Amanda, Computer Science
I have problems getting people to understand my situation because they think that I’m blind and that’s it. They don't even know I'm on the autism spectrum, and I don't usually tell them, because they don't know how to make sense of that. I’m a graduate student at Texas A&M University, I’m doing research. and I also have a job testing products for Apple.
I work on the things that I feel I have to work on. Right now, a lot of STEM subjects just aren't accessible. I hear a lot about encouraging more disabled people to be in STEM, but problems that I face are not solved. I'm trying to make it easier for the next group.
I’ve been completely blind since birth. Two of the greatest challenges I’ve faced in school have been uses of graphics and images in math. For blind people, you can't just have a drawing up on a screen, and descriptions only go so far. In math, there’s the problem of equations. If you have an x squared, you have a tiny “2” above an x. The trouble is representing that linearly in Braille and writing one symbol after another. The user has to read character by character these often really long equations.
I came back to grad school with the hope of using new technology to solve some of these problems. I'm in the process of acquiring expensive tactile tools called Graphiti displays with 2,400 pins that can move up and down to various heights to form tactile images. You can draw with them, you can play games on them, you can feel all kinds of graphics. These displays would allow me to see things I've never seen before and experience engineering concepts in new ways. I want to communicate with people better. I want to understand what they're talking about better. I just don't have access to enough of what's being displayed on a computer. My goal is basically a blind Renaissance, when there are enough people with these technologies that give them abilities they've never had, to perceive things they couldn’t using speech and Braille. Interesting things will happen, and blind people will be able to do more.
“I just think of it as brains functioning differently. Also, I think of inputs being different. For me, not having visual experience since birth is going to rewire things. So that creates neurodiversity as well.”
My other interest is that I’ve discovered that virtual events can accidentally improve accessibility. They certainly did in my case. Rather than having to go to a physical place and have all the related challenges, I can just join a Zoom session. This has made it possible for me to do more work because I'm not spending so much time traveling and recovering from the in-person experience. My dissertation may be about this.
I wasn't expecting to go to grad school. If school hadn't gone virtual, I would have said, no way. In college, I was using all my energy getting to and from class, dealing with cars and people, and also doing the schoolwork that took me longer than everyone else.
When I go into a classroom full of people, I hear noise, most of it indecipherable because there are too many voices at once, and I don't see anybody, so I don’t recognize people. Other people don't generally talk to me, because they don't have a reason to, and because I don't make eye contact.
Luckily, my job is remote. I’m part of the “living on” team, and we do remote accessibility testing of Apple products. We live on the devices and don't have to be in an office. It’s part-time, do it at your own pace. Most of the time I'm just doing stuff with their hardware and software and reporting the problems that I find.
I have a husband who loves me and helps me every day. We think almost with one brain. And he makes amazing whole-food and plant-based food that keeps me functioning. He also makes sure that the home is nice and clean and quiet. I find that I'm much happier and more fulfilled and more functional at home because I can think more about real problems like how to get as many tactile displays into the hands of as many blind people as possible and how to make engineering concepts accessible.
I’m lucky. I have a house. I have a job. I have a partner that I want to be with. I have a quiet life that's not too stressful and that’s really enjoyable, and my work is meaningful because some of the problems that I find, nobody else ever has to deal with.