, I’ve got a cell phone in my pocket. I’ve got all this, but I still have the Perkins Brailler. It just continues to be valuable even in the context of all this modern technology.

What do you see as the next frontier?

I’m interested in more sophisticated environmental modifications — the concept of visual accessibility that parallels physical accessibility. Making spaces more accessible for people with some level of vision. There are obvious things that have been done in the past, like highlighting the edges of steps, but a lot more can be done through architectural design to make public spaces more visually accessible. It’s important for a lot of the older generation, people who are developing macular degeneration and so forth.

Another frontier that’s interesting are the prosthetic vision systems, like the retinal prosthesis. It’s very interesting technology, linking into our increased understanding of neuroscience. Can we reawaken in some sense the visual pathways through alternative inputs?

February is Low Vision Awareness Month. What would you say is the biggest misconception surrounding low vision?

The biggest misconception is an absence of familiarity and understanding of the term or concept of low vision. The lay public, they think of people as sighted or blind. Very few people understand distinctions between central field loss, peripheral field loss, loss of acuity, loss of contrast sensitivity, all the fine grain stuff. So I’d say that’s one of the biggest challenges, just consciousness-raising.

Is there a path to greater public awareness?

I think things like the ADA have probably helped. The advent of modern technology, the idea of universal design. The voiceover on the iPhone has been a big plus because it’s a mainstream device and it has this functionality. I also think there’s growing awareness in the ophthalmology community that lots can be done for people with chronic low vision, and that it’s not a failure if you can’t cure them. So yeah, we’re definitely making progress.