An Interview With Amelia Dickerson

An Interview With Amelia Dickerson
On May 12, 2012, Amelia Dickerson was featured in an article by the Boulder Daily Camera entitled, “Blind CU Boulder Student Inspires Lab Changes”. It was not the first time this fascinating woman had been recognized for her achievements.

Her intelligence, motivation and ability to innovate inspired a request for an interview to continue the dialogue about her work. The interview was conducted via email by Jeanetta Polenske, Disabilities Editor and Dean Ingalls, Vision Issues Editor at BellaOnline. It reveals an articulate and vivacious young woman with a desire to share her experiences and encourage others.

How long have you attended CU Boulder?

I have been at CU Boulder since 2008, working on the (teaching) certification process and additional credits since then, off and on and part time. I am not currently a degree-seeking student. I got my B.A. in 2004 in sociology and history. I then got my certification to teach social studies last spring, 2011.

Are you the first blind student at CU?

I am definitely not the first blind student at CU. They have a great disability services center (DS) that I do not use a whole lot, but when I need help getting accessible texts or images, they are wonderful. And much more than that, they are a great source of moral support.

Also, they have helped me get connected with positive mentors who have found ways to be strong and effective in the face of others', as well as my own, attitudes and doubts.

What was the most difficult issue to overcome?

In general, the attitudes about what blind people can do. I am also guilty of having some of the attitudes I wish were not out there. Sometimes I wonder if it is really possible for blind people to do things as well as someone who is sighted. Sometimes I wonder if it is really worth the extra effort to get past the visual experience and into the multi-sensory one. I wish I never had to face or deal with these doubts, and I wish I did not have to deal with them in others. Facing them in myself and in others was and still is the hardest part of all of this.

I initially got my B.A. at Colorado College, a small, private, liberal arts school in Colorado Springs. Before I went there, I knew they did not have a disability services office, and in fact, had only had one blind student before me. I was okay with that fact, and accepted that going there would mean I would have to do all of the work for making my classes accessible. I chose to pursue subjects that would not give me any trouble in gaining accessibility- namely sociology and history. I scanned all of my own books and other readings and used optical character recognition software on it in order to be able to read it.

However, since I got connected with DS, I had access to those resources, and it was more and more helpful as I went to student teach and wanted to learn about technology options that would make the classroom work out the best. Since then I have relied heavily upon DS to prepare math and chemistry examinations and images and practices in chemistry.

Walk me through a chemistry laboratory from your perspective and show me how you solved each problem you encountered in the lab.

I will tell you about the specifics of one lab that was initially not very accessible, but that we eventually made very accessible. One lab we preformed involved identifying metals by combining them with an acid, collecting the gas produced, and then determining which metals they were based on the amount of gas produced. The gas was collected in a barometer of sorts, and it required reading the level of water inside of a glass burette.

At first, I tried to think of ways to read the level of the water inside of the burette, but I did not get very far with that approach. After the lab was completed, I thought more about the issue, and decided a better way to collect the gas, for my sake anyway, would be in a balloon, and I would then just need to figure out a good way to measure the volume of the balloon and thus the gas inside of it.

Dr. Hendrickson, my first point of contact in the chemistry department got together with me over fall break to test out this method. We took a familiar reaction, that of combining vinegar and baking soda, and saw how accurately we could measure the gas produced there. It took thinking and problem solving as we addressed questions such as: How much gas would we need to produce in order to get a reasonable amount into a balloon? How much of each reactant would we need to use in order to get that amount of gas? What would be the best way to measure the volume of a filled balloon? And once we had come up with a couple of ways to measure it: which method was most accurate?

We ended up taking a property of water- namely that 1 mL of water has a mass of 1 g. Once we had collected the gas in a balloon and tied it off, we filled a container to the top with water, submerged the balloon, and then found the mass of the water that spilled over the top. We could then, from the mass of water displaced, figure out the volume of the balloon to a very acceptable percentage of error.

Along a similar line, I was talking with a few people from the chemistry department after the semester was over, about some pieces of equipment that would be useful. For example, one piece of equipment I used to detect color changes, measured the amount of light penetrating a liquid. It is a device that is not commercially available, and that needs to be returned.

