He's Helping the Blind 'See' Their Work — and Become Engineers
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Josh Coffee’s digital tablet could create a new generation of architects and engineers.
By Nick Fouriezos
Josh Coffee is not blind, and he didn’t spend much time thinking about the challenges blind students face while he was growing up. In fact, as an engineering major at the University of Vermont in 2011, his second choice for a capstone project was creating tactile graphing tools for the visually impaired — like most of his ski-addicted classmates, his top pick was to work for Burton Snowboards. “I was very fortunate I didn’t get put on that project,” he laughs now. If he had, the 28-year-old entrepreneur may never have found what’s become his calling: bringing STEM skills to the blind.
At UVM, Coffee built prototypes of a digital tablet that could create “raised” lines, giving students the ability to draw an image, feel it and, for the first time, to erase the 3D designs if they choose — think Etch A Sketch on steroids. While a number of products have appeared on the market allowing blind people to make raised lines, none had previously figured out how to permit users to erase a three-dimensional object.
“It gives blind people the capacity to create digital graphics,” Coffee says. Such skills are integral to advanced mathematics, especially geometry and algebra, required of budding engineers and scientists. What began as Coffee’s senior project soon became much more after he spent his postgrad summer traveling to trade shows, including the National Federation for the Blind’s annual convention. There, speaking with parents of blind students, he learned that roughly three-quarters of vision-impaired adults are unemployed, partly the result of assumptions that they lack the skills to perform STEM jobs. It convinced him to try to build a business to address the problem.
Today, E.A.S.Y. Tactile Graphics’ sketch pads and eraser technology are being used in dozens of schools for blind and low-vision students around the country — buoyed by a $1 million grant in 2015 from the National Institutes of Health to develop a 3D printer that helps the company mass-produce its products. The bundled pad and eraser comes with a curriculum that teaches K-12 students how to draw stick figures and simple images, write in cursive and bisect geometry angles. “The real benefit of it is it allows you to erase, because nobody draws perfectly the first time,” says Anil Lewis, a board member at the National Federation for the Blind (NFB).
At first, the Burlington-based company planned to ship printers to schools so teachers could create their own curriculum — only to discover that teachers didn’t want the technological burden. “Why don’t we just start shipping content instead?” Coffee asked, and now his worksheets are being sent to public and specialized schools using E.A.S.Y. tools from Vermont and Texas to Louisiana and Massachusetts. “We initially thought we would be a tech company,” Coffee says. “Now we think the greater opportunity is in publishing.”
When children are given crayons and their scribbling eventually turns into a skill set, it’s dependent not on sight, but touch.
Growing up in a middle-class family in Maine — his mother works for an accounting firm and his father is a beer distributor sales manager — Coffee was president of his school’s French Honors Society and Yachting Club. Student government didn’t appeal — he wasn’t interested in “a popularity contest,” and his primary goal was “to be rich.” Today, the entrepreneur who idolizes Jeff Bezos is keenly aware of the irony of that dream, now that he has shifted from a lucrative, buzzworthy industry to one that’s decidedly old-school and constantly fending off rumors of its demise. “It’s rare,” he admits, when most companies are taking the opposite tack and shifting from publishing to technology. Plus, they’re targeting a very limited market: There are only about 50,000 blind students in America’s K-12 school systems (500,000 if you include the visually impaired). With 1,000 tablets sold to date, E.A.S.Y. is already at 2 percent market penetration without any full-time sales staff. “It’s still not a market that will satisfy traditional venture capitalists,” Coffee says.
True enough, but under the Individuals With Disabilities Act, schools are required to provide similar opportunities for disabled students if the technology exists. With a proof of concept in place, E.A.S.Y. is positioning itself to be the major provider helping blind students, say, bisect angles. So far the company has relied on grants to meet its $350,000 budget to support six employees, but it could take off in a field with few direct competitors once it demonstrates how America’s schools can use its products to even the playing field for blind students.
For those students, the results can be astonishing. When the NFB gathered 30 kids to teach them to design a 3D box using E.A.S.Y. tools, Lewis says it was like “an epiphany” for one of the blind students. “That opened a whole new chapter in his life,” says Lewis, who is blind himself.
And more and more employers are realizing that employees with disabilities can bring game-changing skills to their industries. A recent study out of Harvard University, for instance, found that employees on the autism spectrum were able to problem-solve 40 percent faster than their peers, and in Michigan, Lt. Gov. Brian Calley led a “Hidden Talent” tour to draw awareness to the success autistic individuals are having in STEM fields. Lewis says E.A.S.Y. tools could also be useful for blind professionals such as architects and credits Coffee for being adaptive and flexible: “We so rarely find this, someone who is willing to recognize that if you want to do something for us, then you need to be more responsive with us,” Lewis says.
Coffee recalls the early days when his primary task was convincing parents and educators that STEM fields were attainable for blind students. “People assume it’s a visual thing, and then they assume a blind person can’t do it,” Lewis says. But when children are given crayons and their scribbling eventually turns into a skill set, it’s dependent not on sight, but touch, Coffee argues. His theory? If you hand blind students a stylus and a drawing pad at a young age, later in life they can perform just as well in STEM-related skills as their peers. “We’ve started seeing the results of changing that expectation,” Coffee says. For the man who dreamed only of working on snowboards and getting rich, it’s clear that changing expectations has changed him too.