Fred Gissoni: The Legacy of a Matchless Pioneer

by Deborah Kendrick In an interview for AccessWorld two years ago, Fred Gissoni, a true legend and pioneer in the field of assistive technology, told me that he had four criteria that would determine when it was time for him to retire from the American Printing House for the Blind (APH): if the work was no longer fun, if APH no longer needed his services, if his health prevented working, or if he needed to take care of someone else.

Even though he was still having fun, had some difficult health conditions under control, wasn't needed to care for another, and was definitely still useful to APH, Fred Gissoni decided to use another indicator in 2011: intuition. He just felt that it was time to retire -- and so he did.

Nine days after his 82nd birthday, on December 30, 2011, Fred Gissoni spent his last day on the job. At that point, he had worked five days a week at APH for 23 years, solving technical and other issues for customers who called him at extension 309, and dispensing so much more than just helpful information.

On his last day, there was no grandiose gala to send him off to a much-deserved retirement, no loud fanfare or fuss. And that was just the way he wanted it. Instead, he came to work like any other day and celebrated the ending of one era and the beginning of another quietly with co-workers in his department.

This quiet send-off is in keeping with the manner with which he approached his work. Though he made immeasurable contributions to the blindness field over the past 60 years as teacher, counselor, inventor, and friend, Fred's role has often been of the backstage variety, providing quiet comments, quick conversations, or concise instructions that changed lives.

Born without sight in Northdale, New Jersey, Fred and his wife Betty, who was also blind and a teacher in the blindness field, moved to Kentucky in 1956. With a bachelor's degree in sociology from Rutgers and a master's in counseling from New York University, Fred first worked as a placement counselor for the Kentucky Department for the Blind. (In his 32 years with that agency, he also taught, founded an independent living center, worked with engineers to develop products, and headed the agency's technical division when it was established.) Since childhood, Fred had a keen interest in the mechanics of things, quickly figuring out how machines and systems worked. He learned Morse code and earned his amateur radio license in 1946 and to this day remains an avid ham radio enthusiast.

His first highly visible contribution in the blindness field was in the early 1960s. Fred and Betty learned from Tim Cranmer--a blind inventor who once reportedly joked that Fred Gissoni was among his best inventions--how to use the abacus that Cranmer was adapting for use by the blind. The Cranmer abacus became a state-of-the-art tool for the blind, and Fred Gissoni was largely responsible for spreading the word. He wrote a book of instructions, still available by download from APH, on using that first abacus; he worked with the IRS to train blind employees who needed a means of making quick calculations; and he headed up a summer institute at the University of Kentucky in which teachers of the visually impaired were trained in the best methods for teaching the use of this new device to their blind students.

Fred often worked behind the scenes, testing and tweaking and promoting new products. It was in that capacity that I first came to know him. In 1985, I launched TACTIC, a magazine covering technology for blind people, and Fred stepped up to help as soon as he heard of it. His articles were always remarkably clear and concise, giving the reader an effortless step-by-step sense of what using a particular product would be like.

At about this time, he and engineer Wayne Thompson were involved in the development of the PocketBraille and Portabraille, short-lived products that helped pave the path toward the development of the renowned Braille 'n' Speak, designed by Deane Blazie. When that product appeared in 1987, Fred Gissoni was front and center, writing and talking about how to use it.

I asked him recently how he had learned to write technical instructions so clearly. First, he credited an English teacher in his days at Rutgers. Next, after a bit of reflection, he said: "I'd imagine that I was writing a letter to a friend, sending that friend this product or other, and so, I would begin with telling him what was in the box and next how to go about using it." While head of the technical unit for the Kentucky Department for the Blind, Fred served on an advisory committee to APH, and when APH decided to add the growing field of assistive technology to its mission, Fred Gissoni was hired to serve in that role in 1988.

"Fred was responsible for my coming to APH," Larry Skutchan, who is known for the development of such popular APH product as the Book Port and Braille+ Mobile Manager, recently told me.

Commenting here, tweaking there, remembering more information about people and products than most of us will ever learn -- those are the kinds of traits that marked Fred Gissoni throughout his career. In 1999, in honor of his amazing mental trove of tips and information, APH launched the Fred's Head blog, which continues to serve as a resource of blindness information.

For 23 years, Fred provided information to customers through the customer relations department at APH, touching countless lives through his gentle teaching and generous provision of information.

A 2011 APH employee newsletter told the story of a West Coast family adopting a blind child from China. The parents had called the APH customer service line seeking information on using the Wilson digital recorder. Not only did the anonymous APH employee who answered the call provide the family with the information they needed, that employee also directed the parents to a source in China that led to an interpreter who helped them record phrases in both English and Chinese to help the child in her transition. This help, reported Marsha Overstreet, APH supervisor of customer relations, had to have come from Fred Gissoni, since he alone would have possessed the breadth of information that pulled together those people and resources from around the world to help a single blind child.

One month into his retirement, Fred's bout with cancer is currently under control, and his life is a contented one. He says he recognizes each day as a gift.

That gift is more than a gift to Fred Gissoni alone. His life, his generosity, wisdom, and humor, and the remarkable example he has set, have been and continue to be a gift to blind and sighted people everywhere.

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