The biggest difference between the demands placed on sighted students and visually-impaired students is in the number of managerial skills that visually-impaired students have to rapidly develop. Others are the intermediate between and scientific material and me. Essentially, in addition to my role as a student and/or a researcher, I function as an employer to a small staff of access assistants, sometimes referred to as “readers”.
Access Assistants aid me in accessing the visual world. This includes reading, recording textbooks and journal articles, describing plots, figures, and equations, taking dictations from me, taking notes during lectures and presentations, organizing my recorded and printed materials, and whatever else comes up through the course of my day that requires sight.
In my current role as a Professor, my responsibilities have increased compared to my previous role, and the size of my team has also increased. Some tasks are complex and require that multiple access assistants working together to complete it. To collaborate more effectively and keep track of tasks, I hold a weekly team meeting, which allows each member to share their progress and receive input from the rest of the team.
Depending on your needs, it can help to have access assistants specialize in different areas. Some example categories are:
If you have a hectic schedule and a lot of access assistants to manage, it saves time and stress to have a sighted person help you with scheduling and office organization.
Depending on the kind of research you are doing, you may want to have an access assistant who is skilled with computers and coding so that the two of you can be on the same page as you work.
If your role involves teaching, it is helpful to have an assistant who can help you prepare for your classes. My access assistant helps me prepare materials such as the syllabus, lecture notes, quizzes, and exams, post materials to the course website, review and help me memorize lecture notes prior to class, and respond to student emails. It's important to note that this role is different from a Teaching Assistant provided by the department, who primarily helps me with grading.
If your work requires a large amount of writing, it is helpful to have an assistant dedicated to this task. As a researcher, I also need to keep up to date with the relevant literature in my field. Since this is also important for my writing, this assistant also maintains a library of literature.
It can be nice to have one person who makes all your recordings. You’ll be listening to this person’s voice a lot, so make sure they speak clearly, evenly, and without an accent that you find hard to understand. They need to know how to correctly pronounce scientific terms and to read equations fluently.
For consistency, you might want to have one person who is solely responsible for keeping your materials organized, digitally and in print.
In order to work well with access assistants, I’ve learned that I need to be approachable but firm. I have worked with access assistants who are close to my age and sometimes even my academic peers. It is okay to be friends, but at the end of the day, it’s a question of whether you are working effectively. It is also very important that I know what I aim to accomplish with my access assistants. Having clear expectations and goals for the access assistants protects our time from disorganization.
Another challenge is learning to work people with different personalities, communication styles, educational backgrounds, and interests. One thing I have learned is how to adapt my critiquing style based on a person’s personality. Giving the same criticism to person A and person B could have very different effects. Something that could make person B cry might not phase person A at all. It all comes down to communication styles and learning how to adapt to or circumvent differences.
Patience is probably the most important thing you can learn. It can be very frustrating to work through someone else, especially when you can become limited by what they don’t understand. The fact of the matter is, you need to learn to adapt, to capitalize on different access assistants strengths, and be patient when problems arise.
One day, it occurred to me that my access assistants should experience what it is like to be in my shoes, being blind and working through an access assistant. To make this happen, I brought a high-quality blindfold, which completely blocks out light, and I divided the readers into pairs. One person wore the blindfold, while the other was their access assistant. The blindfolded person was given a task (locating a citation, running a program, plotting data, finding a piece of information) to complete with the help of the access assistant. When they completed their tasks, I asked each assistant to reflect on their experiences and write about what they learned. Here is what they had to say.
My name is Tyler Westland, and I took part in a short experiment in which I was blind and was to complete a task with a sighted “reader”. My task while temporarily blind was to write a “Hello World” program (classic beginner program that displays the text “Hello World” to the screen) in perl. I have never used perl before so this required my reader and I to both learn perl. The end product was the following code, which took ~15 minutes to create, despite being copy and pasted from http://learnperl.scratchcomputing.com/tutorials/getting_started/
say “Hello World!”;
I was not surprised that it took this long, in fact the only reason it took this short was because I approached it as if I was teaching my reader how to program over a phone. This came naturally from my experience at an IT help desk. To move this quickly I taught my reader; what a programming language is, what functions and parameters are in programming languages, the general format of websites providing programming tutorials and help is, the basics of vi (text editor on the computer terminals), and the basics of bash (default scripting language on unix terminals) commands and parameters. Since I, almost, always explained what I was trying to accomplish, not just what to do, my reader had no trouble doing what I wanted. I said almost because there was one moment when I did not do that, and things quickly became frustrating and confusing. Before copy and pasting the above code into our file we had to delete the line of code we had previously attempted to write. To do this I wanted to issue the command “:d” which deletes a single line in vi. I merely told my reader to type “:d” without explaining that it was a command and that it was meant to delete the single line in the file. My reader, without knowing my intentions, had already switched vi to editor mode when he typed “:d”. This resulted in the characters “:d” being added to the file, not the command to delete the line. It took a moment of confusion before it was realized that he was operating vi in editor mode while I thought it was still in command mode. This all happened exactly as I had anticipated, even the result of my moment of foolishness. This task would have taken me while sighted less than 3 minutes due to learning the basics of many programming languages in my college career as a computer scientist and avid unix user. The amount of time that it would take to program real programs would be staggering. In this exercise we did not have to devise any programming logic, and it was restricted to a single file of 5 lines. In my daily work I manage a code base of 30+ files, many of which contain about 1000 lines. In order for a reader to actually help me manage this I would have to teach them much harder concepts that I have learned over my career.