It would also be nice to be able to read the output on balances, because I currently need a sighted person to read the digital numbers on the screen. There is a rich resource in engineering students who have the skills necessary to develop technology to do something like make one little connection between a digital balance and a computer with a screen reader so a blind student can read it.

Why did you decide to become more involved instead of accepting not doing the same work as your classmates?

I love to understand how things work. I want to know more and to explore. However, it is hard when you have to rely on others to give you information. Anything someone else tells you about what is happening goes through them as a filter.

When we communicate, we have to filter out information that we deem to not be important, but I want to have a chance to filter out that information and decide what I think is important and not always be at the mercy of what others decide is important for me to know. This is why I want to get to make my own observations and not depend on others to make them.

Also, I am more interested in all kinds of things than a lot of people, and it can be hard to find others who will provide any sort of information, so again, I do not want to have to depend on others having the patience or time to give me information. Vision is one way to experience the world, and is the way that a lot of people predominantly do it. But there is still a lot more to be observed, so I want to figure out ways to make those observations.

What techniques or technology helped you to complete your work?

There have been both low and high tech pieces of technology and techniques. On the low-tech side of things, see the balloon technique above. Also, Alan Foster, someone who works in the chemistry department, made notches in the plunger part of a syringe, so I had a way of telling how much fluid I was sucking up or expelling.

Melanie Yee, a TA in the department, helped me put textures on a molecular modeling kit so I could have an indicator like the different color information other students have as they build molecular models. I also use a Sensational Blackboard to make quick and easy images of all kinds of things. It allows me to use a piece of regular scrap paper and a ball point pen to draw tactile graphs, molecules, and anything else I want or need. It also gives someone else a quick and easy way to have tactile access to information about which I am not certain.

On the high-tech side, we used equipment made by the company Vernir. They make a Lab Quest, which is a hand-held, mainstream way of collecting data with a wide variety of probes. Independence Science has made a Lab Quest that talks, but I did not use that particular one. Instead, I used a regular one and connected it to a computer with screen-reading software.

Independence Science has made versions of the Logger Pro software, which is how anyone would work with a Lab quest connected to a computer, with both the JAWS and Window Eyes screen reading software. All of the different probes allowed me to keep track of information such as pH, temperature, volts produced, and light absorbance of a fluid.

How do you feel about the differences or changes after becoming more involved?

A whole new part of the world has been opened up to me. I previously thought all chemists and scientists would be hostile and unfriendly to me. (Look, I have stereotypes about others, just the same as others have stereotypes about the blind). But I have found some people who are open to letting me do all that I can do, and who are willing to help me out. I feel a little bit more accepted in the broader world.

Beyond that though, I feel like there is this way of understanding the world- the way that chemistry approaches what happens in the world- that is now open and comprehensible to me. I love having a new way of perceiving the world.

What is your end goal with your education?

I love to learn and to help others learn, so I would like to teach. I want to teach everyone who wants to learn, and I'm also happy to at least try to get people, who don't want to learn, at least a little bit interested in all of the wonders around us. However, I am very open to what it looks like to learn and teach, and that can happen in a bunch of different environments and ideally it would happen in all environments.

Will you continue to be involved in advances for the blind and in what areas would you most interested in doing that?

I think I will always have at least one pot on the stove, so to speak, involved with blind people having access to information. Obviously, people who are blind cannot just look at something, but it most certainly does not mean they do not want to know more and to have a chance to explore it.

I don't always know what that will look like. However, I do know that the plan is to have a day this summer dedicated to teaching a little bit of science to middle and high school students who are blind. The goal is to show them just a couple of lab techniques and to get them connected to more options so they can make their own, individual situations work so they can be more than the one sitting in the corner, being told what is happening and taking down notes and data.

What advice do you have for other visually impaired students in the same situation around the world?

You can't wait for someone else to come up to you and to offer you the chance to go further and do more, because most people out there aren't going to think you can. You have got to want whatever it is that you want enough to be the first one to take action. There are other people out there who will help and support you, and you are more likely to encounter them once you start putting yourself out there.

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