When John Boyer tried signing up for a service dog training program, staff denied him entry because their instructional materials were made for the blind but not the deaf. Boyer ticked both of those boxes, having been born blind and losing most of his hearing by the time he was 10 years old.
In an attitude that defined his entire life, Boyer didn’t sulk. He didn’t accept his circumstances. Instead, he developed a workaround and trained his own guide dog.
Boyer went on to develop a software program that converts written text into Braille, an invention fueled by childhood frustration over too few Braille textbooks to satisfy his scientific curiosity. His work dramatically expanded educational and employment access for the blind.
“He determined at a pretty young age that that would be his life mission,” said Jack Schroeder, Boyer’s former office manager and personal caretaker. “He’s actually one of those few people in the world who achieved their life’s ambition.”
Boyer died Jan. 17 at a Madison hospital while under treatment for pneumonia, his niece, Sara Sandberg, confirmed. The longtime Madison resident was 86.
Born in rural Wadena, Minnesota, on July 25, 1936, Boyer was the fifth of 12 siblings. He set up a chemistry lab in the basement and devoured all the Braille books he could get his hands on, which wasn’t many back then. He vowed to change that.
After a series of childhood ear infections, Boyer could only hear muffled voices but his parents refused to accept his hearing was gone and continued speaking to him. It wasn’t until he was at the New York Institute for the Blind that a teacher realized what was happening and taught him manual sign language, where word symbols are formed by the questioner’s fingers pressed against the palm of the blind person’s hand.
Boyer was salutatorian of his high school class. He told a New York City newspaper he hoped to be an inventor some day.
Boyer was behind Liblouis, BrailleBlaster software
Boyer’s abilities were questioned by many, including the president of the St. Paul, Minnesota, college where he enrolled.
“I confess publicly and with regret that I was skeptical four years ago,” Monsignor James Shannon wrote in a student newspaper column about Boyer registering at what is now the University of St. Thomas. “My question then was, ‘How can any boy who is blind and deaf hear lectures, recite in class or write examinations?’ In four years he has demonstrated that he can perform each of these functions with brilliant success.”
The National Foundation of the Blind supplied Boyer in college with a translator who took lecture notes and signed them into John’s hand. Boyer himself used no notes, relying completely on memory. His textbooks were transcribed into Braille, but there weren’t graphs of any kind, a challenge for a math major. Still, he graduated second in the college’s class of 1961.
Boyer struggled to find a job out of school. To expand his skillset, he designed his own hearing aid and trained a golden retriever, Sugar, to be his guide dog. He landed some computer programming jobs in Ohio and later at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside.
In the 1980s, Boyer earned a master’s degree in computer science at UW-Madison and completed all but the dissertation of his doctorate. Around this time, he launched Computers to Help People, a nonprofit that assisted people with disabilities in finding computer-related work.
Boyer also launched Abilities Soft, a Braille publishing enterprise that served clients around the world. The name of his company was telling, Schroeder said.
“He always preferred to emphasize that everyone has abilities, and we should see what people have, not what they don’t have,” Schroeder said. “He never felt he’d been shortchanged or cheated or anything. He was never bitter or resentful about his condition.”
Boyer developed Liblouis, which translates text into Braille, as a free, open-source software for anyone to use. He also helped develop BrailleBlaster, which translates maps, graphics and math formulas into a format accessible to blind people. The software is made available through the American Printing House for the Blind, a nonprofit that serves blind people.
Boyer’s work never brought in much money, Schroeder said. But that was never his goal.
White House recognized Boyer’s work
The White House honored Boyer’s accomplishments in a 2012 ceremony Boyer found frustrating. Staff had arranged for an American Sign Language interpreter to be there, not realizing he couldn’t read ASL.
Outside of work, Boyer had a range of interests. He played the bass clarinet and was a fan of science fiction. He owned a 7-foot boa constrictor, Julius Squeezer, for a while.
“In short, he’s a fascinating person to get to know,” said a 1974 Milwaukee Journal story about Boyer, who was then in his 30s.
Another project of Boyer’s during that time was learning French. The only way he could learn the proper pronunciation and accent was by “reading” the lips of his tutor, Hazel Mendenhall, with his hand. The two quickly became friends and married in 1973.
Mendenhall died from Lou Gehrig’s disease in 1977, a devastating loss for Boyer that led to depression. He credited his recovery to his Catholic faith, counseling and a strong belief in the importance of his work.
“At work or at home or anywhere, it is obvious that here is someone who enjoys life as much as anyone,” the Milwaukee Journal reported. “The world needn’t end if you lose your sight or your hearing — not unless you yourself let it end. John Boyer certainly hasn’t.”
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