by Penny Reeder
I have been feeling a little lost and a lot nostalgic for good times long past since I heard about the death of Ward Bond. Ward was the president of a company called Talking Signs. He was such a passionate advocate for people who are blind having access to information about our ambient environment so that we could travel independently and with confidence to all the places we wished to go. Today, many people who are blind and others with print disabilities can obtain much of that information from our smartphones when we link them to points of information that our GPS systems make available. Soon smartphones will beam probably much more spoken information than we might even want to hear to all of us, sighted and blind alike, as we travel through the environments of our lives with systems like iBeacons. But Ward was ahead of his time in terms of developing and advocating for a system that, at the turn of the 21st century, bore enormous promise for increasing our independence and improving our quality of life.
Had the highways bill up for debate and Congressional voting at the time not gotten bogged down in endless political give-and-take, there would likely be Talking Signs all over Washington, D.C., and blind travelers would have been enjoying independence and safe travel through D.C.’s National Mall and Metrorail system’s diverse stations well ahead of the GPS systems that smartphones and their apps have made available to us during this decade. Ward had gotten authorization for installation of Talking Signs in several Washington, D.C. venues into the bill after several endless years of lobbying and persuading – the kind of lobbying that, back then, pre-Internet and online petitioning, wore out endless pairs of leather shoes and weakened the spirits of less passionate men!
In the end, after five long years of internal squabbles and partisan politics, it didn’t happen, and, thankfully, it seems that technology and assistive technology have risen to the challenge that Ward understood several decades earlier. Similar systems are increasingly available to blind and visually impaired travelers, and we are grateful for that.
Knowing passionate advocates like Ward has been such a blessing in my life, and in the lives of many, many others. His dedication to a cause serves as an inspiration, but even more important, his belief in those of us who are blind and visually impaired, in our ability to decide our own destinations and our own destinies, and in our right to do so, has buoyed my own belief in myself. And I am not alone in that.
Ward introduced me to San Francisco when a grant from Talking Signs allowed the American Council of the Blind, where I worked at the time, to attend early meetings of the Access Board’s Public Rights-of-Way Access Advisory Committee. It was my first grown-up business trip, and unfortunately for some of the employers I have traveled for since then, set a higher bar than any other employer I’ve worked with since has ever come close to meeting! Ward treated me like a fellow professional, there to cover an important event, for a magazine that mattered – not like some disadvantaged blind girl who needed to be protected.
Talking Signs accommodated me in a gorgeous guest house in the heart of one of the world’s most spectacular cities. Ward brought me to meet several engineers who were working to solve blindness-related problems at Smith-Kettlewell Eye Research Institute. One invited us to lunch on his houseboat moored in the San Francisco Bay; it was one of the most gorgeous and welcoming homes I’ve ever visited! Ward took me on a tour of the city. I mentioned wanting to visit City Lights, and it was in a part of the city Ward, a native of Baton Rouge, didn’t frequent, so we mounted an excursion and there I was breathing in the same air once breathed by Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac. I will always be grateful. And I will never sing along with Otis Redding about “Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay” without thinking fondly of Ward and that magical trip.
Ward spent a wild and crazy youth well, and his stories about the people who colored those years became fascinating stories which were endlessly entertaining for those of us lucky enough to spend time with him. It does make me smile today to think of Ward once again spending time – in some distant plane far from the here-and-now – with some of those folks who were among the most important and influential thinkers of the 20th century.
Farewell, Ward. Rest in peace, and thank you for your passion, your kindness, and your generosity of spirit and understanding. The world was a much better place for having you here with us for a while.