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Summer Internship Sheds Light upon Victories for the Blind

By Arielle Silverman

Editor's Introduction: Can blind students compete in the Sciences? How about successfully obtaining and performing summer employment? Arielle Silverman is a student at Arizona State University where she is majoring in Biology. She is also the president of the newly-formed student division in Arizona. Here she endeavors to answer the above questions through relating her positive experience in a summer internship program. Below is Arielle's fascinating story.

The National Federation of the Blind calls for equality, security, and opportunity for all blind persons, a goal largely achieved when the blind attain employment. Unfortunately, we have heard countless stories about blind persons being denied jobs. In the midst of these examples of discrimination, however, we tend to forget about the times when blind persons get to compete equally in the workplace. Last summer, my internship at a local biological research lab taught me to appreciate the gains that the blind have made in recent years.

As a biology student and a high school senior, I was overjoyed when I found out about an essay contest sponsored by the Southwest Association for Education in Biomedical Research (SWAEBR), through which I could win a paid internship at a medical research lab. I love the scientific process and especially enjoy the computerized side of science. But I worried that, as a blind student, I might not get hired, especially if my job description included such duties as giving injections to and performing surgery on animals. Nevertheless, I submitted my essay, where I made no mention of my blindness, and hoped for the best.

When SWAEBR awarded me the internship, I was given a list of research labs, and I had to choose one and set up my own interview. I chose the Barrow Neurological Institute, a division of St. Joseph's Hospital in Phoenix, Arizona. I debated when to tell my potential employers about my blindness: before calling them, before the interview, or at the interview? In the end, I decided to casually mention my blindness just before hanging up the phone, after a time was set for the interview. This timing prevents the shock of arriving at the interview with a cane, yet forces the employer to recognize your merits before knowing about your blindness.

I imagine that my employers were more than a little hesitant and confused about hiring a blind student as a research assistant. But any skepticism quickly faded when I installed my personal copy of Jaws for Windows on a lab computer and demonstrated that I could surf the Web, including national genomic databases. I was thrilled when I learned I had been hired, and could begin my five-week internship!

At first I was told that I would need to work in an office downstairs, since a lab containing radioactive materials was "too dangerous" for me. However, the researchers must have changed their minds, because when I started work I was delighted to find myself assigned to a computer in the middle of the "toxic" lab. I was glad of this because it enabled me to better interact with the other employees and observe their work while making a meaningful contribution to their experiment.

My duties included sorting patient information to assist the development of a new study, looking up sequences for genes of interest, and analyzing gene-expression ratios obtained from the RNA of experimental rats. I am confident that, during these five weeks, everyone working at every level of the institute discovered that blindness and science can certainly mix. I did not operate lab equipment, but this was mostly unrelated to my blindness, since my job was to organize and analyze data while others were responsible for manipulating experimental materials. My fellow researchers treated me with respect and equality and took the time to teach me about their work. While many people start with low expectations of the blind and wait for us to prove our equality, my friends and advisers in the lab assumed that I could do everything and challenged me to do my best. I finished the internship with a greater understanding of the scientific process and valuable experience which will definitely help me down the road.

I think my story shows that a blind person can attain even the most competitive employment in today's world. Job discrimination will persist, and the NFB still has a long way to go before blind persons are universally regarded as first-class citizens. But there are certainly many people who are much more concerned about competence than one's ability to see, and those people often assume that a blind person can do any job unless they are proven wrong. As blind students, we must reward and encourage this open-minded attitude by working hard, going to college, actively seeking competitive jobs, and accepting nothing but equality. In so doing, perhaps we can expand the pocket of acceptance that I found and spread those opportunities to all.

 

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