SKERI Mourns the Passing of Bill Gerrey

portrait of Bill Gerrey holding one of his devices

picture of Bill Gerrey holding a cell phone for navigationSmith-Kettlewell mourns the loss of Bill Gerrey, who was for decades one of SKERI's leading scientists and engineers, much loved by everyone at the Institute. Bill received his BSEE from Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo and came to Smith-Kettlewell in the early 1970's as a blind research subject for the Tactile Vision Substitution (TVSS) project led by Carter Collins and Paul Bach-y-Rita. He soon became a permanent member of the research team, supported by the first Rehabilitation Engineering Research Center (RERC) grant awarded to Smith-Kettlewell.

Bill founded a vocational engineering lab at Smith-Kettlewell which was later joined by other blind researchers Jay Williams, Tom Fowle, and others including Josh Miele. He developed innumerable blind-accessible instruments, tools and useful gadgets with audio and tactile outputs, and published them, including instructions on how to build them, in the Smith-Kettlewell Technical File -- a technical magazine for blind people. Many of these devices were built by others who were blind, as well as their friends and family, providing expanded access to jobs, hobbies, and other activities for people who would otherwise be excluded from such activities. In the process Bill helped save the jobs of many people who were blind or were losing their vision. As part of this effort, Bill also developed accessible methods of soldering and electronic circuit building for blind technicians and hobbyists, encouraging blind people to become involved in developing their own technical solutions. A logical outgrowth of this work was the later establishment by Josh Miele of the "Blind Arduino Project" facilitating the involvement of blind people in the emerging Maker Movement.

hand of student feeling the tactile markings and servo pointer in a completed voltmeterBill spoke about his views on the importance of inclusion in 2001. "There's a lot of things I would like to outlive, and one of them is the concept of the 'super-blind' person... I'm accused of this all the time. 'Oh, you're different, Bill....What you do doesn't have anything to do with other blind people.' As if my blindness made me smarter, or some such poppycock. As if others' blindness made them dumber. If a blind person says; 'I want to be a mechanic on a merchant ship,' everybody says, 'Well, how many other blind mechanics on merchant ships are there?' I would love for people to stop asking how many other ones there are. In a sense, that's how blind folks get entrapped in these traditional occupations.'' (Mark Athitakis. "Leading the Blind", SF Weekly, Vol. 20, 30, p. 26. 08/29/2001)

Bill's father was also blind and operated a piano tuning and repair shop -- a trade that Bill learned and carried on himself in his private life. One example among many inventions he produced or contributed to was a piano tuning aid for blind tuners. He was also an avid Ham Radio enthusiast, and developed many tools and aids to assist blind Hams. In 2016, a state-of-the-art amateur radio station at the San Francisco Lighthouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired was named in Bill's honor as the “Bill Gerrey, WA6NPC Amateur Radio Station”. Bill Gerrey and Josh Miele talking on the sidewalk

Bill's was a life richly lived, full of accomplishments that materially helped other people. His outgoing and generous spirit  will live long in our hearts and memories. 

For additional information about Bill's life, accomplishments, and insights:

Bryan Bashin Bill Gerrey Interview

Bill Gerrey: Profile of a Pioneer, Scientist, and Role Model who is Blind

Latest Blind History Podcast

SF Gate: Talking ATM

Bill's Lecture: Perspectives on Assistive Technology (Stanford University)