This technology makes data accessible to blind and visually impaired people: NPR

NPR’s Mary Louise Kelly talks with Northeastern University bioengineering professor Mona Minkara, who is also blind, about a new way to present science data to blind and visually impaired people alike.

Mary Louise Kelly, Host:

Mona Minkara was diagnosed with macular degeneration and cone-rod dystrophy when she was 7 years old. That’s a diagnosis that means he will eventually lose his sight. An expert told her mother that it was not worth spending a penny on her education. Mother did not listen. Minkara went on to earn a Ph.D. in chemistry and is now a professor of bioengineering at Northeastern University in Boston. And this week, he and his colleagues announced a new way to make scientific data easier to interpret for the blind and visually impaired. Professor Mona Minkara joins me now. welcome

Mona Minkara: Thank you. Thank you for being me.

Kelly: Okay. So let’s dive into this study. It’s describing something called tactile graphics, which are graphics that, as the name suggests, you can trace with your finger. And start with Genesis, because it’s a really old-fashioned art form, a technique built on lithophane. Describe it.

MINKARA: So what exactly was it, I think it was estimated that maybe a thousand years ago, people produced these lithophanes as art. So if you can imagine, like, a thin piece of material, but you have different densities, and you shine light, then you’ll have different shadows – right? – that kind of project.

Kelly: Well, like an engraving.

MINKARA: Exactly. That is Lithofen. And so Brian Shaw, a professor at Baylor University, said, oh, my gosh, what if we applied this concept to science, to chemistry? Can we do it? And that’s exactly what happened. And so it’s remarkably revolutionary for someone like me. So everyone heard, I am a blind professor of bioengineering. And I work with blind students. And so one of the amazing things about having these lithophanes is that we now have this form of data. I can feel it, and my students can pick it up in the light and they can see it. So now our science has universality in communication.

Kelly: Something you can both work on at the same time. How are you doing it? I’m assuming your sighted students were using graphs and charts on a piece of paper. what were you doing

MINKARA: So, what I’m doing, a very simple, inexpensive solution, sometimes I’ll have them print out. And then I have another student or access assistant take the hot glue gun and trace the plot. We wait until it dries and then I feel it. That is a simple example.

Kelly: Oh, my God. It’s just an extra layer of work when you’re already doing really challenging work.

MINKARA: Yes. Science needs to be made accessible. It will be amazing.

KELLY: And I was trying to figure out why Braille wouldn’t work. And then it became clear that written English does not convey everything that can be expressed in charts and graphs. Is the same with Braille?

MINKARA: Exactly. So Braille is just letters, right? This is the word.

Kelly: Now, we mentioned that lithophanes are a very old form of art. They were originally made of porcelain or wax. I guess that’s not what you’re doing. How do you make them?

MINKARA: 3D printing materials, yes.

Kelly: Oh, right.

MINKARA: Like, the right density, that’s the trick, right? Thin enough, so the light shines through, and thick enough in different parts, you know, that a blind person can feel me. And then the student who sees it can hold it up to the lights and look at it.

Kelly: One thing you and your colleagues note in the paper is, and I’ll quote – “The exclusion of students who are blind from chemistry is clear and systematic.” It seems like this could represent such an exciting breakthrough, but much needs to change.

MINKARA: One hundred percent. We need to change our mindset. We need to ensure that such things are readily available. They are not very expensive. We have to change the way we teach in the classroom. You know, as a blind person from a young age, I was discouraged from science because of “how impractical it is.” Well, did you know? I think any of us who have a passion for a subject should have the right to study it and contribute.

Kelly: Okay, Dr. Thank you so much for talking to us Minkara.

MINKARA: Thank you so much for having me.

KELLY: That’s Mona Minkara, assistant professor of bioengineering at Northeastern University. His work is in the journal Science Advances this week.

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