Richard Ladner, another winner of the 2008 Purpose Prize, not only has a Ph.D. from Berkeley, by one of those curious coincidences he received it in 1971, the same year as Arlene Blum (see above).  While hers was in biophysical chemistry, his was in mathematics.  Lardner is now a professor of computer science and engineering at the University of Washington, and an adjunct professor in the electrical engineering and linguistics departments there.  After 35 years in the realm of theory in his field, Ladner veered into very practical, much-needed solutions.

Sangyun Hahn, who is a blind doctoral candidate and an inspiration to Richard Ladner, looks at a Braille Tactile Graphic of a precalculus fourth-degree equation. Photo: Grant M. Haller/Seattle Post-Intelligencer
Sangyun Hahn, who is a blind doctoral candidate and an inspiration to Richard Ladner, looks at a Braille Tactile Graphic of a precalculus fourth-degree equation. Photo: Grant M. Haller/Seattle Post-Intelligencer

In 2002 he encountered a recently-admitted Ph.D. student in his field who was blind and had soon run into difficulties with technical textbook material a campus service was, far too slowly, converting into Braille and other tactile representations.  The lag was making him fall behind.  Ladner, well acquainted with disabilities as a hearing son of two deaf parents, worked with the student to set up a team to create software that could automatically build the tactile graphics.  The result was the Tactile Graphics Assistant, a free program that enables blind students to keep better pace with science and math peers.

With this and other successes, Ladner devoted his attention full-time to accessibility technology research.  He has become an accessibility evangelist, reaching out to students and faculty across the country through lectures, a national workshop, and a summer academy he runs.  He promotes the development of sign language for scientific concepts.  He, his students, and his colleagues have developed a number of accessibility applications, including WebAnywhere, software which allows the blind to use the Internet on the go.

Ladner, Berkeley, 1968In 2005 Ladner also received a $10,000 honor, the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics, and Engineering Mentoring, which he took as a challenge to do more, saying “You fell like Popeye — you’ve got your spinach, you have a little extra muscle in your arms, and you’re motivated.”

(Originally published in eGrad, December 2008)


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