Blind World Magazine

Making graphical information accessible to people who can't see it.

December 13, 2005.
Galveston County Daily News , Texas.

Johnson Space Center computer engineer Robert Shelton knows firsthand the challenges blind students often encounter while going through school.

Born with congenital glaucoma - a disease that damages the optic nerve, causing partial vision loss or blindness - Shelton lost his sight at the age of 11. Today, the self-proclaimed "tech-geek" oversees NASA's Learning Technologies Project and helps develop electronic tools in the areas of math, science and robotics to aid visually impaired students and educators.

"Being blind makes getting through school more of a challenge," said Shelton. "Logistically, it is just more difficult. I've had to use a lot of tricks through the years just to survive. Almost all blind people are more independent now because technology is really making things easier."

MathTrax is an example of one of the tools developed by Shelton and members of his team. Similar to a graphing calculator, MathTrax is a computer application that graphs math equations and also provides a text description of the graph and an audio version of the image.

"It does everything that a graphing calculator does and more," Shelton said. "The goal was to make graphical information accessible to people who can't see it and to do it in a way that is cost effective. This software basically looks at a graph and puts it into words and sounds."

MathTrax took about three years to develop. Although there are similar software products available that utilize sound, Shelton said he is not aware of any that describe images like MathTrax does. It's actually this unique feature that makes the computer application a beneficial tool for any middle school to college-level student wanting to understand difficult math concepts, Shelton said.

After earning a doctorate in mathematics from Rice University in Houston, Shelton worked as a professor and research mathematician at several out-of-state universities. By helping to develop MathTrax, Shelton said, he also hopes to encourage more visually impaired people to pursue careers in science and technology.

"I think that it is sad that kids with blindness or other disabilities are often passed over for science and math courses because it is a little bit more difficult to teach them," he said. "I am hoping that we are going to take the technology we've created and release it to the public sector so more products can be developed."

Shelton said he knew at an early age that technology was the right field for him.

"As a kid I was always interested in machinery and anything with wires," he said. "I can remember my dad giving me an old alarm clock to take apart when I was 4-years-old so I could figure out how it worked."

Although the disease that blinded Shelton is treatable with today's laser surgery technology, his condition cannot be reversed. Yet, the NASA engineer said he considers himself lucky that his experiences led him to a successful career as a computer engineer.

"When I lost my vision, my parents explained to me that if I was going to have a productive life I was going to have to get serious," Shelton said. "It made me refocus my life and technology became, more than an area of interest, something I could do to make money and be a productive citizen. Sometimes when an event comes along there are unforeseen consequences, and sometimes that can be a good thing."

On the Web: MathTrax may be downloaded for free at

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