The Unforeseen Path: How A Blind Student Navigates Chemistry

April 29, 2020
Ideas That MatterJulia Winter

My name is Nicole and I'm 24. I am a senior at Wayne State University, graduating with my Bachelor's in Nutrition and Food Science. And the thing that's really important is that I am legally blind with very, very limited eyesight to the point where I can pretty much only see the difference between light and dark and sometimes shapes and shadows. And this journey has been very difficult as a science major while being blind.

What was it like learning such a visual science in highs school? Did you want to go into science back then?

I did. I've always had a love and a passion for science,but when I graduated I said I was going to go into robotics or engineering so that I could invent something for blind people. But then I didn't end up doing that because the school that I was at, and I don't want to put them on the spot,they weren't as willing to work with me as Wayne State was. Accommodations weren't as great. And I also was new to being on my own, so I was kind of scared to speak up for myself, and advocate, so math was really rough. And once I basically failed my first semester of math, I was like, okay, I'm definitely not doing engineering because it's, it's too much. And so, um, then I was undecided for a long time, but I've always loved science and I was actually discouraged to go into science by so many other people, including blind people because of how visual it would be in college and how different it is compared to K through 12 where you have a paraprofessional who is assisting you at all times and you have someone else speaking up for you, for your accommodations.But eventually I took a biology class at Oakland community college and I aced it. And I was like, all right, I love science. I don't care what anyone tells me I'm taking science, I'm going to major in science. So the next semester I took a nutrition course and I loved that as well and I aced that and I was like, okay, I'm going to become a dietitian. So now here I am about to graduate with my bachelor's in nutrition and food science. And I recently applied to the dietetics program at Wayne state, and that's the only school I actually applied to, which is a brave decision, but the disability services is so amazing at Wayne that I don't want to go somewhere else and have to start all over.

What accommodations did they help you with at Wayne State for chemistry?

I actually received a lot of accommodations. One of the very important things that they did for me that helped me so much was they provided me with a drawing board, which is made of rubber. And then I put plastic sheets on top of it and there is a pen, it's a special type of pen where I draw on the paper and it raises everything for me. And I could not have done organic chemistry without that because it, it was a way for me to visualize what everyone else was seeing. And then they also provided me with extended time on exams, which was very, very useful because sometimes it would take four hours to take an exam because I had scribes, which they also provided me, amazing Wayne State. So I had scribes that would read the exams to me and then I would have to tell them what to put on the paper and it took so long and I could not have done it without the extended time on exams.

These scribes, are these people who know chemistry or what do they do?

Yes, every scribe that I've had has been a student who already took the class before I did. So they're familiar with the subject because I don't know how I would be able to have a scribe that's never taken chemistry and then I have to tell them what to write. It just, that's like, you know, trying to explain a foreign language to someone that doesn't speak it.And organic chemistry is definitely a foreign language that you have to learn.

So as lecture was going on, my scribe was sitting next tome in class and trying to explain as best as possible what was going on. And I have a braille note taker, which is a completely different device. It's all braille. It's pretty much like a braille computer. I would write in words what my scribe was describing was going on on the screen, like the projector and then they would also take notes in their notebook and then afterwards we would meet up and they would draw for me on my drawing and then again I would write a description going along with what it looked like because that one was more accurate.

How did you manage to get in A in organic chemistry?

It was definitely a full-time job. I always tell people that I would spend hours and hours during the week doing chemistry and I honestly didn't even have classes on Tuesdays and Thursdays and I remember sometimes I would spend like eight hours a day just with my scribe. Um, the first,when I took organic chemistry one I would, I think I was at school from like 8:30 until 7 sometimes. And I'd only have two maybe three classes during the day. And in between I would be doing chemistry. I didn't even take lunch breaks. I would be eating while drawing structures.

At first, so my first exam in orgo one was actually a 54 and then I was like super confident I was going to do really good and then it was kinda like, wow, that was really bad. And then after that I aced every exam because I knew that I needed to dedicate more time and it wasn't as easy as I thought it would be. So I actually failed my first orgo exam but that kind of pushed me to be like, all right, I'm going to do this, I'm going to show the world that I can do this and if I can show the world I can do it, then anyone else can do it. It just takes a lot of time and dedication and determination,but I mean I made it through both orgo one and two and aced both of them so.

What was it like learning the basics of chemistry?

I think the very basics were honestly harder for me to understand because it was so new and it was something I'm so unfamiliar with.And Lewis structures, what are one of those things that I just never fully got.I mean I learned them enough to make sure I could learn them for my exams, but I think that if someone were to show me a visual demonstration of them in a way that's different from how I learned them, it would be like, wow, I didn't know that's what it looked like. And I actually, um, looked up videos after our conversation earlier about them just to like refresh my memory. I'm like, all right, let me just make sure that I was right this is Lewis structures. But yeah, it's definitely Lewis structures and I struggled with them and I think it's mostly because I didn't know what electrons look like and what, you know,I didn't understand the whole valence electron and the periodic table in braille is interesting, it's very interesting. I didn't even know how the blocks were set up on the periodic table for a long time until I got a braille periodic table because in high school when I learned chemistry, the periodic table was in braille in a booklet and it was in list form. I didn't have the actual like visualization of what it looked like. Now, in college and I think,I'm pretty sure the disabilities office is what got, I think they were the ones that got me the periodic table in the way that it should have been. It's really big, but it worked.

What was it like to learn physics?

I actually decided to not do my bachelor's in science because I didn't want to take physics because I had a horrible experience in high school where I absolutely struggled because it was so visual. But most of it was because I did not have the right resources. I'm sure if I had actually followed through with it in college, I could have done it. But that's also something really visual and I just, I mean personally I hate physics or I did at least in high school, but also I didn't really care for chemistry that much either. And now I love it.

Raising awareness through YouTube

I created YouTube mostly because of people doubting me for so long and also the lack of education on blindness. And I want to raise awareness to show people that yes, we are blind, but that does not mean that we can't accomplish things the same way that everyone else can. It just might take a longer, we might have to do things differently, but that doesn't mean we can't accomplish our goals and we can't put ourselves out there. And, um, I, I think especially in terms of jobs where employers don't want to hire people because they have a disability or schools where students are discouraged into majoring in what they're passionate about because of lack of accessibility and lack of accommodations. And at home where um, I don't know, it's just crazy because I've heard people say things like, can blind people have kids? And I just want to raise awareness and make the world a better place and you know,more positive.

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