2011 TC Pressroom
Teachers College, Columbia University
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Putting The World At Their Fingertips

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Karen Gourgey

Karen Gourgey

Karen Gourgey (Ed.D., '83) champions the use of tactile maps and other tools that help people who are blind or visually impaired

By Barbara Finkelstein

When Karen Luxton Gourgey looks back on her career, she invariably recalls a talk given at TC during the late 1970s by John Gill, a British scientist who pioneered the development of computer-generated tactile maps to help blind or visually impaired people orient themselves in subways, buildings or cities.

Just as sighted people do, those without sight navigate best when they can form their own cognitive impressions of a given space or route, a process they accomplish with their hands. But in the late 1970s the tactile maps in use in the United States were handmade paper or fabric artifacts. The imprecisions and variations in their topography were subject to frequent misinterpretation. In contrast, the maps Gill was talking about in his lecture were designed by computers and “printed” using technology that rendered the topography according to exact specifications.

“After the lecture, when I put my hand on one of the maps, I couldn’t believe something this textured had come out of a computer,” says Gourgey, who has been blind since childhood. “I knew then that we needed computer-generated tactile maps in this country, too.”

While still working on her Ed.D. in special education, Gourgey got involved with Baruch College’s Computer Center for Visually Impaired People (CCVIP), which she now directs. Over the years she has not only championed the development of tactile maps and other embossed schematic surfaces, but more broadly sought to “crash the print barrier” with every available technology, from electronic Braille displays to speech systems in which a synthesizer does the speaking and a screen reader tells it what to say.

“Karen is a groundbreaker who is very well known internationally for all that she has done to make tactile maps and other technologies part of the conversation,” says Joe Cioffi, founder and CEO of ClickandGo Wayfinding Maps, a company that has created tactile maps for Teachers College and other institutions. 

As a longtime advocate of assistive technologies, Gourgey has seen a lot of changes in working and social conditions for blind and visually impaired people. She’s also come to understand that each advance can create new challenges. For example, prior to coming to CCVIP, Gourgey learned FORTRAN, a programming language that entailed the use of 80-column punched cards. “You didn’t dare drop those cards, or it would play havoc with your step-by-step computer commands,” she says. Yet despite its unwieldiness, the card system was congenial to blind users, in part because the punch-card setup could be connected to a computer and used to print out Braille.

Subsequently, graphical user interface (GUI) replaced text commands and punch cards, and computer users suddenly had to interact with pixels, the complex visual data structures that make up graphical icons. Soon computer information could be accessed only through the click of a mouse rather than via text commands. Assistive technology developers had to create a new generation of software, such as Active Accessibility, which can translate GUI information to a screen reader with text-to-speech or Braille output.

“If that sounds complicated, it was,” says Gourgey. “In fact, we have been dealing with the GUI challenge for more than 25 years.”

Even more formidable than the ongoing changes has been assistive technology’s climbing price tag. Today Jaws, the Windows-based screen-reading software, costs about $1,200. “That’s a lot of money for a population with a more than 70 percent unemployment rate,” Gourgey says. To address that issue, she has overseen the expansion of CCVIP’s vocational track, which offers training in the use of Microsoft Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Internet navigation and Microsoft Access, a relational database management system.

In addition, to secure funding for qualified students of all ages, Gourgey works with the New York State Commission for the Blind and Visually Handicapped. For students without Commission sponsorship, fees are structured on a sliding scale. “Ideally, we would offer everybody who wants to take advantage of our services in the Division of Continuing and Professional Studies here at Baruch some kind of scholarship,” Gourgey says. To that end, she is exploring the possibility of corporate underwriting, especially for the bimonthly workshops run out of the CCVIP demonstration center, where people can try out different assistive technologies.

One upside of the budget constraints at local and state levels, Gourgey says, is that advocates for blind and visually impaired people are taking an innovative approach to finding funding sources. A resource room teacher from Long Island, for example, enlisted the backing of a Lions Club to support local students who want to take CCVIP’s vocational track.

“Learning to be competent computer users allows visually impaired individuals to crash the print barriers within their own lives,” Gourgey says. “Learning to get around with independence and efficiency in a city such as New York allows people to crash barriers to mobility and physical freedom. The combination is truly emancipating, and I’m very happy that CCVIP continues to work to promote both.”





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