Rachel Zimmerman is the inventor of the Blissymbol Printer. A device used by people who have difficulty communicating such as those with Cerebral Palsy or other severe physical disabilities (Famous Women Inventors, 2008).
Born in 1972 in London, Ontario, Canada, Rachel Zimmerman was just 12 years old when she made an invention that would lead her to discovering her future. Although her interests included things like art, music, debating, Native Canadian culture and environmental issues, science is what she loved. So while most saw the annual science fair as just another of the many projects they have to do. Zimmerman took quite a different approach to it. Some of her early projects were on subjects that include adhesion, vibration, astronomy, incandescent light, and properties of glass which make it behave like a fluid (Zimmerman, 1991).
Zimmerman’s first contact with Blissymbols was in sixth grade. She was reading books about Helen Keller and Louis Braille when she stumbled across a book about Bliss in the same section. She learned all she could about Blissymbols and the people who use it. She decided she wanted to improve the system; she wanted them to be able to write messages independently, without having to have someone in the room to interpret for them (Zimmerman, 1991). So for her sixth grade science fair she used all of the information she had learned and all the additional information she searched for to learn how to use a computer to draw Blissymbols and she educated the public. She told them everything, what it was, how it worked, who used it, etc.
After the fair Zimmerman continued her research and did experiments trying to improve the system of Blissymbolics. By seventh grade she had designed and developed a system that would print the English meanings of a sequence of symbols that had been pressed (Zimmerman, 1991). She entered this in her seventh grade school science fair. Zimmerman was chosen to be one of ten students to participate in the city wide science fair, in which she received a first place award in the computing category. She was then chosen to be one of five students to compete nationally, where she got to meet 300 different participants that were from various places across the country, which she believed was one of the best aspects. They had a guest speaker who was very inspirational. Steve McLean a Canadian astronaut encouraged them all to pursue what interests them in the science and technology field. Being the youngest person to take part in the Canada-wide contest she did well, taking the silver medal. Then she went on to compete on the world level at the Exhibition of Achievement of Young Inventors. After that she won the YTV Television Youth Achiever Award. IBM awarded her with their Regional Junior Computing Technology award (Zimmerman, 1991).
She had various other awards and recognitions, but that’s not the important part. The important part is what she said about them. At the time she said she was “surprised to be receiving international recognition” (Zimmerman, 1991, pg 60). After she visited BCI (Blissymbolics Communication Institute) she “really appreciated being taken seriously and treated as a peer” (Zimmerman, 1991, pg 60). She discovered that whenever someone would show an interest in her work she felt more compelled to continue (Zimmerman, 1991). However, she believed that the best, most exciting award was “the smile on the face of a young bliss user when they try out the device for the first time” (Zimmerman, 1991, pg 60).
Zimmerman credits this science fair project as a big influence on her decision to study sciences in college. While in college she studied Physics and Space studies, and graduated in 1990. After she finished college Zimmerman went to work for The Planetary Society in California where she taught people about space exploration. In 2008 she was an education and public outreach specialist with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena California. Some of her interests now include “combining space technology with assistive intelligence” (Famous Women Inventors, 2008) and using “NASA innovations and tailor them to fit the needs of people with disabilities” (Famous Women Inventors, 2008).
From the research I’ve done and the information I’ve found I believe that Zimmerman was rather isolated in her field of work. I haven’t been able to find any information about other women making significant contributions to the field of Blissymbolics. So I conclude that it is mostly men that either work or receive the credit for the work in this field of alternate communications technology.