John Boyer was born blind and was deaf for most of his life, and he was not someone to underestimate, as former St. Thomas College President Monsignor James Shannon learned.
“I confess publicly and with regret that I was skeptical four years ago,” Shannon wrote in The Aquin in 1961. “My question then was, ‘How can any boy who is blind and deaf hear lectures, recite in class or write examinations?’ In four years he has demonstrated that he can perform each of these functions with brilliant success.”
Lectures were translated into sign language by Boyer’s guides, fellow students who lived with him and accompanied him to class, where they would translate by holding their hand signs to Boyer’s palm. He graduated with a major in mathematics and the second-highest GPA in his class.
Boyer died Jan. 17 in Madison, Wisconsin, at age 86. He was born in Wadena, Minnesota, in 1936 in a family of 12 children. He is most well known for leading the development of Liblouis, an open-source Braille translator created in 2002. It was named for Louis Braille, who invented the raised dot language for the blind, and the software continues to be maintained and updated.
The White House awarded Boyer with a Champions of Change Award in 2012 for his dedication to opening avenues of science education to people with disabilities.
According to Boyer’s autobiographical statement, he returned to his Catholic faith following the death of his wife, Hazel, in 1977. He started a nonprofit company to provide computing jobs for people with disabilities and credited the book Give Us The Tools by Henry Viscardi, which he read during college, for the inspiration to do that. Working on software with a company that printed books in Braille led Boyer to create Liblouis, which is used extensively and can represent mathematics in Braille. In 2006, he created a company to develop no-cost software for people with disabilities. He retired in 2014 and devoted his time to writing Christian science fiction, tinkering with his software creations and to prayer and contemplation.