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Blind Physicist's Quest: Save Braille From Extinction

April 21, 1998|ERIKA CHAVEZ

Kent Cullers has never shied from challenges.

Blind since birth, he nevertheless became a National Merit Scholar and valedictorian at Temple City High School. He studied psychology and earned a doctoral degree in physics, becoming the first completely blind physicist in the United States.

Cullers was also one of the first scientists to search for signs of life beyond Earth, helping to found the SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) Institute in Mountain View. His quest was depicted in last summer's film "Contact," starring Jodie Foster.

Now, Cullers is on another mission: He's doing everything he can to ensure that Braille doesn't become extinct.

"We would never let society become illiterate, but for blind people, that could happen in another generation," said Cullers, the keynote speaker at Wednesday's benefit luncheon for the Braille Institute Auxiliary of Orange County. Cullers' mother works at the Anaheim-based Auxiliary.

Increasingly, Braille isn't being taught to blind children in schools, Cullers said, because relying on speech--and hearing--is more convenient.

"I was the first totally blind physicist because the technology to help me came along at the right time and because I was motivated," Cullers, 48, said. "The tragic thing is that I may also be the last if Braille dies."

Born premature, Cullers was immersed in pure oxygen, which, although common practice for premature babies in the 1950s, resulted in blindness. He has been an avid ham radio operator since childhood, which led to his lifelong interest in radio waves. The SETI Institute hopes to scan 1,000 stars by 2000 in search of radio signals, although Cullers isn't holding his breath for a discovery.

"You would have to survey tens of thousands, perhaps millions of stars before you're likely to find a civilization out there," he said. "But it's important to search."

In the meantime, Cullers said he's hoping Braille won't be a casualty of an increasingly high-tech society.

"Today most blind people can't spell literately, and that's because they can hear everything," Cullers said. "But you can't have precision in math and science without Braille."

Tickets for the Braille Institute Auxiliary of Orange County's benefit are $60. Information: (714) 854-8208.

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