Ed Summers has been fascinated by computers and programming since his college days at UNC. A degenerative retinal disease slowly deprived him of virtually all his vision but as a software engineer at software giant SAS he continues to write programming and work with others who have disabilities in order to help them capitalize on the advantages of computers. With him 24 hours a day is his seeing eye dog Willie, who even has his own blog at SAS.

By the way, Summers grew up in Cary and attended Cary High School.

Today in Raleigh, Summers and others will be encouraging students with disabilities to pursue STEM careers at an event in Raleigh at the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences.

In a Q&A with WRALTechWire, Summers shares his remarkable story, the effort by SAS to reach out to students with disabilities, his relationship with Wo;;oe, and how he hopes his example inspires others.

  • Ed, congratulations on your inspiring efforts! We need more people like you who are inspired to help others. What triggered your interest in software development?

I got hooked on Computer Science when I took my first programming class in college (an UNC-Wilmington). I had a wonderful professor that roped me into the Computer Science program and served as a mentor throughout college.

  • How long have you been visually impaired, and how did you overcome that in deciding to write programming? What caused your impairment?

I was diagnosed with Retinitis Pigmentosa when I was a child. RP is a degenerative retinal disease. My RP progressed slowly until I was about 30 and then I quickly lost the ability to read print, etc. That was 12 years ago and I have very little vision now.

  • How long have you worked at SAS? How did you come to work there?

I started at SAS as a co-op during my senior year at Cary High School. That was 1988. I went to college for a B.S. in Computer Science and return to SAS upon graduation in 1994.

  • What are your feelings about SAS as a company in its efforts to help with education nationwide and in programs to help the visually impaired?

SAS is a wonderful company in many respects. It is a lot of fun to work for a company with world-class products. It is a lot of fun to create innovative technology and see how our customers use the technology to solve hard problems.

Due to our Corporate philanthropic focus on education, SAS employees get many opportunities to contribute to the community in the area of education. In my caes, I have a unique understanding of the needs of students with disabilities and considerable insight into how the latest technology can help those students succeed in the classroom and beyond. SAS has been very supportive of project proposals in this area.

The STEM Career Showcase for Students with Disabilities is one example. Another example is the professional development program for Teachers of the Visually Impaired (TVIs) that we started last summer. The program teaches TVIs how to use the built-in accessibility features of the Apple iPad and integrate them into the classroom with students with visual impairments. We’ve trained more than 300 TVIs across the country thus far. (More info can be found online about those efforts.)

  • What message are you hoping your example conveys to others?

I hope the students that attend the STEM Career Showcase for Students with Disabilities will leave with the knowledge that there are endless opportunities that await them. We assembled a group of very successful professionals with disabilities that are living proof that students with disabilities can go on to do great things.

  • As you watch teachers help visually impaired students with tools you have helped developed, how does that make you feel?

It feels great to see students with visual impairments using the latest technology to cultivate their intellectual curiosity and a love of learning. There is a huge gap between the technologies that professionals with disabilities use to succeed on the job every day and the technology that is being used by students with disabilities in school. I believe that high-quality professional development for teachers is the most effective way to close that gap.

  • By the way, what made you decide to give Willie a blog? What does he mean to you as a visually impaired person and as a companion?

Willie is an amazing animal. We are together 24×7 at work, play, travel, etc. It is a very rewarding and enriching relationship. We gave Willie a blog because he has a great story to tell. Unfortunately, I keep him on the go so much he doesn’t have time to post as often as he would like.

(Read more from Willie online.)