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My Experiences as a Blind Chemistry Student

by Cary Supalo
From the Editor: Dr. Cary Supalo is no stranger to longtime Federationists. He has been the recipient of two national scholarships, has been active in all levels of the organization, has a strong commitment to contributing to the field of chemistry, and is equally committed to sharing what he knows with other blind people in the hope that they will find enjoyment studying and contributing to the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Cary will begin teaching at Illinois State University in the fall and will continue to develop his business, Independence Science, LLC, to provide accessible scientific equipment that blind people can easily use.
In this article Cary describes some of the techniques he has used in getting his PhD and urges us to rethink what we have too often been taught—that blindness prevents us from being scientists because it requires sight. Here is what Cary has to say:
I am a PhD chemist teaching at a university and starting a business to help blind people who want to enter this dynamic field. I am not the only one to become a blind chemist, but I am one of only a few who have demonstrated that with hard work, persistence, and flexibility it is possible to do so. I would like to acknowledge my longtime mentor, Dr. David Wohlers, a totally blind chemistry professor at Truman State University. He and I first met when I was a sophomore at Purdue University. At that time I had a strong interest in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), but I was not sure where I fit in. David Wohlers presented a seminar on how he conducted chemical research and how he operated as a successful teacher of chemistry. His presentation inspired me and put me on this path of study. It took time for me to realize I could enjoy this field and be successful in it, so I would say to any reader of this article that having a professional mentor in the area you are interested in pursuing is a big asset in STEM pursuits.
Mentors are not always available. However, as Dr. Jernigan taught me in my early days as a member of the National Federation of the Blind, it is always possible to find someone in our organization doing something similar to what you want to do. It is important for blind people to network and get to know those around us so we can learn from them and then advance to the point where we can develop our own tricks to flourish in our chosen trade. It then becomes our job to pass what we know along when someone else comes calling. I'm often saddened when people who do new and unusual things don't come forward to pay back and help others. They are deprived of the blessings that come from giving, and blind people are deprived of role models who can make all the difference.
For me the process of pursuing STEM started back in high school when I took chemistry class. For many reasons this was not a positive experience. One contributing factor was that I was not allowed to touch any lab equipment or manipulate chemicals. Another was that at the time I was very shy and was afraid to do any hands-on work for fear that I might hurt myself. I preferred the passive approach to learning. I was content to let my lab partners do everything and then tell me what they saw. I then took notes and helped with the calculations. This is a common experience for blind students. However, having hands-on science learning experiences can increase interest in STEM-related fields, and it is important for blind students to learn how to operate successfully in the laboratory. As part of this process the odds are that you will have to educate faculty and the classmates in your lab group.
The primary goal of teenagers is simply to complete the lab activity as fast as possible. This should be the goal of blind students as well. It is up to us to devise ways to perform lab tasks independently, successfully, and under the same time constraints as our sighted peers. Good techniques can be devised if ample time is invested in planning before the lab begins. Thoroughly reading lab procedures and having a strong understanding of the theory in advance of lab time is critical to a blind student’s full participation on a lab team. Spending time on planning how to conduct certain aspects of the lab procedure and what lab equipment is necessary will greatly aid in this process. Your lab partners don’t know what you are capable of doing in the laboratory. Successful integration in the lab experience happens when we understand the assistive technology available and when we are confident in the skills we bring to the experience. Having a good understanding of what is involved conceptually in the lab procedure and being familiar with the desired outcomes will be helpful for you and your lab team. Often students skip the homework assignments that prepare for the lab. Such shortcuts can detract from your enjoyment of STEM and may even serve to convince you and others that these fields are not for you.
Taking notes accurately is critical to laboratory participation. I recommend taking all lab notes with a slate and stylus if you use Braille. Using electronic notetakers, although convenient, can be hazardous to the electronic device. Chemicals do not care how much something costs; acids and bases will burn through anything. It is likely that damage to a notetaker as a result of a spill or other accident in the laboratory is not covered under service maintenance agreements, so take precautions to protect these devices. If you insist on using this expensive equipment in the lab, placing it on a board to raise it above the bench and keeping it away from other laboratory equipment will minimize the chances of damage.
Bench top organization is important when working as part of a lab team. It may not be possible to label all the chemicals on the bench top in Braille, so good communication skills within the lab team are important. Discussing how you will communicate and the information you expect from lab partners is critical to minimize the possibility of injury. Further, asking classmates for confirmation of a chemical before you use it is a good idea. It is better to be safe than sorry. Laboratory safety is just as important for us as it is for the sighted. We must abide by the same safety protocols as our fellow students. This includes wearing safety goggles, since chemicals can still burn our eyes and cause damage to prosthetics and tissue.
Knowing what access technology is available to interface with laboratory equipment is important. Although working with a laboratory assistant is often quite beneficial, too much reliance on this person can diminish your sense of independence and make your laboratory work seem remote and your involvement insignificant. Knowing how to use access technology along with nonvisual techniques to make observations in the lab is important. Laboratory sciences involve both qualitative and quantitative observations. Knowing how to use a text-to-speech screen reader on a computer with data-collection software can enhance your ability to participate more fully as part of a lab group. In many cases lab activities are still performed with little or no computer equipment. The use of audible lab equipment can enhance blind student involvement in the laboratory and help to level the playing field as you work with other students. Finding out what is available by going to <www.blindscience.org> and other online resources can be very useful. Online resources are dynamic and, like advances in science, always changing. It is important to keep up to date on what is going on in science access for the blind, and here your mentor may be quite helpful.
