A Blind Girl in Science Labs

I belong to a lot of mailing lists for blind and visually-impaired members, including blind students, blind people interested in science and engineering, the blind of Oregon, the blind of Portland, and so forth.

One thing that comes up over and over again on these lists, especially the student and science ones, is difficulty with science labs. Maybe a student needs a year of a lab science for their general education requirements. Maybe someone wants to go into science but doesn’t know how to handle labs. Maybe the students know they can find ways to do the labs but the professors or the schools don’t.

It can be really intimidating so I thought I’d take some time to write about this here. I also think a lot of sighted people, once they see or hear about a blind person doing science labs, want to know how it’s done but might not feel comfortable asking. So this is for blind and sighted alike.

Like most visually-impaired people, I can’t say my high school science lab experiences were easy. I remember trying to follow what was going on by listening to what my lab group said, following along in the directions, but not doing any of the measuring or experimenting myself. And then there’s all the feeling of being a dead weight, guilty that I wasn’t contributing as much but not knowing how to insert myself into the experiment in a way that wouldn’t royally screw it up or set it on fire. There was a lot of hanging back and protracted awkwardness. Some of my early college labs started out the same way.

When I returned to school in 2009, I had a Saturday afternoon biology lab. I remember standing outside the room so nervous. I hadn’t been in school in years, hadn’t taken biology since ninth grade. I stood there knowing that most people in a lab class want a blind girl in their group the way they would want a blind girl on their volleyball team in gym class: not at all. I sat down at the first table, the seat closest to the door. The first lab involved cabbage extracts, pH scales and spectrometers and yeah, I knocked over a tray of test tubes (I never see clear things), but my lab table mates were cool about it. We reset the test tubes and went on. I am actually still friends with everyone from that lab group, and after that initial hurtle, labs have been pretty great overall.

One of the reasons is that technology is so much better. There are all manner of adaptive lab equipment: talking instruments, accessible virtual labs, big screens that can display microscope slides with enormous levels of magnification.

There’s also a lot to be done by feel. It can even be an advantage to be comfortable and accustomed to getting information that way, because feeling the difference between an artery and a vein is going to give you a lot more information than just looking at it (they feel really different from each other). And there are lots of hands-on, larger-than-life models that you can explore with touch.

My school has a strong disability services department and a lot of disabled students, so many of the professors are used to it and don’t blink an eye. One thing the services can set up (and if your school isn’t offering this, ask them about it) is a lab assistant. Someone who has already taken the class and shown that they are well versed in lab procedure can get hired to help you. Not to do things for you but to help you measure things, fill in information that everyone else is getting visually that you might be missing, to transcribe quiz answers while you are handling a cadaver (you can’t go back and forth between writing and touching the cadaver because of contamination rules). This can be a huge help for filling in the gaps, and often the lab assistant will get paid by the school. It also looks great on their resume or refreshes the material for them, so they benefit too. And they can end up being awesome.

The most important thing though, is not to hang back. Even if you feel like you might screw something up or knock over some test tubes with nasty-smelling cabbage extract, it’s better to get involved, to get hands on. Be the one to volunteer to dissect the sheep brain or cow eye. Stir the crap out of your chemicals (don’t stir so hard you break a beaker though, I speak from experience), play with the springs and lasers in physics lab. Get on the computer and work the programs that are accessible to you. The more you DO, the more you will learn. And it is doable, no matter the horror stories you hear from others, or the professors that may try to discourage you. There are always ways to get the same knowledge by other means.

Every science class and lab is different, so I thought I’d put a poll here to see what kinds of topics you might want to know more about, either for your own info or out of curiosity.

~Emilia J

One thought on “A Blind Girl in Science Labs

  1. Thank you for this post. I’m a psychology professor who is interested in knowing how to accommodate blind students in my classes (I have one enrolled next semester.) The course is perception, which is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it is interesting to the student due to her impairment and her super abilities in non-visual senses. On the other hand, it’s really hard to understand some concepts in the class without being able to see examples. Also, I don’t know how to test knowledge of anatomy, though I’m looking into buying physical (3D) models that can be used for studying and testing. Usually we work with images that are labeled.

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