My blindfolded task set by Dr. Minkara was to use the molecular visualization program Visual Molecular Dynamics, or VMD, to calculate the distance between two ends of a surfactant molecule. Although I was given a reader, I have never used VMD, so in a sense, I emulated Dr. Minkara’s experience as a young chemist first learning these programs. When I began the task, I was in the mindset of a sighted person. I had a goal, I had a tool, I just needed to use the tool to accomplish the goal. Yet I could not touch nor visualize the tool myself and from the beginning it was not even clear how my task would begin let alone how the goal would be accomplished. In order to be successful, I had to conform to the mind of my reader. What would they see? How would they react to what I tell them? What can I say that will emulate the experience that I would have created for myself if I were sighted? After a long forty minutes, the goal was reached, but by the end of the tedious process I did not feel effective. In this way, I can see how a blind individual would be discouraged from academic pursuits. This experience granted me insight to another world created by an entirely new and fresh perspective. As if I dipped my toes into another universe of understanding, the way that I had to visualize my environment and utilize the tools at my disposal in addition to working with an equally clueless reader opened my eyes to the difficulties that visually-impaired individuals face each day. This opportunity has encouraged me to take greater care into my duties as an access assistant and has given me a new appreciation for those who live their lives with physical impairments.
My blindfolded task for Dr. Minkara was to sort her emails and label them. This is one of my jobs as her access assistant however this time around I was the blind person and I had a reader who had no idea where the emails go. For the most part it was not a very difficult task for me despite being blindfolded since I knew what to do. All I needed to do was ask my reader to read the first few lines of an email if it was not something I realized by the address. However, I did feel more often than not that I just want to grab the laptop and get the work done myself. I am a very fidgety person if I don’t use my hands and it was bothering me that I was not able to do the work with my hands. There were moments when it was difficult to explain to my reader what exactly to do since I just knew how to get the job done and had never thought about how difficult it would be to explain the same to someone else. It bothered me less that I was blind and more that I could not use my hands. This made me realize how it must be for a blind person to not be able to use their hands to get all their work done and needing the help of access assistants. However, I have spent 7 months at this job in which I have also travelled outside of USA with Mona and I am inspired by the fact that she does as much of her work as possible by herself. She avoids asking for help as much as possible. This inspires me to be more independent myself.
