Stemming My Way To A Science Degree

Science has always been my favourite subject, so much so that I remember my very first lesson in kindergarten which was 15 years ago. From that point on, I was permanently enthralled by the fascinating world of STEM. STEM stands for science, technology, engineering, and math; however I will be focusing more on the science and math component in this article.

I had a much easier time in Elementary school than I did later in life. I remember the thrill of excitement when my third grade teacher said I could help him teach the Astronomy lesson. I would read High School biology textbooks in fifth grade. I’d get reprimanded by my teacher for reading leisure books during Science class only to show that I either already knew the lesson topic through books I had previously read or that I have completed my work. Now that I’m older and look back on that, I definitely don’t recommend anyone do that. If you feel like you aren’t being challenged in class then I’d recommend starting an open dialogue with your caretakers and teachers to find a solution. Math was a bit of a struggle but I was able to push and get an A.

I was able to keep this momentum going through the first two years of High School, however things started slowly shifting in Grade 10. I was no longer ahead of the curve. The gap started to widen ever so slowly between what I was able to do and what was expected of me. It was a humbling reality check. I’d always thought I was gifted, only to realize that I am average. I needed more clarification in class and it took me longer to complete my work. I was OK with this because I was still passionate, curious, and determined. In the end, I was able to get a good grade.

In grade 11 I hit a glass ceiling I felt as though I could not shatter. The math component in chemistry grew exponentially more complex. Although I’m thankful that I was able to get my materials in braille, producing my answers for assignments and assessments was near impossible. Multiple choice was simple enough because I just circled the answer on the braille copy of my test with neon highlighters. Short answers were a different story. I was prohibited from writing my answers with my Perkins Brailler because it would be tedious to translate my answers from braille to print since one answer could potentially take up to three pages. I would lose marks on my tests for writing my answers on my BrailleSense notetaker (an electronic braille device) because the math wouldn’t transcribe properly when I printed it. Even when I was riding them in Nemeth mode, it still wouldn’t show up properly for the teacher to mark. No one was available to teach me how to do math on a computer along with a refreshable braille display.

I also wasn’t allowed to participate in labs. This meant that I did not have a kinesthetic component to associate with what I was learning. I also had a harder time conceptualizing and forming connections along with completing my lab reports. I understand that everyone was trying to do their best, and maybe there was more I could’ve done in terms of trying harder. However, there was a lack of resources and that, along with worrying about liability issues, were the main barriers I had to face. That was the part that was out of my control.

In University I was completely left to flounder. I was told that I could not get materials made for me in braille and I did not have access to a talking scientific calculator. I had to tell someone what to enter into the calculator for me. This presented some challenges because there are very specific buttons you have to press in a specific order and since every calculator is different, I wasn’t able to tell the person what to press. It was extremely overwhelming going from having everything visually laid out for me in braille to going completely having things in a purely audible format. In High School I was able to have my test and my data sheet open in front of me at the same time. Now I have to switch between documents on my computer.

I will be taking a couple of semesters to focus on other required courses for my program rather than taking chemistry and calculus classes. The Accessibility Centre at my post-secondary institution has an Assistive Technologist who says that there is a program I can use on my computer to do math as well as use a scientific calculator. I am hoping that I will be able to continue my classes after working with him on developing these skills. I will also be advocating to get braille materials since I do not think that I will be able to succeed in these subjects without at least some supplemental materials made for me in this format. Something that I have found to be an improvement in post-secondary compared to high school is the fact that I am allowed to participate in labs. Because I am an adult, I have the power to choose what I am comfortable doing. I am allowed to explore and work at my own pace. My Accessibility Centre is able to provide lab aids to come to my class with me and assist in the components that I do not feel safe doing by myself.

Unfortunately there are a lot of systems put into place that make it quite difficult for people who are blind or partially sighted to succeed in STEM based programs. In my case, I had many people tell me I couldn’t be successful, which was discouraging. High School is supposed to be the foundation of your learning before transferring to post-secondary and mine unintentionally set me up to fail. However, there are also many supportive people out there who are willing to help. In my opinion, one of two changes need to be made: either universities should figure out a way to provide braille to students who requested, or High Schools should be more proactive about teaching students how to do math and science on a computer. Although some people might be able to cope with doing things one way and switching to a completely different method, it is also very unrealistic for others.

I am determined to earn my Bachelor’s degree in food and nutritional sciences. My hope for the future is that changes will be made, not just in the education system but also in the perception of what people who are blind or partially sighted can do and choose to study. Everyone should have the right to STEM into the person they want to be.

by Nika