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Wadena native awarded by White House

John Boyer

A Wadena native was named a Champion of Change at the White House for advancing science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education for Americans with disabilities.

John Boyer is the founder, president and chief software developer of Abilitiessoft, Inc. which makes STEM material available to people with disabilities.

Born on a farm southeast of Wadena, Boyer was blind and lost his hearing later during childhood, so he learned through tactile methods.

"When I first discovered science as a child I was horrified to find that very little good material was available in Braille," Boyer said. "The desire to save others from similar frustration is one of the main motives behind my work. Another is that I find myself in a position to make a difference, and I believe that it is the will of God that I should do what I can."

Boyer applied for the Champion of Change award and was one of 14 people named for the honor. He also was among several of the award winners who participated in a May 7 panel at the White House.

"This was a special event for people who were making contributions toward enabling people with disabilities to take a more active part in STEM. The event itself consisted of two panel discussions. I was on the first, discussing advances in education and employment," he said.

Boyer was born in 1936, and was one of 12 kids. Growing up blind at that time period, Boyer had few options for education. Even though it was not an ideal situation, he was sent to the state school for the blind in Faribault, Minn., while still very young.

Boyer's situation didn't keep him from wanting to learn.

"I was always interested in mechanical things. After I learned to read, I discovered books on science and just gravitated to the subject," he said.

Boyer spent summers in Wadena, where his parents lived for the rest of their lives.

As stated in Boyer's autobiographical sketch on the Abilitiessoft website, he went to the New York Institute for the Education of the Blind, starting at age 13. He later went on to the College of St. Thomas in St. Paul, where he graduated in 1961 with a mathematics degree to begin a career as a computer programmer.

Even though Boyer was a high school salutatorian and graduated second in his college class, he could not find employment in his field right away.

He pursued further education at University of Cincinnati and worked as a programmer in the late 1960s.

To help his situation, Boyer designed his own hearing aid and trained his own seeing-eye dog.

Boyer also faced moments of tragedy, which made him stronger. The death of his wife, Hazel, in 1977 re-awakened him to his Catholic faith. In 1996, he looked into becoming a deacon, but eventually decided to merge faith and technology, which resulted in the GodTouches project.

"The GodTouches ministry is mostly a website with spiritual material, much of it Catholic," he said.

At the University of Wisconsin--Madison, he completed his master's degree and subsequently finished all but his dissertation as a Ph.D. candidate.

Boyer's current flagship project with Abilitiessoft is BrailleBlaster, a word processor with special features for producing Braille and tactile graphics.

"When I was in college my books were transcribed into Braille, but they had no graphs of any kind. Since I was a math major, I had to use my imagination," Boyer said.

Boyer added that BrailleBlaster can translate text and mathematics into various forms of Braille.

Also, since anyone can look at the source code for the project, the software is free, Boyer said.

Boyer said BrailleBlaster was supposed to be finished by now, but lack of resources got the project behind schedule. Also, he does not have a salary or compensation, and Abilitiessoft has one employee, a business manager.

Ultimately, Boyer moves forward with the hope that he will one day find the financial means to hire programmers and better his software.