CAREER COLUMN

How science should support researchers with visual impairments

Naheda Sahtout says being legally blind doesn’t fundamentally affect her skills, and argues that science needs to start a conversation to attract and empower more researchers like her.
Naheda Sahtout is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Chemistry at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon, Canada.
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Woman wearing white lab coat.

Naheda Sahtout in her laboratory.Credit: David Stobbe

Having been born with a visual impairment, I know my abilities very well, and was honest about my condition when applying to master’s programmes in 2010. I am legally blind, which means that I have less than 20/200 vision even with the help of glasses. To put this in context, if a person with average vision can see an object from 200 metres away, I would see the same object only if I am 20 metres from it. In terms of working in the laboratory, this meant I would be staring at many things quite closely. While I hoped this would not discourage potential supervisors, I knew that in reality it would.

One professor did show interest in hiring me, but we agreed it was best that I work in her lab first to assess my capabilities. Even though this ten-week internship meant relocating to another province in my home country of Canada, I decided to pursue it as an opportunity to develop my skills and learn new techniques.

In the first week, I was assigned a few simple molecular-biology tasks: performing a polymerase chain reaction and analysing samples using gel electrophoresis. I was content that I had done my best. During week two, I was shown how to dissect mouse embryos under the microscope: a much more challenging task for me, but one that I knew I could perfect, given enough time. To my disappointment, by the end of week three, I was told to go home because I was not a good fit for this fast-paced lab environment.

A chance to prove myself

I shrugged my shoulders in the face of rejection, and looked for other supervisors who would take on an inexperienced but eager-to-learn researcher. The next professor who showed interest also wanted a trial period before she would officially accept me into her lab. She hired me as a research assistant, and for four months I worked on a topic which would become my master’s project. Although she asked my lab mates to keep an eye on me initially in case something went wrong, she was open to giving me a chance to prove myself. She soon realized that I was safe, meticulous and worked well independently, and took me on as a master’s student for the next two years.

On the day that I first met my PhD supervisor, I reiterated to him that I was visually impaired and would be looking at the computer, and most other things, more closely than usual. By that, I didn’t mean just lean-forward close; I meant only-an-inch-away-from-the-screen close. For the next few years, I persisted in my doctoral research. There were many times when I would be hunched over a microscope looking for protein crystals, wondering whether something had gone wrong or whether I simply could not see the results. The latter thought worried me: it suggested that I shouldn’t be in a lab struggling to look through a tiny microscope lens not designed for people with somewhat imperfect vision, let alone those who were legally blind. I was fortunate that a colleague was willing to help me analyse my results, but I knew that in most situations, such a colleague would not always be around.

I am often curious about how other visually impaired individuals fare in Canada. A survey for the 2018 International Levels of Employment study by the Toronto-based Canadian National Institute for the Blind found that three in five working-age people with vision loss were unemployed. As I reach the end of my PhD, I am discouraged by this statistic. In fact, I’ve often questioned whether pursuing a PhD that required research in a lab setting was the right choice for me. To go a step further, has my fate been sealed because I am visually impaired?

I fear that the lack of accessibility and equity will discourage more people from venturing into science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields. In the twenty-first century, those who are visually impaired should not be denied the chance to carry out research in higher-education institutions. My route into academia was more difficult than it would be for a sighted person, as expected. But I also feel my route was more difficult than it truly needed to be, because of that lack of accessibility. As an undergraduate, I would often not pursue further help on a science course because I was uncomfortable about standing out from the other students; I simply refused to let anyone find reason to say that my visual impairment was something that would hold me back.

This fear of standing out continued into my graduate studies. There were particular experiments I knew I wouldn’t be able to complete because of the lack of accessible technology. But the thought of bringing this to the attention of my supervisor was daunting, especially when I knew that funding was often limited, and that because I would probably be the only person using assistive technology, the incentive to buy it would be quite small. I was lucky to have a doctoral supervisor who did not question my abilities, and who, in fact, helped me look for alternative paths to ensure that I would complete my PhD. And yet, like the colleague who might not always be around, I know that not all supervisors are willing to go the extra mile.

Empowerment

I might occasionally need someone to help me look down a microscope, or an alternative project that makes use of my expertise and capabilities, but this doesn’t mean my scientific thinking or ability to analyse data, write papers and come up with fresh ideas is compromised. I shouldn’t be made to feel as if seeking help is a bad thing: all scientists support each other in one way or another, so why shouldn’t I feel empowered to ask for assistance? Empowerment is usually the result of a conversation; the first step to ensuring that graduate education and research programmes are accessible and equitable is simply to have this conversation, and to ask what people with visual impairments need to work to the best of their ability.

Agencies and organizations such as the Canadian National Institute for the Blind, as well as individual scientists, might have suggestions and access to resources that would provide support on how graduate programmes can be restructured to be more accommodating. Institutions should consider implementing accessible features in their undergraduate STEM courses and labs. For example, I would have benefited greatly from using a microscope connected to a large monitor during my undergraduate microbiology courses.

Mentorship programmes involving faculty members and visually impaired students can create strong, durable bonds to help with navigating difficult situations. More national and local funding should be geared towards researchers with visual impairments, encouraging them to pursue their passion and lead projects. This issue will not be solved in a year, let alone a decade. But if academics do not move forward and initiate the conversation, we cannot even begin to imagine change.

My journey through undergraduate and graduate school has been filled with challenges, mostly because of accessibility issues that have yet to be addressed. There were many occasions when the thought of leaving my field was not so distant, but my passion for research and lab work pushed me to persevere and move forward. As I reach the end of my doctoral programme, I find myself reflecting on what career path to take. Although I am unsure what my future will look like, I hope to use my experiences to advocate for enhancing accessibility and engagement in the sciences for those who are visually or otherwise impaired.

This is an article from the Nature Careers Community, a place for Nature readers to share their professional experiences and advice. Guest posts are encouraged.

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