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How a Professor Gave a Blind Student a New Outlook on Science

Amanda Lacy was frustrated with her physics class and ready to drop it.

Ms. Lacy, a blind student at Austin Community College, is a computer-science major who loves her classes but often struggles in them, not because she doesn’t understand the material, but because she doesn’t have access to adequate textbooks. And when she started taking the introduction-to-physics class, things got even worse, until a professor stepped in with a solution.

The college provides blind students with digital copies of textbooks so they can listen to them on the computer or read them using an electronic Braille display. But the figures and graphs in Ms. Lacy’s physics book don’t easily translate the same way that text does.

“There are many symbols that the computer doesn’t recognize,” Ms. Lacy said, “so it just comes out as gibberish.” For example, Ms. Lacy said in an interview, the computer will read ‘X squared’ simply as ‘X2′.

When Ms. Lacy showed her digital textbook to her computer-science professor, Richard Baldwin, he was shocked, she said. He told her if someone didn’t take her problem seriously there was no way she would make it through the course.

So Mr. Baldwin started working with Ms. Lacy for a few hours each week, slowly going through the textbook and trying to explain the graphics to her in a way that she understood. “He’d do whatever he could to get these concepts across,” Ms. Lacy said. “He’d scratch them out on paper, draw them on my hand, things like that.” While they were working together, Mr. Baldwin began creating an open-access online tutorial for blind students learning physics.

In Mr. Baldwin’s tutorials, equations are written using only symbols found on keyboards so that everything is one-dimensional and presented in a format that blind people can read. Using the tutorials, Ms. Lacy excelled in her physics class and received an A in the course.

Working with Ms. Lacy taught Mr. Baldwin many things, too, such as that blind people can’t draw with much accuracy. So he came up with a new software for that as well. “I sent this thing to her at home, and the next time I saw her she was pretty elated,” Mr. Baldwin said. “She told me, ‘Finally, I can doodle.’” Before that, her physics professor would just allow her to skip the problems that required sketches for answers. Now, Ms. Lacy says, she is working with the software so that when she takes Physics II she can turn in her completed homework with the rest of the students.

Sometimes people ask her why she doesn’t just study something easier for blind students, like English or history, Ms. Lacy says. What does she tell them? “Because I’ll get bored.”

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