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We Remember...

In Memory of Bill Love: One of Our Own

By Fillmore Love

William Baldridge Loughborough Jr., a devoted disability rights advocate who played a major role in establishing universal accessibility to the World Wide Web, died April 7th, in Madrid, Spain. He was 84.

William Baldridge Loughborough Jr

Loughborough, a frequent contributor to Independence Today, was a prime contributor to the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) and its Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI), an effort to improve Web accessibilityfor people with disabilities.

Loughborough, sometimes referred to as Bill Love, was born January 3rd, 1926, in San Antonio, Texas, to William Baldridge Loughborough and Catherine Ellen Van Houten. He had two older sisters, Julia and Ellen.

One of his formative childhood experiences was being taken to see Duke Ellington at the Majestic Theater in San Antonio with Julia. The show was a “colored only” performance, and Bill and his sister, with help from Arabelle Brown, the family’s live-in maid, sneaked in to see it. That was the beginning of Bill’s lifelong love affair with jazz.

As a boy, he met David “Buck” Wheat, who would become his best friend and longtime musical collaborator.

Loughborough attended the Georgia Military Academy from 1937 to 1942, then the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he became, at 16, one of the youngest freshmen at the college. He left MIT to become a musician in New York City, where he lived until he joined the U.S. Navy in 1944. He served his tour of duty as a radioman stationed in Norfolk, Va.

He returned to San Antonio in 1949, where he managed a semiprofessional baseball team and umpired local baseball games. He moved to San Francisco in 1951, where he continued to work as an umpire.

From 1954 to 1955, he and Buck helped build instruments for Harry Partch, including the “Marimba Eroica,” a marimba that could achieve barely audible notes, below the lowest notes on a piano. Bill and Buck were inspired by Partch to create their own instrument, the “boo bams,” tuned bongos made from hollow bamboo logs that Buck had brought back from the Philippines. Several jazz groups used boo bams in their recordings, including Chet Baker, with whom Bill toured and recorded.

In addition to building musical instruments, he and Buck wrote songs together; Bill wrote lyrics, while Buck wrote music. Their best-known composition, "Better Than Anything," has become a standard, recorded and performed by many artists. The best-known artist to perform the song was Natalie Cole, who recorded it as a duet with Diana Krall on her 2002 album, "Ask a Woman Who Knows." The album was nominated for several Grammys, including Best Pop Collaboration with Vocals for "Better Than Anything."

Beginning in 1957, Bill and Henry Jacobs, who had met in Chicago, started a recording studio and released a recording of Alan Watts reading haiku, as well as other esoteric recordings. He and Henry worked together with many other musicians and engineers on the Vortex project, which was sponsored by Berkeley radio station KPFA and the California Academy of Sciences. The music created by the project was played at shows at the Morrison Planetarium in San Francisco.

Jacobs was friends with Garry Goodrow, an actor with a new improvisational theater troupe called The Committee. Bill, who was fascinated by The Committee’s satirical-political focus, asked to be troupe founder Alan Myerson’s apprentice. His involvement with The Committee lasted for about seven years and included a stint as its general manager. At the height of its success, The Committee performed in two theaters, in San Francisco and Los Angeles.

Bill started working at the University of California Medical Center as an electronics engineer in the early 1960s, a job that eventually led to a position with the Smith-Kettlewell Eye Research Institute in the 1970s. He worked for Smith-Kettlewell for more than 30 years, making many contributions to the world of vision science and rehabilitation.

