Making A Difference Award (2009) — Jim Thatcher (interview)

On March 28, 2008, the Association for Computer Machinery’s Special Interest Group for Computers and Society (ACM SIGCAS) conferred the 2008 Making a Difference Award on Dr. Jim Thatcher. Dr. Thatcher’s work in the area of assistive technologies has spanned four decades, and has enabled many blind and visually impaired individuals throughout the world to expand their use of computers in their daily lives. This summer, I had the opportunity to talk with Dr. Thatcher about his extraordinary career and this acknowledgement he has received from the ACM. — MN 

Q: Congratulations on having won the 2008 Making a Difference Award. Can you share with us a bit about your thoughts and reactions when you were notified of the award?

A: I was delighted and very surprised. I am a really long time member of the ACM; I think I may have joined in 1959. It was my first or second year in graduate school. There was SIGALT, or something like that back then, for automaton language theory; that was my main special interest group at the time. And this is so totally different than my initial area of interest, which was theoretical computer science. So this is different, and really nice.

Q: You received this award because of your work on screen readers and other assistive technologies for blind and visually impaired people. How did you originally get involved in that work specifically?

A: My thesis advisor, and this is going back again, to 1959 or 60, was named Jesse Wright. He was a research mathematician at the University of Michigan. He and I actually left Michigan at the same time to go to the mathematical sciences department at IBM, and he is blind. He and I did theoretical computer science there [at IBM] for about 20 years, and about 1978 we got to have a talking terminal in our department. It was called SAID, which stands for Synthetic Audio Interface Driver. In effect, it was basically the first screen-reader, because it did read the ASCII values in a stream and speak them through a monster vocal track synthesizer—it was the size of a suitcase. It cost $10,000 and it ended up becoming our main product. We got SAID in 1978 and then the PC, as you know, came out in the early 1980s, and we were just having fun with making a PC version of the talking terminal. Our idea was that it would be a lot cheaper and easier to use. We called our prototype PC-SAID. The marketing people down in Boca Raton were the ones who wanted to call it Screen Reader, which I thought was really silly. It ended up being named IBM Screen Reader, which became the recognized brand name—like Kleenex or Xerox—so I guess the marketing people kind of knew what they were doing in naming it.

Q: The Workforce Rehabilitation and Accessibility Act was passed in 1973, and your work with screen readers began within five years of that, so when people refer to you as a pioneer, it’s a pretty accurate assessment, isn’t it?

A: I guess that’s true. You know, the original Workforce Rehabilitation Act didn’t actually even have section 508, which is today synonymous with accessibility. That was added as an amendment later, so it corresponded even closer to when our work with screen readers began.

Q: What other changes have you seen over the course of your career, with the law or with the technology that has affected what you’ve done?

A: Well, other than the amendment to add section 508, I can’t think of too many significant changes with the law that affected my work, but there’s something that I can mention about the way screen reading is done. At that time, Screen Reader was really a pretty good name, because the software actually looked at the bytes that represented the letters on the screen, and so it was all done right there, on the screen. That was stage one in screen reading. Stage two began when the graphical user interface came out, both on Windows and IBM O/S2. That was a totally different situation, because we didn’t have that text there anymore, only pixels, so what we built were called off-screen models. They were based on calls to the operating system to draw text on the screen—that was a very difficult process because the quality of the screen reading was directly related to the quality of the models. But we eventually got them to where they worked pretty well.

Q:    How has the increase in computing speed and performance, accompanied by a decrease in technology costs, affected the work you do in this area?

A:    Well, much of what we’ve done all along didn’t really depend on faster or smaller computers. In other words, I’d have done what I have whether computers got smaller, cheaper and faster or not. I’ve already mentioned how the graphical user interface changed what we were doing, and other devices, especially portable devices, have influenced screen reader technology as well, but as I said, the nature of my work hasn’t been dramatically influenced by the changes in technology over time—we’d have done it anyway.

Q:    Where do you see your work going next? What do you hope your legacy will be?

A:    That’s a hard question. When you think about legacy, it’s about how you’ll be remembered. I guess I want our work to continue so there will be more opportunities for people to accomplish things they couldn’t before. You know, when you’re visually impaired, there’s a limitation there, and I’d like to know that technology built on what we’ve been doing for so many years will continue to enable people to overcome challenges caused by blindness or other visual impairment.