Empowering Blind Students Seminar

Chelsea Cook and Megan Benning

They say the weather in Seattle is beautiful in June. But who are we to know—we had never been to the West Coast before, even though it was always a dream to go. So when the opportunity to attend the Empowering Blind Students in Science and Engineering workshop presented itself, the locale was one of the many reasons we couldn't resist. 17 mentors, 18 students, and one shared passion came together in that conference center for an experience that was the first of its kind. Blind high school and college students with a shared interest in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics were paired with successful blind mentors who were already active in their chosen fields. Attendees from as far away as Toronto were given the opportunity to network, share their experiences in the workplace and in the university setting. One participant was an expert in genetics, another was studying to become a veterinarian, and a third was interested in attending college to study artificial intelligence. Community leaders and industry executives from the area came to impart their knowledge, engage with the group, and increase their own awareness of what we, as blind employees, could offer their companies. Sessions were given on everything from increasing one’s social media presence to expectations and advocacy in the workplace, and everyone came away with a renewed sense of possibility. For many students, this was the first time they had met others who were successfully employed in their chosen field.

On that first evening as we went around the group and introduced ourselves, none of us were quite sure what to expect. But one thing was obvious: we were among kindred spirits. Even those of us who attended as students found ourselves assuming the role of mentor. One student just starting out as a physics major was able to ask a senior for advice about dealing with difficult professors, concepts, and advocacy skills. She remembered being in his position, and dispensed her words of wisdom freely. She continues to correspond with him and his professors as he begins his own journey. Another student in the computer science track who had been struggling with the decision of whether or not to change her major was able to have an in-depth conversation with her mentor. She shared with him her struggle to advocate for herself with the state, and how discouraged she was becoming as person after person told her how difficult it was to find employment as a blind professional in the information security field. Her mentor encouraged her not to change her major, and put her in contact with another mentor who is happily employed at the FBI.

The panels at the workshop were relevant to everyone, from those still in high school to those considering Ph.Ds. Activities, such as the mindfulness training exercises sprinkled throughout the three days, offered a new sense of perspective in this intellectually-stimulating, forward-thinking city. Participants also received flash drives with information and speaker presentations, allowing us to concentrate on what was actually being said and not on writing it all down at once. And what event of technically-minded people would be complete without the inevitable geek gadget demos? Sitting around that table and passing cutting-edge prototypes around with fellow interested peers was another highlight. It was truly a conference of the future.

When we left Seattle, we felt as though we were leaving a supportive community, one which, though we were scattered throughout the country, was still very much connected. We regularly communicate with the other students and mentors via email and social media, and a few of us have even gotten together since the conference to continue discussions and friendships. The networking contacts and encouragement given there were invaluable. When one of us discovered that she would have to learn MatLab for an orbital mechanics course this semester, she knew exactly who to call. When a particularly difficult accessibility problem came up that could have forced another participant to drop a class, she was instead able to ask her mentors for assistance in finding an alternative way to complete the assignments. As a scientist, you never stop learning, teaching, or exploring, and even though the workshop has concluded for this year, its legacy and connections are far-reaching.