If you like using your smart phone to find your way in a new city, you have blind people to thank.
George Kerscher of Missoula wants people to realize that much of the technology they take for granted — such as the Google Maps software that gives voice commands for GPS navigation — was developed by and for visually impaired people long before it was available to the masses.
As an advocate for people with disabilities and a senior employee at a large company that specializes in accessibility technology, Kerscher is at the forefront of developing ways to make simple tasks like reading books and nutrition labels as easy for blind people or those with learning disabilities as it is for everyone else.
Kerscher has been blind since 1977.
“The integration of speech output to control things, everything with GPS navigation, it was all developed for blind people years and years before it got applied to your car telling you which turn to make,” he explained. “It was all in the hands of people with disabilities long before it was introduced to the mainstream.”
Kerscher, who holds an honorary doctorate of humane letters from the University of Montana, is a pioneer in the field of digital technology, according to former UM President George Dennison, who introduced Kerscher at the 2007 commencement ceremony.
“Kerscher led the process of identifying and implementing specific standards to make digital audio text inclusive and universally accessible, establishing him as perhaps the foremost authority on accessibility standards in the world,” Dennison, who died in January, said at the time.
“His understanding and knowledge of the social implications as well as the emerging scientific trends in technology and information presentation for the blind, combined with his energy, enthusiasm and boldness, inspire and garner respect around the globe.”
Kerscher was selected by U.S. News and World Report as the 1998 Innovator of the Year, and was the 1999 Montana Association for the Blind Member of the Year.
He can often be seen around town with his loyal and playful guide dog Kroner, with whom he walked the 2017 Missoula Half Marathon. He lives here with his wife Gail, and they have a long list of children and grandchildren to keep them busy. When he’s not working for the DAISY Consortium (Digital Accessible Information Systems) or Benetech, a company that specializes in software for social good, Kerscher is travelling to places like Amsterdam to speak on behalf of those with disabilities and how technology should be all-inclusive.
Although fewer than 1 percent of the U.S. population is blind, according to Kerscher, nearly 14 percent cannot read print due to various disabilities such as dyslexia. Technology like refreshable Braille displays, which allow blind people to read on a touch screen, gives people like Kerscher the power to educate themselves and integrate into the community.
“It leads to a more inclusive society,” he said. “In many ways, people with disabilities lead in a lot of ways.”
Self-driving car technology is being led by people with visual impairments, he said, as is a new technology called Aira that allows blind people to talk to a live navigator through smart glasses. Kerscher can dial up a woman named Cassie who works from home in the Midwest, and she can tell him what a person in front of him is wearing or what’s on the menu at a local bagel shop.
“It’s a very interesting new technology and it seems to be very popular in the blindness community,” he said. “The only problem is it totally fails if network connectivity is not available.”
For Kerscher, it’s been a lifelong mission to revolutionize the way that people with disabilities get access to the same information everyone else has.
“I advocate for everybody, all different disability groups,” he said. “Everyone needs to be included in society and there’s lots of things we can do to make sure everybody is included.”