Image of Susan Povinelli
Susan Povinelli

Bunsen Burners and Chemical Reactions

by Susan Povinelli

From the Editor: The following article first appeared in the Summer, 1998, issue of the Vigilant, a publication of the NFB of Virginia. Susan Povinelli is an engineer and is often asked how to do engineering or scientific work. Susan has often shared her experiences with Federationists in the Braille Monitor and in Kernel Books. Susan and her lawyer husband Larry are the parents of two elementary-school-age daughters. This is what she says about taking chemistry:

It was a typical night at my home. I was in the middle of a reading lesson with my younger daughter when the phone rang. I paused for a moment to listen to my talking caller ID announce the caller. If it had been an unknown number, we would have continued reading, but it was not.

It was Debbie Prost, who has taught blind children in the Portsmouth, Virginia, public schools for over twenty years. She was calling to solicit my help in developing an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) for one of her blind high school students who was scheduled to take chemistry in the fall. Debbie was getting a lot of resistance from the chemistry teacher, who believed that the blind student could not participate safely in the lab. The teacher was afraid that the student would burn herself on the bunsen burner or chemicals. Debbie Prost was adamant that the student should participate fully in the lab.

When Debbie first asked me how to modify the laboratory so that the student could be an active participant, I drew a blank. It had been many years since I was near a chemistry lab. However, as we talked, I realized that chemistry is no different from cooking. The basic concept of chemistry is to measure and mix chemicals in precise amounts, then apply heat or ice to cause a reaction. The same principle applies to cooking, but instead of chemicals you use food and spices.

Is working on a bunsen burner any more dangerous or difficult than working on a gas stove with an open flame? No! It is a matter of learning the proper technique of placing the pot or beaker on the burner. I suggested that the student practice placing a beaker on an unlit burner. This would allow her to get the proper orientation without spilling chemicals or burning herself. I also suggested that Debbie have a bunsen burner cover made. Such a cover would allow the student some protection from the open flame and would ensure that she would not accidentally knock the beaker over.

Since glass beakers do not have handles, it is difficult to grab them with a pot holder. I suggested making a wire handle out of a coat hanger to attach to the beaker. The student could then lift the beaker by the handle using a pot holder and keeping her hand away from the flame.

The other issue Debbie needed to address was measuring. How could the student measure liquid accurately? The sighted student pours the liquid into a long test tube up to a line marked on the tube. This method was not practical for the blind student since she was unable to feel the line on the test tube or use her fingers to determine the right amount of liquid because she could get chemical burns from the solution.

I can remember the grief I went through measuring liquid medicine for my children. Pouring it into a measuring spoon would not work because it was impossible to get an accurate reading. Then I remembered another Federationist who used a syringe with a notched line in the plunger to indicate the amount. The same technique could be used to measure chemicals. The student could suck up the liquid with the syringe and then push the plunger down to the required level. Measuring dry material would be no problem since the student could find containers of the correct size and pass a plastic knife across the top to level the dry material the way Mom taught us to measure flour when baking cookies.

The student would need the help of her lab partner to tell her when a solution changes color or describe the physical appearance of a chemical reaction. With slight modification there is every reason to think the blind student can be an active participant on the lab team. She can take notes using Braille, measure the chemicals using the techniques outlined here, and use a talking or Braille timer to time the reactions. She will not only learn chemistry but also gain the skills needed to be a team player and experience working in a sighted world. Her classmates will learn that blind students can work to meet the same science requirements they face.

Note: Since Susan submitted this article, Debbie Prost reports to the NFB Vigilant that the IEP for the high school student contains the requirement that the student enroll in the chemistry lab and earn her grade along with her peers. Once again our collective wisdom has paved the way for a blind person to participate equally. This time it is a blind student who has the chance to discover whether she has the interest and aptitude to study chemistry. Chalk up one more reason for the National Federation of the Blind.

[PHOTO/CAPTION: Denise Mackenstadt]

Independence and the Blind Child

in a Mainstreamed Education Program

by Denise Mackenstadt

From the Editor: Denise Mackenstadt works with a blind child as an instructional aide in a public school in the state of Washington. She is a longtime Federationist and a leader in the National Organization of Parents of Blind Children. Recently she sent me this thoughtful little article about the problem of helping blind children become truly independent. This is what she says:

As I was considering this article, I tried to think of a universal theme that would be of interest to families with blind children. The one element in the daily interaction I have with blind children is working to make the student an independent blind person. Many times I have wondered if one can really teach independence. Blind people live with this dilemma on an ongoing basis. As parents we have a long-term goal to teach our children the skills to enable them to leave our sides eventually and go out into the world. We hope that we have been successful since as adults we are aware that the world is not always a friendly place and is full of dangers that threaten the welfare of our adult children.

