Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Washington state blind man continues career as machinist

From the Seattle Post-Intelligencer:

KENNEWICK, Wash. -- The sign says "Basic Machining," but what Bernie Vinther accomplishes inside his two-car garage converted into a shop is far more complicated than that.

The 65-year-old moves around the cramped quarters, sidling between a 13-by-40-inch metal lathe, a metal band saw, drill press, cabinets with razor-edged cutting tools and a milling machine that would take three hefty men to inch it into position.

When Vinther flips a switch, fluorescent lights reveal dozens of wrenches, files, hammers, pliers and machinist's drill bits filling niches above, on and under benches and cabinets.

A typical machine shop, except each item has its place.

This is Vinther's world, one where he works in total darkness.

"The lights are for you handicapped people," the Kennewick resident says with a smile as his fingers feel for the switch. His eyes don't hint at the meaning of the joke because he lost his vision to diabetes more than two decades ago.

Sightless but confident and seemingly fearless, Vinther's love of machining is his second chosen career.

He used to be a skilled electronics technician in Western Washington, owning a business that specialized in industrial communications systems. He designed, built and fixed radios, and even climbed communications towers.

But the diabetes that began in childhood worsened. At age 38, his sight began to diminish, marking the end of his chosen career.

His life change included a move to the Tri-Cities, where his wife Brenda had grown up and had a job offer.

As Vinther's world grew darker, a desire to work with his hands led to an interest in machining, so he enrolled in machine shop classes at Columbia Basin College 10 years ago.

The first challenge was overcoming the resistance of having a blind person in a shop where the odds were high for losing fingers to the equipment. Vinther prevailed, completing the required courses, which even included blueprint reading.

How did he do it?

"You have only two eyes. I have 10," he says, holding up his fingers and thumbs.

Having a good mental picture also helps, Vinther said.

Vinther feels shapes, molding three-dimensional objects out of clay.

"I have a way of making drawings I can feel, using a drawing kit made with Velcro and yarn for the lines," he said.

Listening carefully also tells him not only where things are, but also the relative speed of moving machinery.

But Vinther's best trick is an audio readout device that tells him the precise measurements and positions on his lathes and milling machines.

By attaching the device to each machine's digital display, he hears the information he needs. That way he can make necessary adjustments to as close as one ten-thousandths of an inch.

The device was designed and built for Vinther by the nonprofit Smith-Kettlewell Eye Research Institute in San Francisco, which was founded to develop products for the blind.

Using a Braille printer, Vinther has labeled all of his cutting tools. He's even created a multi-page drill size index in Braille so he knows which tool to use, in both metric and standard sizes.

Most of Vinther's jobs are for people he knows as friends or neighbors, but he also does contract work. A recent assignment involved making parts out of stainless steel for LIGO, the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory at Hanford operated by the California Institute of Technology.

Vinther is one of perhaps only 100 blind machinists nationwide, with maybe only 10 others who are at his level of proficiency.

He's a rarity, but not perfect.

"When I make mistakes, I start over," he said.

He's had a couple of injuries, both to the same finger and once cut to the bone. But Vinther notes that he still has all 10 digits and his only lingering problem is it's more difficult reading Braille with the damaged finger.

He said he doesn't think about what could go wrong. "I visualize things in my head. I just do it."

An example of his mental capabilities is evident in a 6-inch square box crammed with 32 wires attached to his milling machine. Vinther designed and built the electrical component as a dead man's switch to replace a much simpler on-off switch that burned out.

His design is better because it controls all of the features of the machine with a single control, making it safer to operate.

"I like to keep learning. I'm always having to figure out how to do something," Vinther said.

Willard Stone, a neighbor, said he couldn't believe what Vinther was doing. So he called the Herald to suggest a story.

"He does the impossible," Stone said.

Vinther sees his life as a challenge.

"I can't quite understand why when most people go blind it is the end for them and they give up," he said.

"But you see, it's these challenges that push me on to find more and more ways to do more and more things."

Vinther's life isn't all work. He also enjoys taking his wife on dates to the movies.

He listens as she explains what's happening on the big screen.

Brenda also can be a big help as a machinist's assistant.

"She's been a big help to me. She finds the things I drop on the floor," he said.