Jun 09, 2023

Indiana company building next device for blind science students in labs

Led by a team of blind scientists, West Lafayette-based Independence Science is breaking down barriers for blind or low vision (BLV) STEM students and professionals already working in labs.

Founded nearly 15 years ago, the company currently sells two main products that make laboratories more accessible for blind people, and recently inked a partnership to create a third. While creating these lab tools for BLV scientists is the company’s mission, each piece of equipment comes with a secondary purpose: to change attitudes.

“In reality, a lot of what we do is to combat that implicit, ingrained, low expectation for blind people,” says Dr. Greg Williams, who oversees STEM accessibility and product research and development for Independence Science. “We want to change hearts and minds about the capacity of BLV students, so teachers don’t automatically exclude them from STEM courses, just because they don’t know how it can be done.”

The Independence Science team is using personal experience to pioneer the lab equipment BLV students and scientists need. Williams, who has been blind since birth, earned a chemistry degree at Indiana University, has a PhD in computational chemistry and was a postdoc researcher at Purdue University. He joined forces early on with Independence Science founder Dr. Cary Supalo, a blind chemist and Purdue alumni. Throughout their education, both experienced various challenges to gain equal access in labs as sighted students.

“The whole goal of Independence Science is…to remove some of those barriers,” says Williams, “so the students coming up behind us have an easier time.”

Independence Science spokesperson Michael Hingson says the barriers go beyond the lack of lab equipment for BLV students and scientists.

To level the playing field in the laboratory, the company has commercialized two tools for BLV students and scientists. The first is the Talking LabQuest device, which modifies an existing lab tool widely used in the scientific industry. Independence Science Spokesperson Michael Hingson describes the device as “a box that you can plug more than 80 sensors into and measure anything from wind speed to voltage to magnetic fields.”

“Independence Science modified the box to make it talk,” says Hingson, who has been blind since birth and has a master’s degree in physics. “So now, any blind student or scientist can use a Talking LabQuest with the same probes, and the box will verbalize whatever the probes are sensing.”

The company’s second product, called the Talking LoggerPro, is based on existing software used in labs to collect data and create graphs, for example. Independence Science modified the LoggerPro to provide audible information for BLV students. For example, values on a graph are correlated to a pitch; the lower the value, the lower the pitch, and the higher the value, the higher the pitch to create an audible “shape” of the graph.

To create the next era of lab equipment for BLV students, the company is partnering with Oregon-based ViewPlus Technologies, founded by Dr. John Gardner, who became blind after an eye operation when he was a physics professor. The company is a national leader in “next generation” tactile graphics embossers; tactile graphics convey information through touch, so BLV students and scientists can understand maps, charts and images.

“ViewPlus manufactures one of the highest-grade embossing technologies that can produce graphics,” says Hingson, “and graphics are a large part of what Independence Science needs to be able to do.”

Hingson says Independence Science and ViewPlus are working together on a prototype of a new STEM educational product for BLV students.

“Because of the high fidelity of the [ViewPlus] embossers, they can produce a wide range of textures, and a key shows the correspondence between the textures and what color they represent,” says Williams. “Now the blind user can ‘look’ at the image and know what portions of the image are what color.”

Noting that the two companies “have the most hands-on experience in understanding inclusive graphic information presentations,” Hingson says the team is developing a prototype of a new STEM educational product.

“The unemployment rate among employable blind people in this country is in the 65% range,” says Hingson. “We want to get more BLV people into all aspects of STEM studies, and then into STEM employment.”

Williams says the new collaboration with ViewPlus is “a natural extension” of work the two companies have done together for many years.

While Independence Science leaders say the company has created equipment to make the lab more accessible for BLV students than when they were earning their science education, another kind of change is equally important.

“What we’re really excited to see is the attitude change all around—whether it be in the classroom, on the job, or parents who are more willing to encourage their children to do something that they think is a risk, but may not really be more of a risk for blind people than anyone else,” says Hingson. “In reality, what we want to get is real access to being able to be involved science.”

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