I just realized that it has been more than 5 years since I’ve written one of these. So much for documenting the experience of being the new CEO of ViewPlus. I guess I’ve just had more time to think over the past year. Normally, I’d say that is good thing, but now I can’t tell if I’ve gone down a rabbit hole. While it has been a business challenge dealing with a global pandemic, we’ve been extremely lucky at ViewPlus. On a personal level, my heart goes out to all those that we have lost and are still losing way too soon. As a CEO, I am worried about the health of my employees and the financial stability of the company to keep making payroll and paying health insurance premiums. Before I’d ever heard of COVID-19, I was really looking forward to 2020 as the year ViewPlus turned a corner and became a major player in braille after years of being seen as only a specialty tactile graphics company.
Power Dot braille was well-received early in late 2019 as we launched version 2 of our Columbia and Delta printers, so we were carrying a lot of momentum into 2020. We had agreed to partner with American Printing House (APH) to produce the PixBlaster, which made a big splash in 2020. We also had refreshed the EmBraille personal printer design so we could produce them efficiently for years to come. After CSUN shut down early in March 2020 as Disneyland closed, we hurried to the airport to get home to Oregon. I thought things would be a bit strange for a few months. I didn’t realize we would still be dealing with a pandemic more than a year later.
Not traveling has some advantages. I love that we are even more connected with video conference platforms than ever before. I don’t miss the long plane flights. I do miss interacting with people live. With the extra time on my hands, I made some personal changes to get healthier. At ViewPlus, we spent considerable time talking about how we could make a bigger difference in the world. Was there something more we could do? We had combined our tactile graphics expertise with braille to provide leading hardware and software solutions, along with great support for mobile devices. We reached out to see if parents or teachers needed help now that they were stuck at home. We held some webinars. Offered some training.
Overall, we didn’t hear too much. No one came asking for our help in any specific way, so I do what I do. I ponder whether we are kidding ourselves about making a difference. Does anyone really care about their Tiger embosser? When we go visit different parts of the world, a handful of people come up and say how awesome we are. Is that it? We are running ourselves ragged and no one seems to notice. We have the widest selection of embossers from any vendor, from personal to production machines, with unique features like ink support. Our products are so unique that we had to build our own software tools because none of the standard tools fully support them. Going into 2021 and realizing that we are about to celebrate ViewPlus’s 25th birthday, I felt that we had to do something. I started looking around. All these big organizations had called out a crisis about braille literacy being at 10%. Did it have any correlations to the 30% employment numbers for blind people? Had anything changed in the past 25 years since ViewPlus was founded by my parents?
Our focus at ViewPlus has primarily been on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) since tactile graphics seemed to be most used there and my dad’s experience as a physics professor. Are more blind students having success in STEM over the past 25 years? Are they going to college in STEM fields and finding jobs in STEM careers? I have more questions than answers. Analysis paralysis. Oh no. Having only been at ViewPlus for the past 5 years, I still feel like a relative newbie. Many of our people have been here for 2, 3 or even 4 times that long. I kept asking, “why has no one heard of ViewPlus?”. Teachers for the visually impaired have heard about Tiger embossers, but that was about it. What are we doing wrong?
As an engineer and father of two mostly grown teenagers, I’ve been a math tutor, LEGO robotics coach, and tech nerd. My son is pretty techie and even my daughter made it through a few seasons of LEGO robotics. I did my best to support their interests and help them focus on finding inspirations that could lead to career options. How would I have done it differently if they’d been blind? I started digging into braille math. Should I learn Nemeth or UEB? Dang, this stuff is complicated. How can I plot equations, like on a trusty Casio graphing calculator? How can I make it accessible? What about software development? It seems like we need lots of people to help guide what makes software and web apps accessible. If colleges are recruiting gamers to virtual sports, why aren’t they rolling out the red carpet for blind kids with coding skills?
When are blind kids first getting access to computers and printers? What about the parents or friends? I visit lots of schools and see our printers hidden in a special education room. Are they using them in elementary school before even learning braille for making things like tactile coloring books or drawing their own pictures? During middle or high school, is there a transition point where they learn how to fend for themselves in creating technical documents and tactile graphics? It seems like there is tons of support until high school ends. How many try to go on to college and get frustrated? How many get frustrated way before then?
How can we make it easier for teachers and parents to engage with blind kids at an early age? What are the roadblocks? How can the playing field be leveled? How can we vastly improve the career opportunities for blind kids and have them contributing in STEM academics and careers to better the world.
I know I’m naïve. I’m sure I’ve pissed numerous people off by something I’ve said that was unintentionally insulting. Please see through all that. Engage in a constructive conversation with me about what is needed to make a difference for blind kids around the world that want to pursue careers in STEM. We have a diverse group of experienced software and hardware engineers who want to help.
I learned a lot in the past five years. I’m excited about ViewPlus approaching 25 years. What should we get done in the next 25 years?