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The Class Every Blind Student Dreds

Technically, this title isn’t completely true. There’s always an exception, a true statistical outlier, but 99.9998% of all blind or visually impaired students Dred math class. No, there’s not a genetic link between blindness and math phobia. The reason is a bit subtler.

Once you get beyond the basic arithmetic of elementary school, the more advanced math classes of middle and high school, think of algebra or trigonometry, to say nothing of college, become increasingly visual. This happens in a way that you never think about if you have anything like normal vision.

Let’s back up a minute and explain how someone who is blind or visually impaired does math. If a student doesn’t have any usable vision, they will, of course, be using Braille to copy and solve problems. While math can be done this way, it’s clunkier and more awkward than conventional print. Take my word for it; I’ve done math with both print and Braille, and print is vastly easier.

If the student still has some usable vision, they’ll probably be reading the problem using some form of magnification; and, not infrequently, this means magnifying it a whole lot.

This means that the process of “looking” at a math problem is altered whether the student uses Braille or magnification. Think of the following problem:

2(x+y) + (2x+4y) – 4 = 10

If you have anything like normal vision, your eyes quickly scan the problem in a fraction of a second and have begun processing the parentheses and the addition and equals signs. Even if you’re a terrible math student, you can do this so quickly that you’re not even conscious of doing it.

The visually impaired student, regardless of how much or how little vision they have, struggles to do this. Vision allows you to conceptualize the problem as a whole. If you’re using Braille of magnification, you lack this advantage.

Imagine for a minute that you’ve had to greatly magnify the problem above to read it. If you’re legally blind and still have some usable vision, you’re going to be magnifying it a lot, far more than you’ve ever done before. It’s quite likely that the magnification will push some of the problem off the screen so that you might be looking at

2(x+y) + (2x+

Then have to make an adjustment so that the next screen reads

4y) – 4 = 10

The details of this analogy might vary a bit with the type and extent of vision loss, but the basics would still be valid.

Put another way, think of looking at the sky through a telescope. The telescope makes it possible to see a portion of the sky very clearly, but, in doing so, you’ve lost the ability to see the larger picture.

Now, imagine that a problem involves reading a table of numbers. Your eye quickly moves from one cell to another to gather data or make quick comparisons. You can do this in a second or less. If, however, the table has been converted to Braille, something that is very difficult, if not impossible, to do if the table is very complex, it takes several seconds to locate the right column and follow it down to the proper row. If you have to do this more than a few times, you have become so caught up in the process of locating data in the table that you have likely lost sight of any calculations you need to make.

To say that this is a little like trying to do math using Roman numerals is an exaggeration, but it’s closer to the truth than you might guess. Again, I’ve done this both sighted and blind, and, believe me, there’s a reason that it’s easier to find a liberal Republican than a visually impaired accountant.

All of this having been said, there are people, the .0002% of the blind population, who not only take advanced math courses but excel in them. These are clearly very, very bright people, but the large majority, like me, are in awe of how they do it.

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