I have found that it’s best if you conduct access assistant interviews yourself. It’s not always clear to a sighted disabilities office employee how to evaluate someone’s aptitude for blind assistance. I think this has a lot to do with misconceptions about the role of an access assistant. Their job is not to tutor me, but to make the visual aspects of my job accessible to me. (Check out the What is an Access Assistant page
for more information.) As a part of my interview process, I always give the interviewee one scientifically-dense paragraph to read and three sheets of visual information to describe: a complex calculus equation, a drawing of an acetone molecule, and a figure that depicts a ligand docked in the active site of Klebsiella aerogenes (KA) urease.
I do not listen for their ability to recognize and name symbols and chemical compounds, but for their ability to recite what they see in a manner that is clear, thorough, and accurate. Attention to detail is key. For example, with the urease figure, it is important to read the title and to describe that there is a chemical compound centered on the page, surrounded by multicolored circles with three-letter codes and a four-digit number. It is also important to state that there are different line styles: arrowed, solid and dashed. Most people do not even notice the title at the top of the page! The ability of someone to verbally convey descriptions such as these is more important to me than the ability of someone to understand the biochemistry.
Ligand Docking Image
Ideal Description: “Title of image: 1finalkawideopen-ZINC00388081. Holding the page horizontally, there is a compound in the middle surrounded by multicolored circles. Some of the components of the rings have arrows pointing to some colored circles. The compound seems to be made of 2 rings in the middle, the ring on the bottom is open on 2 sides on the left. From the first ring there is a red point leading to ARG2082, a purple arrow pointing from HN+ to ASP1967 and a purple arrow pointing from HN to H20. From the bottom ring, there is a purple arrow pointing from H3N+ to ALA2109. The two aromatic rings are surrounded on the left side by a greenish/blue line, but it starts to fade as it goes to the right side of the image. Also surrounding the aromatic rings and the line are labels HIS, ALA, VAL, LEU, MET.”
Scientific Text (sampled From My Thesis)
The core skill of an access assistant is the ability to convert visual information into verbal information. A background in science is not the key necessity, but rather the ability to learn quickly, respond to feedback, and communicate clearly about things they may not understand.
I value an access assistant who can accept criticism. The nature of the job leads to a lot of conversation, communication, and correction over how they perform their tasks. Of course, it is important to be considerate and kind with my criticism. But, a person who can receive and incorporate criticism without becoming too stressed or offended makes a very good access assistant.
If I had to choose a fatal flaw for an access assistant, I would say it’s the inability to admit when they don’t know. People who can’t admit when they don’t know something tend to make things up as a cover. I could not believe it when almost half of the people I interviewed said that the molecule on the page was a water molecule when it was actually acetone. I didn’t expect them to know acetone on sight, but did I expect them to say if they didn’t know and to describe the structure instead.
During my studies or research, if my access assistant gives me the wrong name of a molecule, I won’t be able to correct their mistake. This has happened to me before and caused me to proceed on a false presumption. You need to be able to trust that whatever your access assistant tells you reflects the information on the page.
Another practical tip for identifying bad access assistants is to track all your access assistants’ hours in a record of your own and to compare it with what they submit to the university’s system. I’ve had access assistants think they can get away with cheating on their hours.