On Blindness and the Study of Civil Engineering

By Nathanael Wales

Editor's Note: Nathanael Wales is President of the California Association of Blind Students.

Some blind students may think of science and engineering as impossible majors. Well, I am blind and a full-time student at the University of California at Davis, majoring in civil engineering. So far, I have survived my entire math, physics, chemistry, and half of my lower division engineering requirements. Here are some of the approaches that I have used.

To begin with, I make out my class schedule by sitting down with a reader that I pay personally. The reader reads me the printed information, and I figure out what schedule works for me. The California Department of Rehabilitation assists with the cost of tuition and books, although I have to supply all the necessary information they require. It is important to be organized and stay on top of things because the bureaucratic process can be slow. I explore the campus and find my classrooms myself. Traveling, registering, dealing with Rehab, and getting my books and supplies independently are very important because my sighted peers also have to take responsibility for these things Practicing these skills in school will prepare me for being a competent, independent blind person in the workplace.

Here are some of the specific alternative techniques I employ. Braille is my most essential tool. Depending on my need, I use a slate and stylus, a Braille writer (for matrices and Differential Equations), or a Braille Lite. A Braille Lite is a computerized notetaker with a Braille display that is helpful for math, physics, chemistry, and engineering work. Since most of my books are not available on tape, I frequently use readers to read my texts to me. In my labs, I work with a lab partner or hire a lab assistant to help with making visual observations and reading gauges. Braille and readers allow me to work so competently and efficiently that I have found no need to use a CCTV or other type of magnification device.

Readers and lab assistants should be paid and, thus, function as your employee. You need to find them, hire them, manage them, and if necessary, fire them. All that the rehabilitation services or the Disabled Student Services (DSS) office should do is provide funding to pay the readers. While I have hired some readers that the DSS office recommended, I normally post flyers around campus and network with friends. I decide when my readers come and what they read. For tests, I make arrangements with my instructor to take the test in a separate room using a reader.

At times, I use the adaptive computers located in the library, including the screen readers, speech synthesizers, scanner, and Braille printer. However, most of the time I use my own equipment, which was provided by Rehab, to write papers, do homework, and do research on the Internet. My scanner is helpful for reading textbooks and handouts from class.

These are the alternative techniques I use for studying civil engineering. Schoolwork, however, does not take up all of my time. I am also involved in extracurricular activities on campus. For example, I am active in the student chapter of the American Society of Civil Engineers. Each year we build and race a concrete canoe. I have helped with mixing and pouring of the lightweight concrete, designing the mold, and finishing the canoe. Last year we even took second in the regional competition. I also enjoy being very active in my church's college fellowship.

Many engineers take five years to graduate. Even though my first two quarters were spent getting training in alternative skills of blindness at an NFB training center, I am on track to graduate in four years. With the guidance of successful blind mentors in the National Federation of the Blind, with the support of other blind students in the National Association of Blind Students, and with my training at an NFB training center, I am able to compete successfully and on terms of equality with my sighted peers in the field of civil engineering.

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