Braille Monitor                                                           May 2007

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The Proof Is in the Pudding

by Jennifer Moerke

From the Editor: Jennifer Moerke is a college student and president of the Northwest Chapter of the NFB of Washington. She wrote the following paper for extra credit in her chemistry class. Here it is:

Jennifer Moerke stands with Whozit.I have been blind since birth. Growing up, I was enrolled in my local elementary, middle, and high schools with six hundred to fifteen hundred sighted students. As a matter of course I took math, science, and literature classes. As someone with low vision, I often used a combination of blindness and low-vision techniques to do my work. Looking back, I now realize that most of my techniques, particularly in math and science, were done with residual vision. When it came time for classes relating to technology and science, I was always at a disadvantage because either things were not accessible at all or I had to spend time using my low vision to keep up. But this system worked well enough until I reached eleventh grade chemistry.

In the state of Washington the Washington State School for the Blind is responsible for assisting itinerant teachers of blind students to find ways to remove barriers to education. I knew they had extensive techniques to help blind students participate in chemistry. However, assuming that those techniques would take too much effort to put in place in my school, I decided that I’d be spending more time removing barriers to accessibility than taking the class. Unfortunately, both the chemistry teacher and my low-vision services teacher agreed. As a result the chemistry requirement was waived.

After high school I took time out for intensive training in the skills of blindness at the Louisiana Center for the Blind (LCB). As I learned to adjust to blindness (accomplished under blindfold), I realized what opportunities I had missed while taking computer and shop classes. I made up for those lost opportunities in both fields. I recognized that I had lost these opportunities in much the same way I’d lost my chance to take chemistry in high school. When I graduated from LCB, I entered college at Whatcom Community College and made a vow that, if the opportunity to take chemistry came again, no matter how difficult it was, I’d take it. My opportunity came during the last academic quarter of my education at Whatcom.

As a matter of fact, one other blind student was taking chemistry that quarter. Word had it that she preferred to be less active in the laboratory because she feared for her safety. This attitude certainly would not do for me since I prefer to participate as fully as possible. It was up to me to make some contacts and to do some research about how blind scientists safely and efficiently use both chemicals and equipment in the chemistry lab and to take notes on my observations.

The wonderful thing about being a Federationist is the network of blind people and experience that is always available upon request. Hearing about all of the exciting projects done at the National Federation of the Blind Jernigan Institute, I visited both our national Web site and the science Web site. I found at least two articles that gave me ideas about how to participate in both lab and lecture.

In her article entitled “Experimenting with Science Labs,” Arielle Silverman of Arizona describes how she used a sighted assistant to describe the visual aspects of a lab: the color of chemical solutions, the state of physical objects in space, or measurements taken using inaccessible measuring equipment. As she observed her environment and lab space, she used the Braille code and her electronic notetaker to record her observations. Since I am well versed in Braille, I knew this would be no problem. I believed that, if I could set up the lab equipment and manipulate as much of the lab as practical, I could bring in the same sort of assistance in observing my setup and experiment.

With that in mind, I arranged to have a reader present during lab times. As a blind student, it would have been ideal to have every piece of accessible measuring equipment known to man. Practically speaking, though, one quarter of chemistry did not warrant an investment of time and resources to obtain such equipment. So I used the blindness skills I learned at the LCB to manipulate all of the equipment and chemicals while my sighted lab assistant read thermometers, scales, and electronic devices to me. In this way I got as much out of the experiments as my sighted peers.

In order to complete chemistry labs with knowledge and grace, I had to listen to and understand the topics presented in lecture. For an understanding of how to do this, I turned to the advice of chemistry Ph.D. student Cary Supalo. In “Blind Students Can Succeed in Chemistry,” Supalo outlines all of the ways he learned the topics in chemistry, ranging from tactile models and diagrams to good note-taking and lab skills. As a matter of fact Supalo, like me, was a graduate of an NFB training center. His advice enabled me to communicate with my professor both in and outside of lecture. Considering that it was a first shot at chemistry, I came out of the class with a decent understanding of molecular structure and the math involved and with some lab experience under my belt. I also earned a B.

Without my strong network of advice and experience through the National Federation of the Blind, there’s no way I would have taken my second chance at learning about chemistry. I’ve enjoyed my education thus far. I will end this article with a metaphor. In the history of understanding the inner workings of atoms, one scientist described the atom as a pudding with chunks in it. That is to say that the actual matter in an atom is extremely minute compared to the atomic space that surrounds the matter. As I thought about taking chemistry and its potential problems, I discovered that the difficulties were only as large as the actual matter in an atom. The space between the atom’s bits of matter, the advice and support of the National Federation of the Blind, was more important in my success as a blind student learning chemistry for the first time. So it seems to me that the truth of why I’m a Federationist has been established and proved in the pudding.

Experimenting with Science Labs,” by Arielle Silverman, appeared in the July 2003 issue of the Student Slate, the publication of the National Association of Blind Students. “Blind Students Can Succeed In Chemistry” by Cary Supalo appeared in the Summer/Fall 2002 issue of Future Reflections.

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