Since the mid-1960s, people with severe disabilities have been learning to communicate by using a system of symbols called Blissymbolics. Charles Bliss, who aimed to create a universally understood method of communication, invented this international language, which uses pictures instead of words, in the 1940s. Canadian therapists began teaching cerebral palsy patients how to use it in the 1960s and its use among the disabled began to spread. However, until the 1980s, those users had been unable to use the system independently.
That’s when Rachel Zimmerman, then just twelve years of age, created a device known as the Blissymbol printer. The apparatus uses a software program to translate Blissymbols tapped on a board into written language on a computer screen, allowing the disabled to “talk” to others, record thoughts, write correspondence, even send emails.
Zimmerman was born in 1972 and grew up in London, Ontario, Canada. She began working on her ideas for the Blissymbol printer as a school science project. Typically, a user of Blissymbols uses a “Bliss board” to point to images of the various symbols and an assistant stays nearby to translate what the person is trying to communicate into spoken language. Zimmerman developed the idea of adding a special touch pad so that the user could simply touch the board and the software would do the translating, transmitting the output in the language of the user’s choice onto a computer screen.
Zimmerman’s concept made it possible for non-speaking people to be able to communicate in a variety of different ways, without help, for the first time. She won a silver medal for the Blissymbol printer at the World Exhibition of Achievement of Young Inventors. She also won the YTV Television Youth Achievement Award.
Since her accomplishment Zimmerman has gone on to study physics and space; she completed her college degree in 1990 and began working for the Planetary Society in California. Since 2013, she has worked as an education and public outreach specialist with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.