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Access to Advancement, Part 2: Anneliese DeVyldere

Allison Dunne: You could say her path toward considering aerospace engineering began at age five, when her father stood with her in the yard to watch meteor showers, or an eclipse.

Anneliese DeVyldere: Because I was legally blind, I was never able to see what he was talking about. Sometimes I would pretend I could see it so he would feel better, and he would keep doing it. Sometimes I didn't, I was like, no, dad, I can't see it. But he would still explain it to me, even though I couldn't see it. And so that was kind of the, I want to see the stars; I want to be able to know what's up there for myself. And so that was kind of the start.

Allison Dunne: Ten years later, Oregon native Anneliese DyVyldere found herself across the country in Alabama, at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center, for SCI-VIS, or Space Camp for Interested Visually Impaired Students. Space Camp was the first time she'd traveled so far away, alone. Thinking back a few years, Anneliese recalls being blown away by the SCI-VIS experience.

Anneliese DeVyldere: My world exploded, turned inside out, and grew exponentially. It was fabulous. I had never really interacted with many other visually-impaired students because I was homeschooled. There were one or two because when I was taking Braille lessons back in elementary school, I met a couple there, and then as I moved on, I was the blind girl in the group. And I just never really had anything in common with anyone except, every once in awhile, I'd run into the occasional nerd that loved the same science fiction that I did, but no one else really understood how I lived. And I went to SCI-VIS, and everyone was visually impaired. And, all of a sudden, I had more vision than half the camp, and I got to be the person doing the sighted guide instead of being guided, because I could see. And it was a real eye-opener. I learned how to tell people what I needed better because as I learned to become a sighted guide, I could train my own sighted guides, what I liked, what I didn't like, 'cause I knew what they were feeling.

Allison Dunne: Now, what's a guide there, Tell me just....

Anneliese DeVyldere: A sighted guide is someone where you're getting somewhere, you don't have your cane or your dog or whatever, you can't see in a room, and a sighted person will offer you their arm; you hold on to the outside of their elbow, and then you follow them, you follow just behind them, and their job is to make sure you don't run into anything.

Allison Dunne: She says Space Camp was also a cultural eye-opener, as she met students from different parts of the world. Anneliese describes the experience as helping to build a network of knowledge, meaning she got to find out how other students with visual impairments were handling certain situations, whether in the classroom or with boyfriends and girlfriends.

Anneliese attended SCI-VIS three times. The first two times, she was in the Advanced Academy, and the third year she did Aviation Challenge. SCI-VIS is a weeklong camp in the fall where students who are blind or have low vision use computers that have been adapted for speech and large print output, enabling them to learn about the science and technology of space, while experiencing simulated space missions. The materials and equipment used during missions are available in Braille and large print. The SCI-VIS programs have different levels, and, depending on the program, are geared to students ranging from grade four to grade twelve. Anneliese says Space Camp gave her an amazing amount of confidence, self-advocacy, and independence. Plus, she realized:

Anneliese DeVyldere: I'm not just sapping up resources; I can give, too.

Allison Dunne: And, she learned more about trust.

Anneliese DeVyldere: I learned so much about team-building and leadership while I was there, how you operate. I learned a lot about trust because as a visually-impaired person, I have a unique perspective on trust. I don't have the option; if I need a guide, and there's no one else out there except someone I don't know, I have to trust them that they're not going to walk me off a cliff.

Allison Dunne: She needs that trust especially at night, as she has no night vision.

I met with Anneliese at a café on her campus - the University of Alabama in Huntsville, a school known for its engineering and science programs. She'd learned about the University while attending Space Camp. UAH is just minutes from the home of Space Camp, and the adjacent NASA Marshall Space Flight Center. Once she started learning about aerospace engineering, Anneliese says she just knew she had to attend UAH, where she is in the honors program, and where she has learned she'd actually like to be a technical writer.

Anneliese DeVyldere: Spacecraft design was of interest to me, and I realized, design isn't so much interesting to me to do it. I want to see what people are designing step-by-step, but I'd much rather write it down and make it, translate it into layman's terms.

Allison Dunne: It's a way to marry math and science with her communication skills: writing, for example, about quantum mechanics for both the research community and general public. When I spoke with her, she was hoping to land an internship or part-time job with the Propulsion Research Center at UAH, which she describes as a "big deal". While college helped steer her toward technical writing about aerospace engineering rather than engineering itself, she says her end goal is the same, working in the area of space exploration vehicles and hardware.

Anneliese DeVyldere: I want to be involved in the Mars projects, that's... Ever since I realized what they were doing with Ares and Constellation and the Orion projects, that's what I wanted to do. And, if I can swing it, I will be a tech writer for NASA working, or NASA, or Boeing, I think, is the, the group that got one of the contracts, somehow involved with the space exploration projects.

