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May 18, 2003

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From: Boulder Daily Camera, CO - May 18, 2003

Blind, deaf tech writer makes life work on her terms

By Julie Marshall, Camera Staff Writer

The heat of the sun, the smell of spring lilacs, the dips and holes in the concrete trail beneath her feet. The world is a place of wonder for Maureen Hogg, even though she lost her sight and hearing as a teenager.

A couple of times each week, Hogg, a senior technical writer for Ball Aerospace Corp. for the past 25 years, takes a jog in the neighborhood. Hogg, who will compete in the Bolder Boulder this year, enjoys turning off the computer to get fresh air.

"I just like the freedom," she says in a soft, melodic voice.

Hogg feels the sun's rays on her shoulders and knows it's not a cloudy day, as well as which direction she is going, says her running partner, Steve Daudt, who steers her clear of obstacles. At the Foothills Highway overpass, she feels the steel railing along the ramp and says, "Oh, time to go back."

If there is one word to describe Hogg, it is adaptable, her friends and co-workers say.

At work, Hogg communicates with people who scribble words with one finger on Hogg's upturned palm. Ball Aerospace has upgraded her technology over the years. The latest innovation is

SuperBraille — a laptop computer with screen-reading software that can translate e-mail, icons, even Internet Explorer, into Braille.

Outside work, Hogg is a competitive runner and cross-country skier. She devised a plan in which a skiing partner writes signals on her back. There's always room for humor — a pat on the behind means a steep downhill ahead. She plays golf, rock climbs and travels. In 2001, Hogg went to southeast Alaska where she placed her hands on an iceberg at high tide.

"Nothing can compare with the aquamarine of ice floes adrift in calm water on a clear day," she wrote in her Christmas letter to colleagues and friends that year.

Hogg knows colors. She knows the sound of the spoken word. She did not start losing her senses until she was 14 years old. It was the fall of 1969, and over a period of 18 months, Hogg says, it happened.

"No one knew why," Hogg says, only that it relates to the inner ear. Hearing aids help, but even with them, she cannot comprehend a word being said, so she does not wear them.

The vision loss was more noticeable, as her retinas hemorrhaged, scarred and partially detached. "Again, there was no medical reason — they could only watch it happen," she says. "I was and I remain in excellent health. ... I would not speculate on any causes since no medical person would, even now."

Hogg has good light sensitivity, she says, and can locate windows. She senses vibrations.

"We ran by a dog once that was on the other side of the fence," Daudt says. "He started this loud barking and Maureen said, 'Oh, firecrackers!'"

But most of her navigating — on the running or skiing trails, or in the labyrinth of offices at Ball Aerospace — is done by memory of the terrain or the floor plan and a walking cane.

On a recent weekday afternoon, Hogg's boss in Ball's communications department, Rachelle Wood, stops in for a chat.

Wood taps Hogg gently on the shoulder, then reaches for her hand.

"I can do print, cursive, anything, and Maureen will know what I am saying," Wood says.

Wood leaves and Hogg goes back to reading a memo on a recent space mission success. It's her job to edit as well as write articles on Ball's space programs for in-house memos and publications. She's won numerous awards over the years, including a plaque on her office wall for publicizing the Corrected Optics Space Telescope Axial Replant Team that repaired NASA's now-defunct Hubble Space Telescope.

"We corrected Hubble's eyesight," Wood says.

In her office, Hogg scans papers using an Optacon (Optical to Tactile Converter) — a hand-held camera the size of a finger, which transfers each printed letter into a vibration. Hogg "reads" each word with her left fingertip, which is placed inside a wooden box. It's a prickly buzz that can be controlled by a dial for intensity.

"I'm actually reading the shape of the letter," she says.

Hogg also uses a telephone conversion system that turns numbered keys into Braille letters. It's not a problem that there are three letters to one number, Hogg says. There's a Braille code. For a caller to select A, for example, he just has to first press the star sign.

And finally, the coup d'etat — SuperBraille. Hogg reads e-mails and other computer files, from left to right, as words scroll across a finger pad below the keyboard.

"If anyone had told me years ago that this would be possible, I wouldn't have believed them," she says.

Hogg was hired by Ball 25 years ago to translate French for colleagues in North Africa and Algeria, she says. She studied French in high school before she lost her senses and minored in French at the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley. History was her major.

"They chose to hire me in spite of the disability, not because of it," she says. "That is enlightened management."

Hogg's direct supervisor, Karen Ruth, says Hogg is an integral member of the communications team and she has an incredible memory of space missions and programs.

"She's our historical guru," Ruth says.

Upgrading technology, whether it is a Braille system or a Palm Pilot, is simply part of an employer's job, Ruth says.

"If you have an employee who is intelligent and valued, you give them what they need," she says. "We don't have to go out of our way for Maureen. Other than making sure there are no obstacles in the hallway, she is treated like any other person in the company."

Hogg was breaking down barriers back in high school, when state officials told her parents she would fail if she stayed at Louisville High School, which later became Centaurus High School. Hogg became the first person in the state to be blind and deaf, and attend public high school.

Her mother and volunteers worked tirelessly, translating texts into Braille. Hogg learned the system in six weeks. She ranked in the top 10 percent nationally in the ACT in science and social sciences, and graduated fourth in her class.

In a 1973 Daily Camera article, the year of her high school graduation, Hogg's mother told the reporter that her daughter does not believe in removing people with disabilities from schools and limiting their choices.

"She'll probably fight it all her life," her mother said.

And she did. At college, Hogg remained independent with the use of her Braille checkbook and an alarm clock whose buzz vibrated her arm. Without a guide dog, she relied on passers-by to help her through busy intersections on the way to class.

Hogg graduated UNC magna cum laude in 1977 with a 3.5 grade point average.

"For what it is worth, my IQ tested out at age 17 at 127," she says. "At that time, I had a 'Grade 17' vocabulary, which meant I could have graduated in 1972 and entered college, even qualified for graduate school, at least in terms of language skill ability. ... Incidentally, I don't place much stock in IQ tests."

Hogg is very bright. She can converse with two people writing on both hands at the same time, says her running partner Daudt, who calls his sloppy script "palm graffiti." She's also very humble and quiet when it comes to her personal life. After 20 years of running together, last week was the first time Daudt found out about Hogg's family roots in Boulder County.

"I'm fifth generation," she tells her friend. Her mother's family were pioneers from Superior, Wis., who came here in 1860 and founded the town of Superior.

Hogg gently holds Daudt's elbow with her left arm, as they run in step back to work.

"Maureen is just so inspirational," says Daudt, a technical manager who has been at Ball for 25 years. "I just cannot ever be in a bad mood when I'm around Maureen."

He stops at a curb to let her know it's time to step down. She tells him to pick up the pace.

"To have such a positive attitude when she has the same disabilities as Helen Keller, I have to wonder if in modern times it's easier or maybe it's harder. ... I cannot fathom it."

Copyright 2002, The Daily Camera and the E.W. Scripps Company. All rights reserved.