As a parent of two adolescent children, one of whom has a child of her own, I am aware every day of this challenge. For parents or educators of blind children, teaching independence can be complicated. We receive double messages from society. On the one hand we know that in this culture the worth of an individual is based on how well she maintains an independent and self-sufficient lifestyle. This means maintaining her own residence, holding a worthwhile job, and perhaps supporting a family. On the other hand our society is not certain whether blind people can achieve this lifestyle. As we work with blind children, we have to recognize that they too are confused by these messages.

In her school the blind child is probably the only student who is blind or visually handicapped. All children want to fit in, so the blind child's minority status makes it vitally important that she have the skills needed to develop self-worth and a good self-image. This is a gradual process that evolves throughout the lifetime of the blind person.

The blind student is exposed every day to a host of circumstances that challenge her self-confidence as a blind person. Getting to school requires making a decision between traveling the way non-disabled students do or taking special transportation. Upon arriving at school how will she get to her classroom, on her own or with assistance? She cannot choose independence if she does not have good travel skills. The question comes down to this: can the student make meaningful choices? The regular school day is not conducive to taking the time to give adequate attention to learning blindness skills. The blind student is required to take time out of her recess or other play times to learn these techniques. This is not fair, as many students say, but it is necessary.

The classroom is not set up to accommodate all of the equipment and materials that the blind student needs to get through a school day. The student must be organized. When instructions are given to look up a page in a book, the blind student must be more alert because finding the right volume and page will take more time than the other students need. The student must learn to anticipate instructions. The teacher gives instructions with the idea that the students can quickly scan a page using all of the visual cues such as bold-faced titles and illustrations. The blind student cannot do this as quickly or use the same cues. The student must decide to be assertive enough to question the instructor or a classmate about how to apply the directions to the use of Braille materials.

The student may need to question the teacher's language in mathematics instruction. For example, when fractions are written in print, the terms upper and lower are used to describe the two numbers that make up the simple fraction. In Braille the fraction is written with a number, slash, number; the digits appear in a single line. When the teacher refers to the 2 in the fraction 2/5 as "on top," the student does not necessarily know to which digit he is referring. These issues are easily resolved, but it is a learning process for the blind child. In the end it comes down to the student's ability to communicate her unique needs to a sighted world effectively. This is doubly hard when the personality of the child is shy or reserved. However, questioning others articulately is a skill that all blind people must learn.

Not only must the blind student learn to ask for help, but she must also learn how to reject unwanted assistance. This can often be done with grace and without hurting anyone's feelings. But sometimes the situation is more delicate, particularly when the relationship is child-to-adult. Children are told to follow directions given to them by adults, not to argue, particularly in a school setting. But suppose the adult's understanding of the blind person's capabilities is incorrect. Sometimes the student has to accept that the instructions should be followed even though the adult's belief is wrong. This is a difficult notion for the child to understand and accept. Blind adults may also face situations in which it may be advisable not to argue a point of blindness—for example, a disagreement with an employer. Learning to deal with such issues is part of education and growing up.

The social life in an average public school would challenge the skills of the most sophisticated socialite. Blind children are viewed with a mixture of fear and awe. In physical education classes including a blind student can be difficult. Most PE programs are not equipped to provide the opportunities for physical activity that the blind student needs. Blind people are capable of being active and athletic. Judgements must be made about whether the experience is constructive or merely an exercise in frustration. When a good PE program works well, the blind student has wonderful opportunities to build respect and understanding with her classmates.

Extracurricular and play activities are essential if the blind student is to feel a part of the school community. Disabled children are so involved with adults from the very beginning that often they do not develop the skills to communicate well with their peers. These skills can be learned and modeled effectively. The expert use of blindness techniques gives the blind child the opportunity to participate in the life of the school community.

In the final analysis, can independence be taught to a blind child? I believe the answer is no. Independence cannot be taught. Only by providing good training in the skills that the blind child will need to compete in an essentially sighted world will the child be able to choose independence over dependence. As educators and parents we need to reflect upon our expectations. When competence and independence are expected, children will strive to meet those expectations. Even though society may give mixed messages about the blind achieving true independence, the blind person knows that to be successful in society one must live a life with meaningful choices. The basic tenet of Federation philosophy is the belief that, with equal opportunity and proper training in the alternative techniques of blindness, blind people can make good choices about the lives they lead.

We need to expose our blind children to adult blind people who can act as heroes and role models. Other blind people can help the blind child deal with the feelings that often come when one lives in a world that does not cater to the needs of blind people. Only by teaching life skills to our blind children to the same degree that we teach them to our sighted children, can we hope that they will be able to make their own life choices successfully.