Sharing the Vision: How Software is Making Science Accessible to All

This article is a part of Issue #2: Breath. You can get your own physical copy of the zine through our store, or see the full page spread for free at our Patreon!

What’s the earliest thing you can remember?

Maybe it’s a happy memory — one coated in sunlight or a particular kind of weather — or maybe it’s a dark memory, one that you’d rather not revisit. After all, most early memories are usually one or the other; extreme emotions have a tendency to stick, for better or worse.

Perhaps you remember your first home? The colour of the walls, the markings on the floor, and which door led you to where? How to get to it, and which shortcuts you used to take?

For most people, they can — that is, unless they were born blind. They’ll still remember their loved ones, and they’ll still remember their first home, but the memories are built on other senses — a favourite perfume, a sound of thunder, or a bristled carpet. In fact, most visual memories will have undertones of the other senses too. If you picture your childhood home, it won’t be like photographs on a slide show because it’s much more dynamic than that.

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We tend to take our vision for granted. Our eyes are, in so many ways, our primary tool for navigating the world — from pouring a drink to crossing the road. If you don’t agree, then please, by all means, try blindfolding yourself and go make yourself a cup of tea, then report back.

Daniel Hajas doesn’t have to imagine. He lost his sight at the age of 17, and suddenly found himself without the tools he had used for nearly two decades to get around. By then, like many teenagers, he already knew what his passion in life was and had been getting excited about the prospect of going to university to study his favourite subject: physics. But, after his loss of vision, Daniel recalls how his teachers were less than optimistic when he told them about his ambitions to study science, even when blind:

“Some teachers pulled their faces, saying, ‘How would you take notes? How would you interpret diagrams? Oh, no, and what about experiments and lab work? It would be too dangerous!’ Most thought I should try to do something else.”

His teachers weren’t being needlessly cruel. In a sense, they were right; other subjects would be easier for him now. Scientific subjects like physics and chemistry are often very visual because of how we understand nature — we look at it. Young children’s first exposures to science are generally not dry definitions found in textbooks but rather a fascination with water, a burning candle, or a silly-looking bug. At a higher level, even things like mathematics is less about 2+2 and more about patterns, puzzles, and other visual illustrations. You can’t touch numbers, or hear them, or smell them — so how can you work with them if you can’t see?

“After this,” says Daniel, “I thought, ‘You know what? Surely studying something like history would be easier. But studying nature, finding patterns in numbers… That’s what I care about, and that’s how I imagine myself being creative and useful for society in the future’”.

Born in Hungary, Daniel Hajas moved to England in 2013 to study Theoretical Physics at the University of Sussex in Brighton. Even though accommodations were made by the university to help Daniel as best they could, the support that exists today for blind and visually impaired (BVI) students is fundamentally lacking for science and technology subjects. Screen readers — software that reads out text on your screen like Microsoft Sam — are the go-to tool for BVI students when using computers or smartphones, for both studying and after-school browsing. In literary-based subjects such as history, literature, or law, this makes most texts accessible for BVI students; in science, this isn’t always the case.

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Doodle by Tristen Brookshire. Click for larger size.

Of course, screen readers still work for science books, but simply hearing phrases like “as seen in figure 1.2” is not particularly inspiring. On top of that, most screen readers can’t interpret mathematical symbols like fractions or integration signs; to the software, it looks more like an emoji than a letter, which means that even the most straightforward scientific text in the world can be inaccessible to BVI scientists. Braille works to an extent, but its scope is still limited when it comes to the kind of complicated mathematical expressions that physicists like Daniel have to deal with, and braille embossers are clunky, cumbersome pieces of machinery. Nonetheless, Daniel considered himself fortunate.

“In high school, my maths teacher took her time to do ten hours a week with me. She’d even come in during teaching holidays to sit down one-to-one and train me with all tools possible. At university, I had someone who sat next to me in lectures; when a diagram came up, he’d whisper to me what was on the projector, and I had my notes typed up for me in a format that worked for my screen reader.”

But Daniel was still ultimately reliant on others. What happened when he had an assignment due over the weekend, and the relevant paragraph in a text book wasn’t screen reader friendly? Tough luck. He’d have to ask someone, or wait until the following Monday. What about when he was reading about a riveting subject late at night, and the only way a concept is described is by using a graph as an example? Guess he’d have to skip that chapter until he can find someone to describe it. Get help from the library? Ah, it’s only manned Monday to Friday.

Today, Daniel is the CEO of Grapheel Ltd, a charitable business organisation with a single mission: creating accessible STEM education for blind and visually impaired students. The idea of Grapheel was conceived whilst Daniel was still at university and, with the help of three fellow physics students from Sussex, it eventually grew into a formal, fully-fledged entity.

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Grapheel is creating an online service called IRIS: a website, and future smartphone app, that allows students to upload illustrations, graphs, diagrams, and any other STEM study images (along with a description of what they want to know about the image). Whether they want a full image transcription explaining exactly what the image is of, or if there’s just a minor detail that needs clarification, they can upload it anywhere, at any time. The image and its request gets sent out to a pool of experienced volunteers who provide the transcription before sending the image and a description back to the user, allowing them to move on with their studies uninterrupted. There are currently a number of mobile apps and online services to help BVI people that follow a similar model — but, just like with screen readers and braille, they’re simply not suitable for academic purposes.

The demographic resulting from the overlap between people that are BVI and people that are studying STEM is a small one, but utterly unsupported in the 21st century. And, based on Daniel’s experiences (which are not unique), it’s a bit of a chicken-egg situation: young BVI students are discouraged to pursue science and technology because of the lack of support that would exist for them there and, consequently, no one is creating the support needed because such low numbers of BVI students do pursue it. If services like IRIS exist, then teachers like Daniel’s wouldn’t have to wrinkle their nose at BVI students suggesting they want to go into STEM.

With more and more projects cropping up with the intention to create better science education, such as the University of Portsmouth’s Tactile Universe project, the future is transcribed as looking bright for Grapheel and fellow BVI students. Furthermore, experts of pedagogy have been campaigning for decades that we should embrace more varied methods of teaching. It won’t just be BVI students that will benefit from new, inventive ways to teach science — to learn by using sound, touch, and even smell is a much more intuitive method that resonates with those early days of fascination with water or burning candles. Maybe, just maybe, this will be a case of the blind leading the blind to a future that can inspire a whole generation of scientists who use all of their senses — not just sight.


Read more about Grapheel by visiting http://grapheel.com.

You can also follow the team on Twitter, @grapheelteam!

This article is a part of Issue #2: Breath. You can get your own physical copy of the zine through our store, or see the full page spread for free at our Patreon!

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