Virtual Histories of Disability and Assistive Devices

Introduction to the Exhibit by Dominique Marshall on behalf of Carleton University’s Disabilities Research Group

Machines of the past hold many of the secrets for designers of future technologies. This is why in the 1960s, a mechanic from Gatineau with 2% vision, personally collected precious old Braille printing machines.  Roland Galarneau laboured in his basement for over a decade, in a workshop of his own extraordinary making, to train himself in mechanical work in the short term, with the ambition of revolutionizing reading for students who were blind in the longer term. Many inventions and a quarter of century later, with the support of individuals, public institutions and private enterprises, Galarneau came up with an automated convertor of text into braille which would be sold worldwide.[1]  He later donated his antiques to the Canadian Science and Technology Museum (CSTM) in Ottawa, including the first prototype of the “Converto-Braille”, a teleprinter Galarneau made in part with telephone relays procured by his colleagues working at nearby Bell Canada and Northern Electric.[2]

Galarneau’s inventions and others will be included within Envisioning Technologies, a virtual exhibit in the making that is dedicated to telling the stories of both users and innovators who have influenced and helped shape educational technologies for persons who are blind or partially sighted in Canada, from the nineteenth-century to the present. This latest Active History exhibit will provide a preview of some of the objects and stories that will comprise Envisioning Technologies, with the hopes of extending the conversation to a wider community of historians and the public before the official launch of the website in the spring.

This project started when Carleton University Biomedical Engineering Professor Adrian Chan wanted to provoke his students’ imagination by restoring the wealth of forgotten inventions. He began developing an idea for a series of virtual exhibitions on history, technology and disability, and assembled what would become Carleton University’s Disabilities Research Group. This group joins a growing number of interdisciplinary initiatives at Carleton University, including a new minor in Disabilities Studies. The first exhibit we created was A Wheelchair History of Disability in Canada. The second is Envisioning Technologies, now under the direction of professor of social work, Roy Hanes, with research and design by historian Beth A. Robertson.

As shown by the story of Galarneau’s ingenuity and patience, these objects are part and parcel of the unpredictable circumstances of their time.  The everyday movements of those who could not see, the rapid democratization of their education, the development of public advocacy on behalf of people with disabilities, are all present in these pieces of wood, metal and glass.  In turn, the machines provoked more changes: these technologies played a role in breaking down a range of social barriers, empowering people to become educated and employed in a much wider range of fields, adding brighter chapters to historical and ongoing discrimination. To help think about disability and technology in these social, cultural and critical ways, the Disabilities Research Group assembled by Chan now counts a librarian, a social worker, an advocate for people who are blind, and three historians, myself included.

It is no chance, then, that Envisioning Technologies revolves around the tales of people who invented objects which have “freed the blind from dependence on sighted helpers” in the words of James Swail.[3] Swail, a scientist with the National Research Council (NRC) for almost forty years, and who lost his sight as a child, designed over thirty devices to “read” new technologies by hearing or touching: the punch card, the digital clock, and other familiar innovations of the late 20th century. Envisioning Technologies will include his story and innovations, alongside those who have used these objects and trained others at the Canadian National Institute for the Blind. Richard Marsolais, Leona Emberson and Rob Bender generously speak, in interviews recorded especially for Envisioning Technologies, about clunky, slow, heavy and expensive devices, wonderful gadgets or genuine revolutions of the last few decades.

These interviews represent only one way by which the project aims at being part of the story it is telling.  In just two days from now we will hold a symposium, which will gather people who are blind or partially sighted, scholars, curators, educators and librarians. By listening and soliciting feedback from the participants at the symposium, we hope to refine this unique public history project, in order to ensure it is meaningful and accessible, while helping it grow.[4]

For many of the same reasons, we have designed this Active History exhibit to help conceptualize this project further and expand its possibilities by connecting with others beyond our team. This “preview”, to use the words of one of our group members, systems librarian George Duimovich, will present a small selection of the objects and stories that comprise Envisioning Technologies. By examining the objects and their uses, their inventors and their collectors, this latest creation by Carleton University’s Disabilities Research Group endeavours to follow a remarkable flow of inventions and Canadian innovators, most of them blind, who contributed in no small way to global developments.  The vaults of the CMST and of the NRC hold some riches that have rarely been seen or spoken about for the benefits of many. We hope that drawing attention to these items and their stories will help uncover more moments of ingenuity from the past. In this vein, we invite you to please join us on our journey by engaging with some of the objects, people and ideas that have inspired our dedicated team and our project through this latest Active History exhibit.

Visit the Envisioning Technologies exhibit now.

Dominique Marshall is a Professor and Chair of the Department of History at Carleton University. She is past president of the Canadian Historical Association and is a member of the Minor in Disability Studies Committee.

[1] Cypihot-Galarnea Services, “SCBCG: 1970-1990 Converto Braille” (pamphlet), Canadian Science and Technology Library, Ottawa, ON; Printer, Model BT-120, artifact no. 1994.0205.001, Canadian Science and Technology Museum, Ottawa ON, Canada.

[2] Galarneau Computerized Braille Printer (1972), artifact no. 1987.0272.001, Collections Supplementary Report, Canadian Science and Technology Museum, Ottawa ON, Canada.

[3] James Swail, “Electronics for the Blind,” Report of the National Research Council of Canada, Ottawa, ON, Canada (June 1962), 1.

[4] The exhibition follows the pioneering work of the Royal Ontario Museum and Ryerson University for the 2008 exhibition Out from Under: Disability, History and Things to Remember, curated by Kathryn Church, Catherine Frazee and Melanie Panitch; and Manitoba’s Archives & Special Collections, Books Without Ink: Reading, Writing and Blindness (1830-1930), curated by Vanessa Warne and Sabrina Mark last year. Many thanks to these individuals for sharing their expertise with us, and especially Vanessa Warne who will be our guest speaker at our upcoming symposium.

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