Cameras to Computers: With a Little Help From Some Friends
In 1975, Tim Foster was a professional photographer that had work published in Newsweek, National Geographic and Life magazines. He was working for the FAA taking public relations photos of the Thunderbirds and the Blue Angels. He was married with two little boys. But he didn’t know that his livelihood would soon take his sight away. Years of exposure to carbon tetrachloride and Agent Orange (while a photographer in Vietnam) caused his sight to deteriorate. He was diagnosed legally blind in 1976.
“I was struggling at the time,” Tim remembers. “I didn’t know how I would support my family, how I would pay my mortgage if I lost my job. I went to the local commission for the blind and asked the case worker what I could do. He asked me if I knew how to play piano.”
“The FAA tried to be helpful, but didn’t know how. My job was very visual.” So Tim decided to help himself. He heard about speech synthesizers that allow people with visual impairment to use computers, so he went to the local computer store “where I spent $2,000 on an Apple computer with a 128k floppy disk drive,” he laughs, and began to learn. The store owner became a mentor to Tim; he helped set up the hardware and speaker system that allowed Tim to access his new computer. And he did it for free.
Next, Tim went to the FAA human resources department and asked to transfer to a job where he could “do something with computers” (remember, this was the ‘70s). He was moved to the computer programming department where he found a mentor in fellow employee Jim Wibble, who helped him acclimate to the job and car pooled to work with him for many years. At one point, Tim was assigned to a $12 billion contract requiring him to read and comment on computer manuals that were only made available in print format. “I took the books home and cried because I couldn’t do my job,” he said, “So my wife took the manuals to work and her coworkers took turns tape recording them for me. It was after this project that people started to recognize I had abilities, that I could do things when materials were accessible.”
Before retiring, Tim delivered the first field air traffic control system for the FAA that linked with their main frame computer. “One of the biggest thrills I had was participating in a Department of Transportation meeting held at the White House,” Tim recalls. “It was great to navigate the west wing with my cane. It’s an experience I’ll never forget.”