The following is one in a monthly series featuring the extraordinary people who make up the LightHouse staff.
“As we move into our new headquarters office, the LightHouse is going through a time of amazing growth and community partnership building, but our core services are as important as ever: helping people who are blind or have low vision live full and successful lives,” Frank Welte tells us. Frank, who is blind, is officially the LightHouse Information and Referral Specialist, but his job has grown over time to match his vast skillset.
“Before coming to the LightHouse, I worked as a mainframe computer programmer and performed website user testing for accessibility. As someone who is blind, I was able to lend my technology skills and blindness skills to help for-profits meet the needs of their blind constituents and customers.”
In 2007, Frank’s personal interests started to change. “I wanted to help more blind people achieve the kind of personal growth that I achieved, so I left the for-profit world and worked at the Vista Center for the Blind and the LightHouse for the Blind part-time. Later, I started working at the California Council of the Blind (CCB) as their Director of Advocacy and Governmental Affairs.”
In May 2011, Frank became a full-time LightHouse staffer, sharing his time between fielding the many calls and questions we get about resources for people who are blind or have low vision, and working on LightHouse’s Tactile Strip Map project for MUNI, BART and CalTrain.
“The Strip Maps are particularly exciting because tactile maps for the blind are just getting traction, and LightHouse is an early adopter and creator of tactile maps,” Frank told us. “I love applying my professional and real world experience to the strip map and tactile graphic process, ensuring the tactile work we produce is beautiful and useful. Tactile graphics is a growing field. For years, people mistakenly believed that tactile representations of information, like maps and graphs, were not useful to the blind—that we couldn’t learn from tactile graphics. However, LightHouse has learned that the ‘issue’ wasn’t in blind people’s abilities to read tactile graphics; rather, the tactile graphics were poorly designed and created.”
Creating tactile representations of print materials requires outside-the-box thinking and a fair amount of artistry. LightHouse also integrates many forms of media, from tactile and high contrast print, to talking smart pens and voice-eye apps. Frank works with his colleagues to ensure that their creations feel lovely and are highly usable. “It’s such a new field, LightHouse is actually creating industry standards for tactile graphic design. We are working on STEM models for blind students, maps of international transit systems and music venues, and tactile designs for the National Park Services, just to name a few projects.”
Frank’s job has evolved over the years. “Lately, I’ve been doing a lot of braille editing and proofreading, and I’ve been designing and editing tactile graphics and maps with my coworkers. I’m also completing my National Library Service (NLS) braille certification, which will round out my professional development in braille transcription and proofreading.
“[Moving into] our new building is an exciting opportunity for LightHouse to grow our Access to Information Services Department, enabling us to push the envelope further with cutting edge technologies.” Frank continues, “But our new building isn’t just about braille and tactile graphic production. At the new LightHouse we’ll be able to teach a larger number of students the blindness skills they need to thrive. Our store, Adaptations, will be larger and feature hands-on demonstrations for people to try items before they buy them. (A rarity for those who purchase accessible technology). Our Community Services Department will have more programming for a larger variety of students, from youth to seniors and everyone in between. Basically, we’ll be growing and improving our already robust programming to meet and exceed the needs of our community.”
An active member of the blindness community, Frank’s time outside of work is split between his position as a board member for CCB, serving as the President of the local San Francisco chapter of CCB, and too many other blindness initiatives to list. But he does save time for fun and recreation. “Lately, my wife and I have been planning our next vacation. We are looking to visit my wife’s family in Italy, but we also want to explore Hawaii and Alaska. On the weekends, we walk our dogs along the beach over in the East Bay, and daydream about our many future trips.”
If you are interested in having something transcribed into braille or another format, or would like to learn more about tactile graphics, contact Access to Information Services today at MADLab@lighthouse-sf.org.