Robbie: Studying chemistry while visually impaired
What is it like to study chemistry when you have a visual impairment? In this post, Robbie Sinclair writes about the transition from school to university, chemistry labs and lab safety, exams and much more.
Listen to Robbie speaking about his experiences on this episode of the University InSight podcast.
Hi, I’m Robbie, I’ve just finished a PhD in chemistry. I live in London. And my vision is around 40%.
While I would consider myself almost entirely independent, there have been several practical challenges I experienced studying an undergraduate degree like chemistry. Hopefully, if you are planning to study chemistry or have a visual impairment with a similar level to mine, you may find some this useful!
Honestly, the biggest anxiety about my vision I had going to university was the impending onslaught of social introductions. If you’re reading this blog, I’m guessing you’ve explained that glasses can’t fix everything more times than you can remember. I’d really recommend this blog post by Sofia for some great advice and comfortingly familiar anecdotes. The first week was exhausting but I was pleasantly surprised that, at least for me, the experience was far from the first day at secondary school. People are more mature and unlikely to fall into schoolboy attitudes.
If you think you may struggle getting around your university, whether that’s travelling to and around campus, or finding rooms, this is something university will help you figure out. Have a look at this pre-university checklist to check that you’re ready to jump into your studies. Your schedule may get quite busy so it will be worth it to be prepared as best as you can before you arrive at university.
Unlike many subjects, it will be almost impossible to take good notes in lectures with a keyboard. You will have to copy many chemical structures, mechanisms and diagrams that have no easy way to note take quickly without a pen and paper (or tablet and stylus). Things are becoming more digital these days so your lecturer’s slides will definitely be available beforehand, which is a big help. I got used to using a 4x and sometimes 8x monocular in lectures, holding that in my left hand while I write with the other. If this is not feasible with your vision I’d recommend recording or videoing your lectures too.
The other unique thing about chemistry degrees, compared to the other blogs on this site, is the laboratory work. If there’s anything you take away from this blog it should be that chemistry laboratories are genuinely dangerous places if you’re not prepared. You need to take your safety seriously. So, do everything you can to keep yourself protected, in an environment not always designed with the visually impaired in mind. This includes making sure the course leader, laboratory leader and other supervisors are aware of your needs. Injuries are not uncommon in a chemistry lab and your safety has to come first when some really dangerous chemicals are around. Remember that phones, which are often useful for magnification, may not be allowed in a laboratory.
The challenges I faced were things like taking measurements on burettes and pipettes; pouring liquids, doing anything in a fume hood (where the apparatus have to be far from your face); handling clear (sometimes broken!) glassware, dealing with very small quantities of powders or liquids. Have a think about what your vision will and won’t allow you to do.
You will find your own strategies to manage some of the practical problems in the lab. I can recommend putting a black card/book behind a Bunsen burner to make the flame easier to spot. You can use the type of magnifier that rests on the table to put it up against the graduations on a burette. Also always check your separating flasks are closed (that one is for everyone).
Glassware is stored in big drawers and cupboards and over your degree I guarantee you will find several flasks and pipes put back broken in your drawer. It can be really hard to spot these cracks, this might seem a bit crazy but glassware `sounds’ different if its broken, putting a broken beaker down on a table will have a dull, grating sound and won’t ring like it should. Listen out for that because it could result in you losing your product, or, much worse, an injury.
"Physical labs tend to have less fume hood experiments and dangerous chemicals, however they have an emphasis on precision measurements."
Fume hoods are really difficult to manage. A big plastic screen has to come down between your face and your apparatus, and you will have to pour, boil and collect powders and liquids, rig up pipes and valves, and operate hotplates and measuring devices. If things become difficult with depth perception, or just being able to see what is happening, this is where I regularly asked for help. I was always told that a demonstrator could do something for me, as long as I could also explain the process, if I was unable. There are, however, time pressures that make this difficult sometimes. If it becomes a significant hindrance to you, investigate whether there are different fume hood setups that would suit you better, or if a camera-video rig could be set up for you to see what is going on inside the fume-hood.
Colour blind people will need to ask for help with certain colour changes in reactions, especially titration experiments.
Another thing that caught me out a few times was that because I have my face close to beakers for tasks like pouring, and close to the table when reading my notes, my chances of inhaling noxious chemicals was really high. Putting your head in line with a measuring cylinder and close to the table means that I could get a big whiff from something in an open beaker or that had been spilt on the table. This is no joke and people have had to go to hospital for passing out for this kind of thing. It’s easier said than done, so always be aware of your surroundings and if you bring your face close to the bench double check what open chemicals are nearby.
I’ve mostly been talking about organic/inorganic labs, which I found the most challenging. You will also have physical chemistry and computational experiments to do. Physical labs tend to have less fume hood experiments and dangerous chemicals, however they have an emphasis on precision measurements. Try to have a few different magnifiers around, one that can be held above something and one that rests on a surface, they will come in handy. Unfortunately, there will come a point where your sight will affect your precision, ask your lab leader if this can be taken into account if you are marked based on the yield of your synthesis or the accuracy of your result.
Exams and assessments
For exams I was given extra time and rest breaks. These are fairly standard and you are probably familiar with your needs for exam season from your experiences at school. My university would not produce large print exams for me, they said reformatting larger images would be too much effort so I should use a magnifier. As a naïve young undergrad, I accepted it but in hindsight I shouldn’t have. If you think this is something that will make a very stressful time more accessible for you, please demand that your needs are met.
Making chemistry accessible
Finally, for people with more severe visual impairments, I imagine reading the various chemical formulas and mechanisms will be challenging. You will have some familiarity with drawing and reading these from school, and as you’d expect drawing orbital diagrams, chemical structures and electron mechanisms will get more complicated at university. If you use screen readers, I know that serialising equations can be useful, for more on that you should check out this podcast episode with Daniel Hajas. There are some similar tools for chemistry but they are not widely used. Your best bet is to speak to your lecturers or disability staff, talk through the course material and find a solution with them.
There are a lot of warnings in here, if it sounds like I’m trying to scare you a bit, that’s only because I wish someone had told me the same thing before I sprayed toxic chemicals up my arm from trying to operate a valve I couldn’t see in a fume hood. I was trying desperately to be independent when I started university and I learned the hard way that you have to take the right precautions and it’s OK to ask for help when you need it. I enjoyed my degree so much that I went and did a PhD in it, so I hope you enjoy it too.