If you are a high school student, your teacher of the blind may be a valuable resource. If you are a college student, your professor may also be a big help. If so, take advantage of what they can offer. It may be, however, that your best resource is within you. Learning how to seek out what you need is a must for most successful blind students, and this is especially so for blind students in STEM.
All science teachers are necessarily concerned with safety and liability in their laboratory classes. It is therefore especially important for K-12 students and their legal guardians to insist that the blind student be allowed to participate fully and safely in lab experiments.
The partnership among the blind student, the parent or legal guardian, the teacher of the visually impaired, and the science teacher can be complicated. It is up to the teacher of the visually impaired to figure out how to make the science content accessible. It is not his or her primary responsibility to understand the science. That falls on the science teacher. While it is important for the parent or legal guardian to endorse the blind student's full participation in the science laboratory, the blind student must be an active participant who is willing to learn the skills necessary to be successful in lab, including investing any additional preparation time that may be required.
Following science lectures can be a challenge for blind students. Science teachers should use verbal description to convey what is happening and why. Start by explaining the glassware and the test equipment being used. Explain what other students are observing (perhaps a color change), and then explain what the change in color represents. Where possible, use access technology as part of lecture demonstrations. This will not only serve to communicate important information to your blind student, but will provide two sources of information to your sighted students--visual and audio.
Using PowerPoint presentations is now quite common. It is important for the science teacher to read unambiguously all of the information being presented in the slides. Indicating the numerator and denominator is quite helpful; saying "this over that," is not at all helpful. Speaking proper names of units is key to understanding dimensional analysis, not to mention the two-dimensionality of canceling units.
Using a raised line drawing kit can play a key role in a blind student's understanding visual information. This device can be used by a sighted note-taker in the class to draw the graphical illustrations used. These should be archived by date and figure number. They should then be placed in a notebook for reference when preparing for tests at a later date. Hardcopy Braille books have a significant advantage over electronic textbooks because they can include tactile drawings of visual concepts. Hardcopy Braille in the sciences can be hard to come by, so the Louis Braille book database hosted by the American Printing House for the Blind is helpful in learning what materials are available. Sometimes the complexity of information communicated by a raised-line drawing is difficult for a blind person to absorb. I used Learning Ally audio recorded books in conjunction with raised-line drawings from textbooks. While to some this may seem redundant, having both a tactile drawing and a verbal description was key to my understanding critical concepts.
Tactile graphics in science Braille books should also be provided whenever possible. This is particularly useful when working with phase diagrams, Louis dot structures, organic chemistry structures, and many others.
I used a technique in organic chemistry that may be helpful to those interested in the field. Most of what is taught in organic chemistry is done through visual images, and the challenge for blind students is to figure out creative ways to access this information. A technique that I used was to hire an art major to work with me to draw structures on 11 by 11.5 inch Braille pages. We put lots of space between the atoms and labeled each image with the page and figure number. In Braille I also included the figure title and, whenever appropriate, the caption. The art major and I would then meet, and I would stick each image into my Perkins Braillewriter and label all atoms other than carbon. In organic chemistry carbon is implied unless otherwise specified. The art student took the images and applied hot glue over the lines so that they were detectable by touch. We placed images for each chapter in a three-ring notebook in the order they appeared in the textbook. I complemented these images with an audio recording of the text from Learning Ally.
I also used a two-dimensional drawing felt board in organic chemistry. Using a series of rectangles, I represented chemical bonds. Unlabeled circles were carbon atoms. Print and Braille labeled circles represented other atoms such as sulfur, nitrogen, and oxygen; and I devised a wild card shape for elements that were not commonly used. All of these shapes were labeled with velcro on the back so they could be placed where required. The base was made of a piece of felt rubber cemented to a poster board. I also employed pie-shaped wedges that had velcro on either one or both sides to indicate stereochemistry. If the wedge had velcro on both sides, it indicated the atom was below the plane of the page, and, if the pie wedge had velcro on only one side, the atom was above the plane of the page. I used this technique on homework, quizzes, and exams. I had teaching assistants or other paid readers draw my responses on all assessments. This process was very time-consuming, but it was the way I was able to conceptualize organic chemistry.
These are some of the techniques that have served me in achieving my goal of teaching chemistry as a university professor. Chemistry is innately visual; however, this need not impede our study and mastery of it. Although it is intimidating to many, the study of this mentally challenging and spiritually rewarding subject should not be any more intimidating for blind students than it is for the sighted. As I said earlier, this subject demands that we know how to communicate, know what adaptive technology is available to us, and learn to develop the habit of thinking creatively to figure out how to accomplish what others use vision to do. The more techniques we can develop to access visual information, the better off we will be, not just in science classes but in all areas of study.
A major strength of competent blind people is our ability to problem solve. We have been finding creative ways to function nonvisually since we first learned to get around our homes, dealt with the printed word, and learned to organize things at home and at school. These lifelong problem-solving skills are an asset to us in science classes and will serve us well as we move into employment in science, technology, engineering, and math.
The tips documented in this article are a small subset of many that I have used on my path to becoming an employed chemist. I am happy to share other techniques that I have used to access science content. You can also call on members of the Science and Engineering Division to add further to your toolbox of ideas and workarounds to accessing scientific content. Training in the hard sciences can open doors to some of the most lucrative and rewarding jobs America has to offer. Don't settle for less if this is where your dreams take you. What you think of today as a liability may in the end prove to be one of your greatest assets.
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