Bill Dengler and Terri Rupp
October 2018 Issue
by Nina Greenplate
Photos courtesy of Terri Rupp
How we navigate our world says a lot about who we are; our values, ambitions, the choices we make that affect our next steps. In terms of direction, navigating from place to place is but a simple GPS command to our device of choice. Bill Dengler of Hilton Head has been navigating his world without sight for 18 years. Yet, to define this first year university student by his lack of sight would be an enormous disservice to the person he is, and how he’s mapping his own pathway in the field of technology and beyond.
His sight was taken by a genetic disorder called Norrie Disease, which affects male infants. “Being blind is not a disability, it’s simply an inconvenience,” he said. Humor isn’t lost on Bill. A smile curls when he talks about how well-meaning strangers offer him a wheelchair in public airports. He politely reminds them: “I can walk, I just can’t see.”
Bill is a Computer Science major at Pennsylvania’s Swarthmore College, where only 9 percent of more than 11,000 applicants are accepted annually. “Computer Science is essentially problem solving,” Bill stated. Careers branch to intersect this curriculum, including applied statistics, bio-technology, data/software engineering, natural language, and artificial intelligence. Problem solving indeed! Hilton Head High School’s International Baccalaureate (IB) Diploma Programme was an impressive platform in Bill’s preparation for further study. He finished with a 5.0 GPA and the highest IB score of 36 in the Class 2018.
His affinity for all things technological had a sweet genesis. His mother, and Bill’s greatest cheerleader, Terri Rupp, noticed her 4-year-old son was fascinated with the sound of her clicking keyboard. “He asked me what the sound was,” she clearly remembered. “It opened a new world for him.” She researched and discovered something called a screen reader; assistive technology which reads aloud the content on the screen. He was fascinated! Today, this is Bill’s modus operandi and his lifeline to movement and information-gathering. Bill identifies numbers dialed on a phone through the tones they make. “I read by listening,” he said. To put the speed of his hearing comprehension through the screen reader, we look at the average sighted person’s ability, and see we process 100–150 verbal words per minute. What sounds a bit like gibberish to us is Bill processing 600–800 words per minute! When asked about using Braille, he explained, “Braille never clicked for me. I simply read it too slowly.”
Terri exposed her son to normal tasks. “I pretty much threw him out there,” she smiled. “You’re living in a sighted world, Bill. Turn the light on when you enter a room with someone,” reminding him to be polite. She and Bill’s stepfather, also Bill, continue to champion his hunger for learning. Though excited about his acceptance to Swarthmore, they had understandable concerns about his ability to navigate a new space. “Mind mapping was essential,” they said. This is literally laying out the entire campus to make an imprint in Bill’s mind. It required concentration and memorization of every corner, pathway, entryway, hallway and classroom. As his mobility aid, Terri and her son spent 35 days creating a 3D, tactile map of the school, using pipe-cleaners, coffee stirrers, straws, and cardboard cutouts for Bill to first feel his way around. They would then physically walk these pathways, over and over, until his level of comfort was satisfactory. Bill mastered it.
Enthusiasm for gaining better accessibility methods for the blind is of great importance to Bill. In first grade, (with the help of Terri) Bill overcame teachers and school administration telling him he was too young for computers. He refused to be limited, and fought to reshape the tools and methods for teaching non-sighted students. At 8 years old, he was writing simple computer programs, and an appreciation for math and programming was born. Math itself is difficult for the blind. Imagine not being able to visualize the calculus problem before you.
Beyond his school accomplishments, Bill found time to make a name for himself in the real technology world. In August 2017, Bill noticed some missing content in the field of internet radio while reading the LINUX Journal; a technology publication for operating systems’ enthusiasts. He contacted their editor, and they welcomed him to write a piece for review. Not only did he punch out eight pages, his article was listed on the cover, in large text, reading, “Create an Internet Radio Station with Icecast and Liquidsoap.” His response to this honor was humble, “This helps me because of exposure, and I’m now passing on this knowledge to help someone else.”
Bill has beta-tested more than a few potentially groundbreaking devices to make them more accessible to the sight-impaired. AIRA, a company using the Google Glasses platform, is using what looks like reading glasses, but is actually a design to make life easier for the blind. While wearing the glasses, the system allows an Aira agent to see what the impaired person “sees”, in real-time, and then talks them through whatever situation they’re in. Bill is assisting them in perfecting any glitches! He has also helped test the Amazon Echo and Google Home, while assisting as an Apple developer/beta team member. Bill even discovered a glitch in Chromebook at the age of 13. They’ve since corrected it.
Bill moves with purpose and determination! His vision is clearer than many with sight, and the road before him is anxiously awaiting his next move.
[Fun Facts about Bill:]
> Terri fabricated his first cane out of PVC pipe,
and fashioned it like a toddler’s push toy.
>He has perfect pitch hearing; he can identify which coins are dropped by the sounds they make.
> He is a rollercoaster lover!
>He holds an Amateur Radio Technician License.
>He is an Intel National Science Award winner.
>He has earned more than 20 honors and distinctions, leadership positions and service awards.
>He developed a scoring Web App for national
high school culinary competition