My task was to go through one of her team member’s PowerPoints and to create a “dictionary” of words I personally did not know. Experiencing this gave me a new perspective on my role. It’s easy for me to forget just how different life is for Mona, and today I got to experience this firsthand. To start, I put on the blindfold. I was not seated at this time, and so I had to make my way to the computer I was to use along with my reader. This is where I realized that my special awareness was completely gone. I reached forward where I believed the chair would be and found nothing. Moving, I bumped into the chair with my stomach and nearly tripped. I had overestimated the height of the chair, and without sight it didn’t exist in my reality until I hit it. With the simplest task of finding a seat, I gained my first incredible insight into the way it feels to live without vision. Having taken a seat, I instructed my reader to open up two things on the computer: A blank Word document and the PowerPoint I was to review. Creating the word document was simple enough, but the process of finding the PowerPoint presentation was arduous. When I explained to my reader that the email the presentation was sent in should be open on the screen, he said it was not. Of course, I questioned this, because I had a great confidence that it was open. My reader was right. He had accidentally closed it and reopened the wrong window. This was a trend that would continue throughout the experience. In another instance, I asked my reader to highlight specific words from the PowerPoint. I was entirely confident that PowerPoint had a highlight feature, but my reader claimed I was wrong. We argued for a small period, but in the end, I conceded to my reader and moved forward in the interest of time. We proceeded with an alternate method that I was unhappy with. Later, I learned that PowerPoint, indeed, has no highlight feature. These experiences led me to fully understand frustrations that can arise between a reader and the blind individual. I see that it takes a great confidence from a blind individual to trust completely that the actions the reader is taking are the correct ones. It takes confidence and a dash of hope to know that the reader isn’t missing anything. This simple disconnect between the reader and me took up a large amount of time, ended in a bit of frustration, and ultimately led to a personally less-than-ideal solution. But this is the second thing I learned: Dr. Minkara places extraordinary trust in her readers to know what they are doing, and whether what they are doing is in the correct vein. In this simulation, having a reader was indeed helpful. I could not have done the task at all without one. But, time loomed over the both of us. Dr. Minkara gave me fifteen minutes to complete this task. On a regular day at the office, it would take me ten minutes at most. But today, it took twenty. I believe I understand why. Doing this task alone, I would run a plan in my head, and then execute it without speaking. But, doing a task with an intermediary, one has to communicate– and communicate clearly. Abstractly, I knew exactly how to do this task, but formulating the words to explain my thoughts to my reader took time. Saying these words took more time. The reader often asked clarifying questions, and after doing so had to perform the task. This took time as well. The flow of an idea through my head, into words, through the reader, and into action took more than twice the time it would take doing this task alone. This was my third insight. I would like to thank Mona for letting me have this experience. I have never felt what it is like to be blind, but this experience was a reasonable simulation. I have gained an even greater respect for Dr. Minkara, knowing what she does every single day. This was hard for me, and I ultimately did not complete the task. I have been a reader with Mona on such a task before, and it went much more smoothly than it did with me as the blind individual. This leads me to my fourth and final insight: Dr. Minkara does what she does very well; my strength as reader is only incidental to her strength as a scientist and mentor.
My task was to find another supporting source for some of the information written about in the introduction, and to insert the citation into the text. This experience gave me a new perspective on my job. It’s easy for me to forget just how different life is for Mona, being blind. First, I noticed how isolating blindness feels. Because I couldn’t see anything else in the room, couldn’t see what is on the walls, on the shelves, on the floor, tables, desks, could not see what was through the opened doorway, I only felt my immediate surroundings, my own body and thoughts. In a way it was calming and focusing; but I only had to wear the blindfold for thirty minutes, and I was in a familiar and quiet place. In a place I had never been, it would have felt like being anchorless at sea. Secondly, I realized how much mental self-control it takes to guide someone through a task which you cannot see and explore personally with your own perceptions and silent thoughts. I realized that I do not often think through my most basic actions, such as sending an email or performing a google search from beginning to end. I know each essential step from visual and muscle memory; but keeping in mind each step, and producing it in logical sequence without distraction or interruption—this is an entirely different task. I think being blind requires a different part of the mind to develop. Navigating a book or webpage by giving verbal commands is very different than moving around a computer window by taking in all the information with your eyes. Problem solving became much more prominent in everything I attempted to do. If the reader did not understand my command, or could not find what I thought should be on the computer in front of them, I could not just look and click around and find the thing I wanted like I am used to when I’m confused; I had to come up with a way to interactively problem solve through a third party. It was really challenging. These familiar tasks became entirely different. Thirdly, I was surprised with how difficult it was to listen to and comprehend scientific articles as they are read rapidly without pause. I realized that when I have all the information laid out in front of my eyes, I often skip around, rereading for clarification, spending a lot of time starting at certain phrases, leaving through the paper forward and back to refresh myself on certain points. I realized that all these tools for maintaining focus and comprehending difficult material are not available for people who must access papers aurally, only being able to access it in a continuous thread, one word at a time. In the end, it took me about fifteen minutes to do a task with a reader that would have taken me about five minutes to do by myself—and this was a task I had done dozens of times. I cannot imagine trying to do a task that I was not already very familiar with. I could get through only because I knew from memory what the different screens and documents looked like so that I could give the reader very pointed instructions. If I was learning the process for the first time with the access assistant, it would have been almost unfathomably difficult to come up with the right instructions and questions to give them to move forward. But somehow, Mona does this every day. She is not only responsible for learning something entirely foreign to her, but for learning it by giving another person instructions. I have a whole new level of respect for blind people who persist in their education, swimming against the current of the visually-based educational system. Every task is a challenge. I only had to do one citation—for her thesis Mona had to go through that process two-hundred and fifty times.