Release Date: 
Monday, July 23, 2007
John G. Paré Jr.
Director of Public Relations
National Federation of the Blind
(410) 659-9314, extension 2371
(410) 913-3912 (Cell)

Future Blind Scientists Unite in Baltimore

Students Will Launch Rockets to Raise Expectations

Baltimore, Maryland (July 23, 2007): Katie Colton, 15, of Park City, Utah, is passionate about science; she has wanted to be a meteorologist since she was in the fourth grade.  “Studying meteorology is great, but what I really want to do is get some hands-on experience,” she says. “That’s why I’m looking forward to going to the National Federation of the Blind Youth Slam next week.  Not only will I get to launch a real weather balloon, but I will meet blind scientists and find out how they do their work.”

Dr. Marc Maurer, President of the National Federation of the Blind, believes it is important for students like Colton to interact with successful blind people.  “Unfortunately, society has low expectations for blind students, particularly in areas like scientific study that are falsely believed to require sight,” he says.  “Teachers assume that not being able to see makes certain careers impossible for blind students, and these assumptions have gone unchallenged for too long.  The National Federation of the Blind is changing this false view of blindness by demonstrating various ways in which the blind can participate in scientific study.”

Mark Riccobono, executive director of the National Federation of the Blind Jernigan Institute, says: “The problem for blind high school students is twofold: they must develop the confidence in themselves that they can solve any problem and handle any given task, and then they must find the resources that will help them to achieve their goals.  The purpose of the Jernigan Institute’s National Center for Blind Youth in Science and the programs we have developed is to let blind students and teachers know that there are alternative methods that the blind can use in the science classroom, and that materials that are accessible to blind students can be produced or obtained.”

The Youth Slam is the latest of these innovative programs.  This four-day academy, which will kick off in Baltimore on July 30, will allow two hundred blind high school students from across the nation to interact with each other; to meet blind mentors who are working in scientific disciplines; and to gain access to methods and materials that will help them to build a foundation of scientific knowledge that they are often unable to develop in their public schools.  Students will participate in various science-related study tracks, including rocketry, astronomy, meteorology, and computer science.  All of the activities will be hands-on: students will launch model rockets equipped with electronic payloads and send up weather balloons to analyze the data they transmit back to the ground.  Michael Taboada, 14, of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, is looking forward to working on an Internet “chat bot” that can answer questions typed into a computer by searching the World Wide Web.

“I am very interested in computer programming, and unfortunately I haven’t been able to do very much of it in school,” says Taboada, noting that the text-to-speech screen access software which many blind people use to interact with computers did not work well with the technology at his middle school. 

The evenings will be filled with sports, games, talent shows, karaoke, and other social activities.  Small chat sessions will be held to discuss the challenges faced by blind youth and how to meet those challenges in a positive way.  The week’s activities will culminate in a “Youth March for Independence” on the afternoon of August 3.  The young people and their mentors will march from Baltimore’s Inner Harbor to the NFB Jernigan Institute in South Baltimore, where there will be a closing ceremony and celebration.

“In our discussions with these students, we want to help them reach the realization that blindness is simply a physical characteristic that requires people to do things in different ways,” says Riccobono.  “Our hope is that the students will go away with more knowledge about the scientific disciplines that interest them; but more importantly, we want them to realize that vision is not a prerequisite for success in whatever career they ultimately choose to pursue.”

The Youth Slam and Youth March for Independence are being conducted and supported through partnerships with the Johns Hopkins Whiting School of Engineering, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Wal-Mart Stores Inc., Pepsi, the American Honda Foundation, the UPS Foundation, and the NEC Foundation of America, among others.