Abraham Nemeth, Creator of a Braille Code for Math, Is Dead at 94

Abraham Nemeth, whose frustrations in pursuing an academic career in math prompted him to develop the Nemeth Code, a form of Braille that greatly improved the ability of visually impaired people to study complex mathematics, died on Wednesday at his home in Southfield, Mich. He was 94. The cause was congestive heart failure, his niece Dianne Bekritsky said.

Blind since he was an infant, Dr. Nemeth grew up on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, the grandson of a kosher butcher. He was a bright child who taught himself to play the piano using Braille music books and was increasingly drawn to what he later called “the beauty of mathematics.”

Yet as his math skills increased, he found that Braille could take him only so far. It was too easy to confuse letters and numbers in certain situations and too cumbersome to constantly clarify. The more complicated math became, the more limited Braille became.

“There was no way of doing square roots, partial differentials, et cetera,” said Joyce Hull, who worked with Dr. Nemeth for many years, refining and writing manuals for his code. “That’s one of the reasons they said, ‘No, blind people can’t do math.’ ”

Dr. Nemeth knew that they could. Even as college advisers steered him in other directions — he earned his master’s in psychology from Columbia in 1942 — he began tinkering with the six-dot cell that is the foundation of Braille. By the late 1940s, while working in the shipping department of the American Foundation for the Blind (and playing piano in Brooklyn bars to make extra money), he had come up with a customized Braille code for math; he made symbols for the basics of addition and subtraction but also for the complexities of differential calculus. He even made a Braille slide rule.

He began informally sharing his new symbols with others, and the code quickly caught on. In 1950, he presented it to the American Joint Uniform Braille Committee. By the mid-1950s, the Nemeth Code had been adopted by national groups and incorporated into textbooks, providing him with a new career. In 1955, he was hired by the University of Detroit to teach math — to sighted students, using a chalkboard.

It helped that as a young man, he had learned to write in straight lines even though he could not see. He had also developed a long memory.

“The first line of writing goes at the top of the board — level with the top of my head,” he said in a 1958 interview with Coronet magazine. “The next line is at my eye level, the third at chin level, the one after that at chest level. You just work down.”

Well into his 90s, he was traveling frequently to speak to advocates for the blind and join in discussions over changes in Braille code. He was also constantly working to improve Braille, both for math and non-math uses, Ms. Hull said, responding just recently when she sent him queries for a manual.

Abraham Nemeth was born in Manhattan on Oct. 16, 1918. He attended public schools and grew up in a devout Jewish household, often attending worship services with his grandfather.

Dr. Nemeth frequently gave credit to his first wife, the former Florence Weissman, who was partly blind, for encouraging him to pursue his passion for math when he had trouble finding a job in which he could use his psychology degree. When he re-entered Columbia to study math, she worked to help pay his tuition. She died in 1970. Dr. Nemeth’s second wife, Edna Lazar, is also deceased. He has no immediate survivors.

Dr. Nemeth received his doctorate in mathematics from Wayne State University in Detroit. He began studying computer science in the 1960s and later started the university’s computer science program. He retired in 1985. For two years he served as the chairman of the Michigan Commission for the Blind.

Throughout his life, he dedicated much of his spare time to creating Braille versions of Jewish texts, including helping to proofread a Braille Hebrew Bible in the 1950s. He also helped develop MathSpeak, a method for communicating math orally.

Dr. Cary Supalo, a professor at Illinois State University who is blind and works to make science and science laboratories accessible to the blind, said Dr. Nemeth was revered among educators focused on the blind.

“If I had to do what Dr. Nemeth did, to basically invent his own Braille system for doing mathematics, I probably wouldn’t have pursued a science career,” he said.

Dr. Marc Maurer, the president of the National Federation of the Blind, said in a statement that Dr. Nemeth’s work “undoubtedly changed many lives.” The Nemeth Code, he said, “enabled many blind people to learn, work and excel in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.”

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Accessibility, Access, Inclusion, Education, Training, Early Intervention

William Yardley

New York Times

Date published:
Sun 6th Oct, 2013