The Vision of a Blind Man

© J. Francois Barnard - 26 July 2023

I have been in the computer industry for more than 36 years now, and had it not been for the vision of a blind man, it would never have happened.

blind_manMy initial studies at Pretoria University did not work out, and I desperately needed a job. Someone told me that the Pensions Directorate of the Department of Social Development was hiring pensions clerks.

I walked in, filled out a form and met Mr Ockert Vosloo, the director of the actuary directorate. He was glad that I passed Algebra, Applied Mathematics and Physics at university. "Calculus, as long as you have mastered calculus, you have a great future here!"

Yes, I knew a little about calculus but was far from mastering it. I was more worried about the teeny-weeny salary at the end of the month. It was better than what the army paid me during my national service, but I did not have to pay for rent or groceries. I had a bleak future ahead of me unless some miracle would happen.

And so it happened.

I never touched any actuary work because our small team had to help another section that fell behind on their work: Processing pension buy-backs. Parliament passed a new law that allowed government employees to repurchase pensionable service until their sixteenth birthday. Also, those with gaps in government employment could repurchase it from the pension fund. By the time they reached retirement age, their pensionable service would be long and uninterrupted.

Some called it immoral, but I saw some merit in helping women with gaps in their employment. At the time, maternity leave was unpaid, and you could not contribute to the pension fund. But adding five, ten or more years of service you never rendered so that you could retire handsomely might be immoral.

My job was to sit behind an Epson XT computer with 540kB RAM and a 20MB MFM hard disk drive, running MS-DOS V2.xx. I learned that Mr Willem Nel wrote a program in Basic and compiled it for all our computers to do the pension repurchase calculation.

Also installed on the computers were Framework and dBase III Plus. Framework was a spreadsheet and word processing program, and dBase III Plus was a database program. Whenever I completed my batches of repurchase calculations, I did the Framework and dBase III Plus tutorials.

"Why can't Willem Nel write his program in Basic to look as nice as Framework and dBase III Plus?" I said to my section head. Her reply stunned me: "Willem is blind. He cannot see the aesthetics of his work, only the functionality."

I met Willem soon afterwards. He and his twin sister were both blind and cerebrally handicapped. The state information technology company, Infoplan, trained blind people to program in Cobol and Basic. They used a device called "Echo" to give audio feedback of what was on the screen. "Echo" would read known messages and spell unknown messages.

Willem was my age, but not having to do military service, he spent a few years in training and became a competent programmer. Sharing the office with Willem was an ex-soldier who lost one arm in the Bush War. The two disabled men had us in fits of laughter, and I enjoyed learning from them. Whenever I left their office, Willem would greet me: "See you soon!"

Willem knew dBase III Plus well and was keen to teach me to program and rewrite his old Basic program. I was amazed at how he visualised the dBase code and recalled some programming routines we discussed even days later.

I loved programming so much that I worked through my lunch breaks, and sometimes my colleagues told me it was the end of the day and time to go home. I had no computer at home and could not wait to get to work to continue programming.

Willem's office was in the northern wing of the Pensions Building, and mine was in the southern wing. I would walk to his office, discuss any problems I had with coding with him, and walk back again. More than once did it happen that I would walk into my office, and the phone on my desk would ring. Willem wanted to add more to what he said and would time my walking pace in his mind and ring me at the exact right time. I realised that a blind man could "see" more than I could ever anticipate.

My program to calculate the pension buy-backs soon proved to have many problems because it was too accurate. It would use sixteen decimal places and not only two. "I had the same problem in Basic," said Willem. "We have to adjust the program to be just as inaccurate as the calculations in the Pensions Act."

The next problem was that dBase III Plus incorporated leap years in date calculations. If a period spanned over a leap year, it added the extra day to the total. I was so excited. I was going to improve these old archaic systems with computer technology.

"No," said Mr Ockert Vosloo, "we will not change the pensions act and its regulations because a 22-year-old discovered technology!"

So Willem and I worked around the accuracy problem so that the dBase III Plus calculations would match the letter of the law. At the time, it frustrated me, but in hindsight, I see how much programming I learned from my blind mentor.

After eleven months, I left the Pensions Directorate and never saw Willem Nel again. I am indebted to this man for easing me into the information technology industry. I could build my career because of the Vision of a Blind Man.