Braille Monitor                                                February 2013

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How Braille Saved a Blind Chemist

by Henry Wedler

Henry WedlerFrom the Editor: Henry “Hoby” Wedler is an NFB tenBroek Fellow, having been awarded NFB scholarships in 2005 and 2011. He told the Braille Symposium attendees a bit about how useful he finds Braille as a doctoral student in organic chemistry. This is what he said:

Contrary to social perceptions, blindness is not what holds us back. Rather it is low societal expectations about what blind people are capable of. We must believe in ourselves and hold high expectations. Dr. Maurer recently told us that we don’t need a consensus or a study to tell us how many blind people in the United States are literate or are employed. The National Federation of the Blind knows that these statistics are dismal. Not enough blind people read Braille, and not nearly enough are employed. We are here this weekend to change these sad facts.

Braille provides blind people with independence. Before we had ready access to Braille, we were dependent on print readers to read us materials aloud or audio recordings. Using Braille, we are able to read what we want to, when we want to.

Blind Americans must strive to use Braille to maintain high expectations for ourselves and ultimately to take responsibility for our successes and failures. With the availability of Braille a blind student, for instance, cannot say, “I couldn’t complete the assignment because I couldn’t find someone to read it to me.” With Braille blind students and blind professionals are expected, as they should be, to read and not use excuses for not being able to access materials.

Though we still have a long way to go before Braille is as widespread as we would like, we must acknowledge that because of technology advances we can have Braille at our fingertips. It is possible, for instance, to go to a restaurant with a Braille display, read the menu using a smart phone, and order with no sighted intervention. As Jennifer Dunnam accurately pointed out, a blind chef can put his Braille display in a plastic zip-top bag and use it to read recipes in a kitchen, in which the display could be significantly damaged if not properly sheathed.

I love events like this one because the information provides me with ideas as a blind chemist. Blind students can get protective sleeves for Braille displays or hardcopy Braille documents and read them in the laboratory around chemicals that one would not want to contaminate notebooks or Braille displays. These simple yet genuinely creative ideas inspire everyone here to be innovative. I have a Braille embosser, so, if I choose, within minutes I can have any accessible text from the Internet Brailled as a hard copy that I can take wherever I want. Therefore, despite the many Braille challenges still facing us, technology does make Braille documents readily accessible.

My Story

Unlike most other blind children in the United States, I had parents who have held extremely high expectations of me and my abilities for as long as I can remember. My sighted brother and I were held to the same standards. We all worked together on projects around our home. We did our homework together, and our parents expected both of us to do very well in school. They established a model of parenting which should be adopted for both blind and sighted parenting. They respected my brother and me tremendously and expected excellence of us. They displayed excellence to us and expected it back. Ultimately my identity was not the blind kid in the family; I was Hoby Wedler, who happened to be blind.

My mother is a teacher of the visually impaired and orientation and mobility specialist of twenty-five years who steadfastly supports the work of the National Federation of the Blind. She and my father knew that, in order to be successful in the world, I would have to be literate. I thus began learning Braille at three years old and am always grateful that I learned it proficiently so early. This has helped and will undoubtedly continue to help me for the rest of my life.

I found the NFB at the first Rocket On! Science Academy, held at the then new Jernigan Institute in 2004. As a partnership between the NFB and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, this week-long program paired blind high school students interested in science with blind mentors. I never knew blind professionals in the sciences before this experience. I wanted to pursue a chemistry degree in college, but, until this academy and my grand introduction to the NFB, I didn’t know it was possible.

I use Braille and tactile figures daily as a graduate student in organic chemistry at the University of California, Davis. When I arrived at Davis, I was put in contact with a wonderful reader and assistant, Sarah Cohen, who knew very quickly that I would need high-quality tactile figures to tackle organic chemistry and upper-division mathematics courses.

She and I worked together to develop a method of tactile figure-making in which an image is drawn about double the size of the print representation on smooth heavy-weight twenty-four-pound laser printer paper. The sheet of paper is then flipped over and placed on a soft surface like a notebook or rubber mat. The image from the facing side is then traced with force using a pen. These figures hold up very well and are the very best I have found because they optimize speed, durability, and accuracy. I’ve also found that Braille holds up on this paper very well; thus the figures can be easily labeled.

When I came to Davis, Cohen also realized that no good system was in place for Brailling exams. Remarkably, she learned Braille in less than six months and Brailled all of my chemistry, physics, and mathematics exams as well as quantum mechanics lecture notes when I was an undergraduate student. I used and still use Braille every day to survive as a graduate student.

As a blind organic chemistry student I must visualize complex figures generated by a computer. Thus, we are working hard to implement a successful three-dimensional printing system that is fully accessible to me. The research that we do in Professor Dean Tantillo’s lab requires us to look at geometries of organic structures as they are optimized energetically by our quantum mechanical calculations. We often observe chemical reactions and transition state structures between reactive intermediates. These transition states often have bonds that are longer or shorter than average. For a blind student to be successful, he or she should feel these structures in three dimensions in order to fix the figure in his or her mind.

Hence we are developing a three-dimensional printing system that will print atoms as spheres and sticks connecting them to represent bonds. This system will soon apply Braille labels (also generated by the 3-D printer) on the structures, indicating atom labels. We are also devising ways to put notches on chemical bonds to be used as a ruler for me to observe as a bond lengthens and shortens.

Another inaccessible part of computational organic chemistry is inputting large complex structures in the computer program we use. We are thus discussing and soon will be implementing a three-dimensional scanning system that will scan structures built by me with RFID scanning tags on the pieces. We will build a custom molecular model kit for constructing these models. The RFID tags will be adhered to critical parts of the model before scanning.

Since my theme is Braille, we are also looking into brailling labels on these RFID matrices and having the labels I make scanned into the system, recognized, decoded, and placed as labels on the structure, eventually to be shown on the computer screen. Ultimately, this idea revolves around scannable Braille morsels on RFID tags.

You may know that I collect wine and have something of a collection. I learned very early on that having to ask someone over and over what type of wine I had and not ever getting the right bottle on the first try became tedious. Thus I label each of my bottles using a Braille labeler when I stock it. This method paired with some crucial organization skills allows me to manage my wine collection completely independently, again thanks to Braille. I also cook extensively and use a similar system for labeling things that are difficult to identify in my kitchen.

Ultimately, as with anything else, we need to use what makes us most efficient and most successful in the long run. If you know Braille and can use it quickly enough to make it effective, use it. If audio works better for you, use it. Use whatever makes you an efficient, productive member of society. I use a combination of Braille and audio to access materials for my work and personal life. Braille is extremely useful, but sometimes, for instance when I need an organic chemistry handout or document read, Brailling it would take four hours and reading it aloud would take four minutes. Clearly I’ll choose to have it read aloud to save time.

Braille is extremely important and should be taught to blind Americans much more than it is being taught. We have heard at this symposium many ways Braille has been advanced in the past few years. I am always elated by our innovation because I honestly don’t know what Braille will allow us in the next five, ten, or twenty years. Groups like ours dream and think together and come up with the most exciting and innovative uses for Braille in our futures. We still have a long way to go, but we should all leave this evening knowing how far we have come. We will turn dreams into realities using our high expectations of ourselves and using Braille. Always hold high expectations of yourself, whether you are sighted or blind. Never lower the bar. Take responsibility for your successes and failures. With our hard and steadfast work, the blind will find and hold on to equality in society. Keep working hard and never ever stop dreaming up new and exciting ideas. Thank you very much; this has been a fantastic symposium.

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