Assisting the blind

December 15, 2016 7:29 am Published by Leave your thoughts

“I know I’m in the right place,” says Velma Martin, head coordinator of the Accessible Instructional Materials Center (AIM). “I have rheumatoid arthritis and fibromyalgia which really limit my ability to move. I’m getting surgery on both knees soon, but when I see what some of these [blind] students are doing, I can’t complain.” The AIM Center is a small department on California State University Long Beach that ensures blind and disabled students have access to assistive materials and technology.

One resource the center offers is the braille center headed by alternative media specialist, Jessica Wood. “I work closely with blind or visually impaired students who submit requests for certain textbooks to be translated into braille. I translate them and oversee the delivery,” said Wood. The process can be tedious at times, especially when books have to be scanned manually, according to Wood. Most books come with a digital copy supplied by the publisher that can easily be converted by machine into braille. However, at least several times per semester the center encounters books that don’t have a digital version and have to be manually cut, scanned, digitized and glued back together. It is in the scanning part where translation errors can occur so Wood carefully combs through the pages, ensuring the translation is accurate. Often it isn’t.  

Martin, the head coordinator, opens what looks like a spiral-bound ream of plain white paper. The seemingly blank ream of paper is an anatomy book written entirely in braille, including meticulously textured illustrations displaying the human body, cells, hair follicles and more. The braille illustrations, at first, appear to be simple black and white images but upon closer inspection are actually composites of differently textured material similar varying from firm velcro to soft feathers. The contrast is important so that blind students can more easily get an accurate idea of what a red-blood cell looks like, for example. Each texture is tied together with a concept written in braille that a blind or visually impaired student can easily understand.

Martin has been with Cal State University Long Beach for 26 years of which she has spent 24 years working for the AIM Center. She started as an assistant but now oversees the entire AIM Center, located next to the library in the Academic Services building. The center is an unassuming space tucked near the north end of the Academic Services building. The center is equipped with four rows of 10 computers which sit on height-adjustable desks. “We had a student who was 6’5’’ and his wheelchair was so big that it didn’t fit under normal desks,” said Martin.

The computers themselves include several programs that help students who are unable to read screens due to progressive or complete blindness. And yes. Students who are completely blind are able to fully operate a computer and even surf the internet. A program called JAWs is a desktop reader which, when launched through a shortcut key command, reads screen tabs at a rapid pace which the student can select to open a new window.

Another program called Kurzweil, also accessible through a shortcut key command, can read any digital text aloud, convert speech to text and even translate digital text from one language to another. It is also important to note that the programs for assistive technology are available across every computer on campus, as required by the student disability services program.

An important part of helping blind students achieve success however is the assistive technology which affords them this independence to begin with. If these technologies aren’t built, blind and visually impaired students are the ones who suffer. Web technology majors who attend Cal State Long Beach are given a seminar, taught by Martin, which teach them the importance of coding web sites with accessibility friendly attributes. When code is created, it is usually written in a computer language that is very specific in nature. For sighted people, this code is represented graphically by icons, images and text but for students who are visually impaired, graphics may be impossible to see. This is why web students are taught to encode their websites with descriptions that a text reader can read aloud. The seminar not only helps web developers by increasing awareness of blindness, including color blindness, but also encourages an attitude of inclusiveness.

“We once had a blind student who was majoring in Mandarin Chinese come into our office,” said Sonia Acosta, assistance office coordinator. “He was brilliant. He came in here to get his materials printed in braille and eventually graduated as a double major in Chinese and Journalism. His name is Richard Vasquez and he is truly one of our more memorable students. He went on to get a full-ride scholarship to Stanford where he got his Masters and is currently looking to get hired with the federal government as an immigration agent,” said Acosta.

Success stories like Richard Vasquez’s are not unique, despite the seemingly overwhelming odds faced by blind students. “One day a student told me, ‘can you leave me the hell alone,’ as she hovered over him aggressively. That was the moment she realized that blind students are not completely helpless. This small yet powerful realization helped her view blindness not as an end-all disability, rather an obstacle, which can be overcome.

“I remember we also helped a young woman named Jessica become the first blind public school psychologist in the nation,” said Martin. “At the time she was in the education department and the education dean told her to drop out and choose something else instead. But she was determined to become a psychologist so she came into the center and asked us to translate a few materials for her which she used during her exam to become a psychologist. I’ll never forget how she told me that the children she worked with felt so comfortable with her because she blind. The children had learning disabilities and would often feel judged by others. But since Jessica was blind and couldn’t see what they looked like, the children would open up more,” said Martin. Martin has since lost contact with Jessica but last heard she was married and had several children.

The center is open from 7 a.m. – 5 p.m., Monday thru Friday and students with or without disabilities are encouraged to visit to gain information on the available resources.  


Velma Martin, Head coordinator AIM Center.

Sonia Acosta, Assistant coordinator AIM Center.

Jessica Wood, Alternative media specialist AIM Center.

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This post was written by Edward Singleton

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