Blind Scientist Philosophy
Most people might think—and maybe rightfully so—that being blind would not allow you to be a scientist. But being a scientist is all about having fresh ideas, creativity, and be driven to solve problems. If you figure out a way to embrace your difference and use it to your advantage along with your proper tools and support, you can make meaningful and innovative contributions to any scientific field. Your disability or difference is not a hindrance. Rather, your unique perspective and abilities can lead you to innovate and take your field in a different direction. We, as a society, have much work to do in order to provide the tools and support that individuals need to be a part of the scientific community, which, ultimately, will be better for the world.
I'll be honest. I didn't always feel the way that I do now. For the majority of my life, I was constantly told that science would be hard as a blind person because it is very visual. Even within the blind community, I was discouraged from becoming a scientist; it's too impractical, many would say. Having heard this over and over again, I believed it was true, but I still pursued my passion of being a scientist and I had some supportive teachers along the way. This all changed when I met my postdoc advisor, Dr. J. Ilja Siepmann. He presented my blindness as an asset, explaining that I could solve problems that other people haven't because I needed to process things differently. Before that, no one had ever told me my blindness had value; I always felt like I needed to overcome it, rather than work with it and I never had the tools I needed. That conversation truly changed my perception of myself and my abilities.
The scientific world is very visual and designed for sighted individuals. But I believe it is a hindrance to continue to process everything in the same manner; science requires unique perspectives to tackle problems and develop solutions. People with disabilities and people from different backgrounds will bring those unique perspectives to the table—we are not a burden and can be positive contributors if given the proper tools. Thus, there is an advantage to the scientific community to include as many differently abled persons and persons of diverse backgrounds as possible. In order to truly be inclusive, we need to provide the proper tools and support to help them thrive.
It's probably no surprise that I have to visualize things in a different way because of my blindness, but this has helped me throughout my scientific career. In my graduate work, I studied Helicobacter pylori urease, an enzyme which helps bacteria survive in the acidic conditions of the stomach. While my sighted peers looked at pictures and videos of the molecule in action, I, being blind, didn’t have any option but to get my data another way. To learn more about what I found, click here. This is when I demonstrated that just like my sighted peers, I had a full—albeit different—perception of the facts. Because of my experiences, I strongly believe that anyone, no matter their age, background, or ability, can be a scientist if they want to be.
Using my visible position as a blind professor and commitment to outreach, I continuously work to change the climate on towards one of accessibility and diversity. I have curated and share a comprehensive list of strategies, resources, and software that I have used throughout my scientific career. I hope that by sharing my Blind Scientist Tools, I can help aspiring scientists who are blind and visually impaired find the tools they need to be successful. I also share the stories and highlight the achievements of my Fellow Blind Scientists, to build a sense of community and inspire others. Ultimately, I hope to demonstrate that a blind person can enter into any STEM field and contribute just as much—if not more—as their sighted peers.
There is so much more work to be done, but I can't do it alone. We need to work together as a community to be the change and invest an idea—the idea that our circumstances do not equal our limitations; the idea that scientific progress is built on diversity of thought. Everyone has potential to become a part of the next generation of scientists and researchers, and it's up to us to make sure that unfair limitations and expectations don’t keep them away. If I could go back and speak my younger self, I would tell her that scientific vision is more—so much more—than sight.