We honor here members, friends and supporters of the American Council of the Blind who have impacted our lives in many wonderful ways. If you would like to submit a notice for this column, please include as much of the following information as possible.
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Deaths that occurred more than six months ago cannot be reported in this column.
Fred L. Gissoni, age 84, passed away Sept. 21, 2014. He lived in the Crescent Hill area of Louisville, Ky. Fred was known across the United States and around the world for his brilliant intellect, inventiveness, and impish sense of humor. Fred contributed 60 years of service to people who are blind and visually impaired.
Gissoni was born in New Jersey. Blind since birth, he did not, as he told it, go to one of the five widely renowned schools for the blind in that area, but rather, to a resource room in a public school, first in Garfield, N.J., and later in Hackensack. He was interested in amateur radio at age 6 or 7, and that marked the beginning of a lifelong passion for all things technical.
In 1956, he took a job with a subsection of Kentucky's Department of Education. His boss was the legendary Tim Cranmer. Gissoni and Cranmer learned the abacus together, and Gissoni wrote detailed instructions for its use. That book, “Using the Cranmer Abacus,” is still available from the American Printing House, as is the abacus itself. Fred also wrote and taught a course on use of the abacus for the Hadley School for the Blind.
In terms of the technology blind people are using today, what stands out most notably in the work of Fred Gissoni would probably be the development of the Pocketbraille and Portabraille, collaborations of Fred Gissoni and Wayne Thompson, while the two were colleagues at the Kentucky Department for the Blind.
The Pocketbraille was built to be housed in a videocassette box (one for a VHS cassette, which was state-of-the-art in the mid 1980s.) One could enter data from a Perkins-style keyboard and hear it spoken aloud. When Fred learned of a braille display manufacturer in Italy, the project grew into a refreshable braille device called Portabraille. The Kentucky Department made only 12 Portabraille units — two of which enabled blind people to retain their jobs. Rather than making a profit from the machines themselves, Gissoni and Thompson sold the detailed instructions for building the device for $5. Deane Blazie's interest in those plans led to the birth of the Braille 'n Speak.
Fred was particularly proud of the Janus Slate, the double-sided interline braille slate that holds a three-by-five index card for brailling on both sides. When asked about the name of this product, he said, “Well, Janus was the Roman god of portals. But I like to tell people that he was the Roman god of braille, and since we didn't actually have braille for several hundred more years, he didn't have much to do.” That is vintage Fred Gissoni banter.
Other inventions he developed for APH were also small items, including a pocket braille calendar and a gadget he called FoldRite, which simplified folding an 8-1/2” by 11” sheet of paper into thirds. When asked about his accomplishments, one of the things he mentioned was introducing Larry Skutchan to APH.
Fred always used an abacus and was never without a slate and stylus. Batteries die and chips fail, he said simply. On the Fred's Head web site, APH refers to him as a legend. He shared his tips, techniques, knowledge, genius, and generous spirit with blind people everywhere for more than 80 years. Fred's world of knowledge eventually became what is now the Fred's Head from APH blog (www.fredshead.info).
A memorial service was being planned as we went to press. In lieu of flowers, contributions are requested to American Printing House for the Blind, United Crescent Hill Ministries for food (UCHM, 150 S. State St., Louisville, KY 40206), or the Crescent Hill United Methodist Church (201 S. Peterson Ave., Louisville, KY 40206).