People At Work: Goist Applies Technologies to Solutions for the Blind

A beep indicates an incoming email. A soothing voice says, "dark blue." A string of 300-400 words a minute breaks the silence in an indecipherable gibberish, except to Doug Goist who is blind and can understand every word. Goist is program manager for IT services projects at National Industries for the Blind (NIB). He has worked with the U.S. Department of Defense, the military services and federal agencies and private sector partners.

Since the Federal government is required to buy technical equipment which is accessible to the disabled, NIB manually tests the equipment for compliance for blind users. "For instance," Goist said, "You can't use color alone such as 'push the green button.'"

Goist said, "For instance, a judge ruled that U.S. currency is not accessible to blind people." Since American bills are all the same size, unlike many other countries, the Bureau of Engraving and Printing has been testing different chemistry and design on bills. "We sit there and try to feel the differences. They time us." Goist said that currently the Bureau of Engraving and Printing has a free battery-powered device called iBill that vibrates to identify money. If you don't have that device, there are tricks like folding $5 bill three times, putting a bill at one end of your wallet."

Goist said, "I have apps to identify a lot of things around my house." He has a photospectrometer that helps pick colors in his closet. He pulls out a small device and reaches for his tie. A pleasant voice says, "dark blue." Another device is an audio labeler which allows him to record and tag. “This is a blue and gold paisley tie that goes with my blue or black suit." He said, "it is so much harder to organize when you can't see."

Goist had perfect eyesight. But when he was in high school he said he started to bump into the dishwasher door, lose a lot of golf balls. He ended up at the Cleveland Clinic diagnosed with an incurable, untreatable, degenerative disease. "There was no family history and a 1 in 80 chance of the gene, "but it turned out both of my parents carried it." Within 9-10 years he was legally blind, "but I went from 20/40 to 20/500 in a month." He had a life plan laid out to eventually attend medical school. "I didn't want to sell pencils." He said, "If only they had offered some hope." He says that today 70 percent of working-age Americans who are blind are not employed. "That's why we're a crucial part of the process." NIB works with a nationwide network of 101 associated non-profit agencies to train people who are blind, offer a wide range of job opportunities and test adaptive technology for federal government customers.

He says when you're not working, sitting at home and can't afford the software that you need, you get rusty. "When you get back in the job market, you are behind." Goist added, "that is my ultimate reward, the personal connection with people not knowing what they are going to do.

You'd be amazed at the talent and skill level of blind people."

He said blind people have to start from the beginning. "It's slow, like learning a language. Once you learn the technical skills, it's like playing the piano. You have to practice, practice." Before coming to NIB Goist worked as a subcontractor translating audio transcripts for official congressional documents. "It was difficult, a general in Venezuela speaking with an accent, the spelling of rivers in Afghanistan.

"I never told them I couldn't see, and I had to have such an attention to detail. I had a reputation of being very good." He ended up getting burned out with projects from Beijing to Karachi — an international court case on an international collision, wiretaps for the FBI. "Also when I was in New York I started digitizing. I had Fed Ex dropping off so many packages 24 hours a day, I looked like a drug dealer."

Goist spends a lot of his day following up on email requests from clients and answering questions. "For instance, I just helped a customer at Ft. Meade IT on installation of a screen reader." There is a team of 20-30 blind people at the Travis Air Force base call center that are doing a Windows upgrade. "I interact on how not to break accessibility, how not to break the machine." He has developed short cuts on his own that allow him to search the web, create documents, read memos or articles. He says every day he is problem solving some kind of problem. "There is nothing I can't do that a sighted user can do. But," he said, "I can't describe a picture."

Goist also travels to conferences to stay up-to-date on solutions. He met a developer from Denmark at a conference who had come up with a free app, "buddy in a pocket. " It is a global group of more than 40,000 sighted volunteers who assist blind users. "My TV wasn't working so I called and asked what was going on with my screen. A woman from Costa Rica helped me."

"We will have smart glasses soon. They were really neat when I tested them out." He demonstrated a headphone placed on the cheekbone which acts as a phone. It is connected to a trained sighted agent plugged in to where you are walking in real time. "For me it would be really nice. My biggest challenge is networking in big hotels." He said there could be somebody I know 10 feet away and I wouldn't know they were there."

This is a weekly column focused on people at work in the community.

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