Among the many achievements during his lifetime, Loughborough:

  • Worked on early experimental tactile vision substitution systems, building the first large-scale mechanical stimulator array.
  • Developed the Smith-Kettlewell light probe, a compact, miniature light-sensing device with auditory output that enabled blind people to detect the presence and intensity of light. The device had an active mode that reflected infrared light off a nearby surface, enabling the user to detect the reflectance of any point on a surface, assisting in such tasks as identifying paper money bills or locating the signature line on a check. Many thousands have been produced and sold.
  • Developed the Talking Signs orientation and navigation system for blind and visually impaired pedestrians. It is a system of coded infrared transmitters placed at locations of signs or landmarks in the environment. Its signals are decoded into speech by a hand-held receiver carried by the blind user. He was also instrumental in commercializing the system.
  • Developed an intuitive and simple-to-use touch-screen based talking computer access system for blind users. When the user touched any point on the screen, the information displayed at that location would be read out in synthetic speech. The system formed the basis of a commercial computer access system marketed by a major manufacturer.
  • Became extremely active in efforts to make the World Wide Web more accessible to blind and visually impaired users. He served actively on several working groups of the Web Access Initiative, contributing to guidelines for Web-authoring software and general Web accessibility. (Some of his work in this regard is documented at http://www.gorge.net/love26/#goats.)

Bill Love was a devoted advocate for all disabilities and all aspects of the lives of people with disability. He was the moderator of a listserv of advocates who sought to improve media coverage of issues relating to disability. From assisted suicide to abuse of people with mental health issues to bioethics, he was there, leading or supporting others who were more informed than he was.

Patricio Figueroa, publisher of Independence Today, met Bill on Mediatalk, and the two soon they realized they had a great deal in common. Pat soon recognized Bill's penchant for writing, including his e-mail messages, which he often signed with "Love." His abstract, yet philosophical and eloquent, writings were "words of genius," said Figueroa, who offered him a position as a contributor to Independence Today.

But Bill's passion was Web accessibility and independent living. In the spring of 2009, Bill went to Spain for a conference on the W3C, where he met advocates with disabilities from Madrid. He told Figueroa that he had fallen in love with Madrid and with Spain. He befriended such leading Spaniard disability advocates as Javier Romañach and Alejandro Rodríguez-Picavea (http://www.itodaynews.com/june2009/index.htm) and was eager to impart the tenets of the American independent living movement to his Spanish amigos. He applied for a permanent visa and began writing for Independence Today. In one e-mail message, Bill said he "… would not mind living the remaining time of my life in Spain." He got his wish, though sooner than he had hoped.

On April 7th, he was found dead, apparently of a heart attack. Cause of death was listed as "natural/medical." He had heart disease and a long history of heart problems, including quadruple bypass surgery many years ago. He had a pacemaker inserted more recently. Despite that, he was known for his boundless energy and desire to remain active.

He once wrote on Mediatalk: "My personal recommendation, with no implication that this is an official W3C/WAI position, is that when it becomes evident that your accessibility suggestions are being stonewalled or endlessly delayed/deferred you move from passive to active mode and institute legal proceedings. They (especially government entities) are breaking the law and violating our human rights to access. Allowing that anti-social behavior to simply continue (the laissez-faire approach) is no longer an option. If it takes 'drive-by lawsuits' to achieve a universally accessible/usable Web then GO FOR IT! -- Love."

"The Web Accessibility Initiative mourns the passing of William Loughborough, a tireless advocate for accessibility since before the beginning of WAI," said Judy Brewer, director of WAI. "Over the years William contributed energetically and enthusiastically across all areas of WAI's work, from raising awareness to helping ensure a technical foundation that supports accessibility, never hesitating to ask questions and exhort those around him to make the Web truly accessible for people with disabilities. William constantly challenged stereotypes of older Web users as less technically literate and adventurous, and reminded us that age need not keep one away from the joys of technology. William, thanks for all your contributions. We'll miss you!" For years, Loughborough lived on a farm near Yakima, Wash., that he often referred to as "Loveland."

Loughborough was cremated, and his ashes were escorted back to the U.S. by one of his daughters. He is survived by six children, four stepchildren and five grandchildren.

Said Figueroa: "Bill Love left a big void in our community -- a big, black hole too large to fill by just one person. Vaja con Dios, amigo! (Go with God, my friend!)"

Note: Fillmore Love is the son of William Loughborough. Patricio Figueroa Jr. also contributed to this article.

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