Dream Big: Blind People Can Be Scientists Too

A STEM EQ participant paddles the boat their team built in the lake while another student stands nearby.

Dream Big: Blind People Can Be Scientists Too

By Cricket Bidleman

What does it mean to dream big?

Sighted kids are told to dream big—aspire to be Olympic athletes, world-renowned painters, racecar drivers… other career paths may include things that are statistically somewhat impractical, but which, given enough dedication and resources, are eventually doable. When blind people are told to dream big, pursue the career you want, etc. by sighted people, they push us to be “the next Stevie Wonder” or a blind lawyer, because these things aren’t nearly as visual as, say, driving a racecar. We’re told to succeed in something that the sighted people are familiar with, rather than to discover ourselves and to push the perceived limits.

We in the National Federation of the Blind know that we deserve to be held to the same standards as non-blind people, and that with the right accommodations and enough creativity, we can do anything. These go hand in hand, because higher expectations encourage ingenuity. We also know that the only way to popularize our positive philosophy on blindness is to increase blind representation in every field, to set up mentoring programs, and to insulate each other from the discouragement and general negativity that we face from others who don’t have faith in the power and capability of the blind.

When I was in school, I was constantly told that I would do great things… as a [insert nonvisual profession here]. The idea of pursuing science, technology, engineering, or mathematics (STEM) never crossed my mind except for fleetingly, as some unreachable pipe dream. I sat on the sidelines during AP Chemistry as sighted students did the experiments, writing down the data and crunching numbers and whatever, without actually doing the hands-on parts of the experiments.

Nevertheless, I fell in love with the idea of pursuing science, and particularly physics. The rebellious teenager in me didn’t want to take the course of life that others prescribed. Physics fed my need to understand the world, including “visual” concepts like light waves. I use this concept deliberately, because there are many types of light waves that “sighted” people cannot see. There’s so much of science that humans—regardless of vision—have yet to understand, even about concepts that we label as visual. It seems wrong then to automatically steer blind people away from STEM, when our perspectives lend so much to these subjects.

Physics was a whole new world of opportunities, a path I carved (with some guidance) that made the unattainable realistic. It wasn’t the prescription I’d been given, but the big dream I needed and loved. Even though I’m now in journalism and marketing (calculus and my brain are mortal enemies), I’ll always gravitate toward STEM subjects at least a little bit, because blind people’s success in those subjects demonstrates our power and potential.

So much of the guidance I received came from mentors whom I was fortunate enough to meet at our STEM programs, including NFB Stem2U and NFB Engineering Quotient. I started with NFB EQ. I came to Baltimore in the summer of 2015. Suddenly I was in a group of blind students, making a boat out of PVC pipes and other recyclable materials. The supposedly impossible was right there in front of me. We transformed the pipe dream into reality. One of our boats is even in the Jernigan Institute—our national headquarters.

Our STEM programs have taken many iterations over the years, but our commitment to uplifting blind youth remains as steadfast as ever. I dream of the day when parents and teachers won’t struggle when their blind students develop an interest in STEM. Until that day, and far beyond, we will continue providing the mentorship and resources that blind people need in order to live the lives we want. Parents and teachers can view our Online Educational Resource (OER) for NFB EQ, which provides detailed lesson plans for reproducing our program in a safe, accessible way.

This year, we have partnered with The Center of Science and Industry (COSI) to bring STEM to blind students across the country. Participants will complete a series of nonvisually accessible STEM lessons. Build a model of the James Webb Space Telescope with us. Learn about Earth’s atmosphere. Learn about how and why the Webb was sent to space, and how it studies space.

Even if participating in STEM2U does not ultimately lead to a STEM career, the program is still inspirational. We shatter the appallingly low expectations that others have for blind people, because we know that our capacity for success is truly astronomical.

If there’s anything that my many years in the Federation have taught me, it is that to “dream big” means… well… whatever you want it to mean. Blind people have, in fact, attained records in racecar-driving. There are many famous blind painters, and blind athletes have been successful in both the Olympic and Paralympic games. Do not let others’ expectations hold you back from living the life you want.

For an unforgettable STEM experience, register for our NFB STEM2U program. STEM can be accessible. Let us show you how.