Allison Dunne: Anneliese takes classes in STEM, or science, technology, engineering, and math, as well as in communications. She says it's not the subjects that cause her problems; rather, it can be the methods of teaching the material, via blackboards, and whiteboards.

Anneliese DeVyldere: As a visually-impaired student, I can't see, no matter if I'm sitting in the front of the class, I can't see what's written on a blackboard or whiteboard unless it's really thick and really big, and, at that point, you're doing one letter per board. And then, even if I walk up right at, right up close to it after class, I can only see what's directly in front of me because I have no peripheral vision. So I could walk along and scan everything eye level and below, but anything that was above my eye level, I miss. And it just takes so long and they give us like five minutes between classes so I don't have enough time to copy everything down.

Allison Dunne: So what do you do?

Anneliese DeVyldere: Well, you learn to become an audio learner.

Allison Dunne: And, she says, you learn to learn creatively.

Anneliese DeVyldere: You have to be creative. There's no two ways about it. If you have trouble seeing things on a whiteboard, and you can't get someone to take notes for you, you ask the professor to, ask for the professor's teaching notes because they've always got something up there, or you learn to Google concepts online. That's how I survived one of my calculus classes is I would look up terms online, I'd look up formulas and then I could find the pictures on the computer that I could see. If I heard a term that I didn't understand or equation that I didn't know what it was. I would write down the name of it because I could hear the name, and then I would go look it up later. I've stopped professors, can you stop erasing that and let me, read that out loud real quick so I can write that down, or can you e-mail me this handout, or, make sure, especially with the professors that like to do unannounced quizzes, well, if you're going to do an unannounced quiz, I need it in large print.

Allison Dunne: While there are assistive technologies that would ease some of the learning, she says the ones she could really use are prohibitively expensive. At UAH, she pulls together a variety of tools to get the classroom material.

Anneliese DeVyldere: Math, sciences, I usually find someone to take notes for me. Classes that use PowerPoint presentations instead of boards, I ask the professors to e-mail me the PowerPoints.

Allison Dunne: And she leaves a roadmap, of sorts, with disability services on campus, to help ease the way for other students who are blind or have low vision.

Anneliese DeVyldere: Every time I find a procedure that makes life go a little bit smoother, a safer route to get from one class to another, anything I can find, I will write it down, and, or record it in some other manner and make sure it falls into the hands of those that can distribute it to the people that need it. There's no reason for someone else to go through a year-and-a-half of Googling for graphing calculator software.

Allison Dunne: When I met with Anneliese, she had a new companion- her guide dog, Prada.

And how has life changed, if at all, for you?

Anneliese DeVyldere: There's a lot of more dog hair involved, a lot more. She's a coated shepherd so she sheds a lot. I find that here on campus I'm a lot more approachable as opposed to being the girl with the white stick, 'oh, she's blind, I don't want to say anything that'll offend her'. Now I'm, 'oh, doggie, girl with the dog, I can talk to the person with the dog because I have a dog and so we have a conversation, and I want to pet the dog'. So it's, it's a lot more approachable. She looks a lot less threatening than the cane does as far as you don't want to offend anyone, you don't want to put yourself out there and look stupid.

Allison Dunne: How does that make you feel, though?

Anneliese DeVyldere: I find it interesting. I haven't really decided if I like it or dislike it. I'm just, I'm amused and interested in why people have these perceptions.

Allison Dunne: And, much like the guidance she provides to disability services, she offers other helpful hints in her blog.

Anneliese DeVyldere: The title of the blog is "From Four Eyes to Four Legs", and it's essentially, in a roundabout way, covers just about anything that I encounter that deals with being visually impaired. Prada is the main subject at the moment because she's kind of the new and exciting thing and she was the reason that I started it. And it's, I mean, less than 1 percent of blind people have seeing-eye dogs, and I think most of the reason is miseducation; they don't understand what it's like, or they're considering it, but they haven't ever gotten around to it. And so I put it up there for education purposes. If I run into cool technologies or resources online, I'll put those up. Laws related to visually-impaired people, I'll put those up. Experiences, how do you deal with "x", how do you deal with "y", how do you deal with "z", so, entries like that.

Allison Dunne: Anneliese DeVyldere is an honors student at the University of Alabama in Huntsville. She's also a former camper at SCI-VIS, or Space Camp for Interested Visually Impaired Students.

For 51%, I'm Allison Dunne.

Access to Advancement is made possible by the National Science Foundation Research in Disabilities Education Program.

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