American Action Fund for Blind Children and Adults
Future Reflections
       Special Issue: Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM)       WAYS AND MEANS

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How I Got Access to My STEM Textbooks

by Cary Supalo

From the Editor: Dr. Cary Supalo has served as a research scientist in the department of chemistry at Purdue University since 2014. In the fall of 2016 he will be moving to the University of Northern Colorado, where he will teach courses on general chemistry and graduate level science education. He will also be starting a research group with a focus on developing methodologies for helping blind students study science.

Cary Supalo wearing safety goggles uses a talking LabQuest meter.As most readers of Future Reflections are well aware, obtaining textbooks in accessible formats can be a challenge at every grade level. By law, schools are required to provide accessible textbooks for blind students. However, for an assortment of reasons, this does not always happen. I wrote this article to share some nontraditional approaches to obtaining accessible textbooks. I believe these approaches may be useful to some blind students who are enrolled in science-related classes.

Throughout my college career I made extensive use of Learning Ally and Bookshare, both of which have large collections of accessible textbooks and other titles on the sciences. The Louis Braille database, hosted by the American Printing House for the Blind, was also a valuable resource. However, the titles available from these organizations were chiefly audiobooks or electronic books, and they did not give me access to charts, graphs, or illustrations.

In my STEM courses, I found that using an audiobook from Learning Ally in conjunction with a hard copy Braille book was ideal. The Nemeth code for Mathematics and Science Notation was the Braille system used in the United States to communicate technical content when I was in school. (Today some states have opted to use UEB Math as an alternative to Nemeth Code.) The hard copy Braille book included all of the properly illustrated equations using Nemeth Code. I found it very informative to read these equations in Braille. Many times as I advanced in my learning, I encountered new symbology in Nemeth Code that I had never before seen. Generally, the audiobook explained the symbology to me. I was able to learn through both listening and reading, a dual approach that was very helpful.

Of course, hardcopy Braille books often were not available as I worked with the audiobooks from Learning Ally. In a course such as organic chemistry, the books were laden with diagrams. Access to tactile graphics was essential for my successful comprehension of the course material.

My work-around solution was very innovative, but it required considerable planning and scheduling. When I was an undergraduate studying chemistry at Purdue University, I recruited an art student to work for me on a part-time basis. I gave her an ink-print version of my organic chemistry textbook along with a big pile of 11-by-11.5-inch Braille paper. I asked her to go through the book and draw the figures from each chapter. We started with Chapter One and worked our way through the whole book, creating each illustration on a separate page.

After my assistant completed the drawings for each chapter, we met for an hour or two. One by one I put each page into my Perkins Braillewriter, and my assistant showed me where to place Braille labels. We started with Figure 1.1, labeling the title of the illustration and its key atoms and other components. I trained the art student not to make the drawings to scale. Instead, I asked her to leave lots of space between the key attributes so I could put Braille labels on the pages.

When this stage was completed, my assistant took the images home and traced over the lines with a hot glue gun. Once the glue had dried, she put the illustrations into a three-ring notebook and added a Braille label on the spine, indicating which illustrations the notebook contained.

I used these tactile illustrations in conjunction with my audiobooks from Learning Ally. The audio descriptions of the organic chemical structures gave me context that I needed in order to comprehend the technical content.

Through this approach I successfully completed my undergraduate organic chemistry courses. This approach also may work in other areas of study that are presented in highly visual ways.

Later on, Purdue developed one of the first innovative Braille transcription facilities on any college campus in the United States. It operated under the premise that blind students should have access to the same materials sighted students received--textbooks, course handouts, and graphics. If it had not been for these scaffoldings I received from Purdue, I am not sure I would be practicing chemistry as my profession today.

I now gain access to scientific materials with human readers who make audio recordings of technical content. I train my readers to describe figures in the fashion that I require. I also teach them to read mathematical and technical content using Dr. Abraham Nemeth's "MathSpeak," a set of rules he published in 1995. The ability of a human reader to read mathematical equations in a nonambiguous manner is very important for me, and it is important for other blind students who are studying in STEM-related subject areas.

Due to the cost of technical materials in Braille, some schools are not ready or willing to provide them for blind students. I hope my work-arounds will be useful to students who are currently encountering these challenges. With an innovative can-do attitude, accessibility can be achieved.

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