Envisioning success: Deaf, blind students tackle chemistry

By Kristina Kenney
University News Service
October 31, 2011

Colby Broadway and Adriana Ochoa are fighters.

The two undergraduate students are seemingly fearless in the face of a challenge. In fact, situations most people would consider challenging, they acknowledge with little significance because they conquer such obstacles each day of their lives.

Ochoa, a 22-year-old nutrition and foods major, is completely blind and Broadway, a 29-year-old geographic information systems (GIS) major, is legally blind and deaf. Despite the struggles of registering for a class that puts a strong emphasis on visual and auditory elements, both students have enrolled in chemistry as a required course this semester.

In a discipline that requires numerous observations of color changes, sound differences, chemical reactions and measurement readings, Colby and Adriana are not only tackling chemistry head-on but are doing so with a confidence and positivity that the seeing and hearing population would marvel at.

Ochoa, a California native, moved to San Antonio seven years ago and transferred to Texas State from St. Philip’s College. She said chemistry does present its difficulties, but the enjoyment and reward she feels from being in the class far outweigh any of the struggles.

“I love science, but if I would have stopped because of how hard it was going to be, I wouldn’t have gotten the chance to enjoy a lot of the things I’m getting to enjoy now,” said Ochoa. “We have to do things in life that we enjoy. Even if those things are hard, they’re still enjoyable.”

She said that while she is not able to see what is going on, she gets information about various experiments, color changes and descriptions of solutions from an assistant in the lab setting. Physical aids such as molecule models have also been used to help Ochoa visualize structure through feeling of the placement.

Quizzes and tests are administered to Ochoa by her professor, Jennifer Browning, senior lecturer of chemistry and biochemistry. Browning said she reads the exams aloud, describing the questions, graphs and charts that Ochoa is not able to see.

“It’s truly amazing the things that Adriana can visualize in her head without having to see it on paper,” said Browning. “She does excellent. She’s proving a lot to people.”

Broadway grew up in Angleton with his parents, as well as his sister who is also blind and deaf. He graduated from Texas School for the Deaf and received an associate’s degree from Texas State Technical College in Waco before coming to Texas State.

He said one key challenge for him with chemistry is the visual element. Since he is unable to see specific measurements in the graduated cylinders and various containers, he uses tools such as magnifying glasses to allow him to read the measurements better.

Another hurdle Broadway faces deals with his lack of any peripheral vision. Due to this, he must also adapt to switching his focus between the lecture and his interpreter during class. He said he tries to put his main focus on the interpreter and relies on an assistant to help him take notes that he can go back and review later. Browning said she also sends Broadway the teaching assistant’s lecture ahead of time so he knows what is going to be discussed before getting to the lab.

Broadway credits his mom and dad for instilling a good work ethic and perseverance within him growing up whenever he had a challenge to overcome.

“Growing up, my parents never cared about my disability,” Broadway said. “It never fazed them. They just wanted me to experience everything. They wanted me to work hard and to learn everything that was available to me.”

Upon graduation from Texas State, Broadway hopes to start a career as a GIS technician or a cartographer. Both areas of study involve the reading of intricate topography, elevation and other geographic characteristics of maps, something Broadway truly enjoys.

“There is so much information in there and it’s not words but pictures and visual objects,” he said. “That’s why I like maps. They show so much communication within themselves, which is really important to me obviously because it’s easier for me to analyze them.”

While it’s been nearly 10 years since he was last enrolled in a chemistry course, Broadway said he enjoys how it is helping him study numerous kinds of minerals, rocks, stones and sediments that will benefit him in his career down the road.

“Really I just want to inform and educate people that even if you’re deaf or blind, you can do anything a hearing person can,” Broadway said. “[You] can do the exact same things as everybody else. We’re not really that much different.”

Ochoa also shares this sentiment.

“I want people to understand that if we live a life trying to pick the easy things, we’re really never going to get anywhere,” she said. “Everything in life has its obstacles no matter what you do. One day I’m going to be done with chemistry and that will end this obstacle and then there are so many more. I don’t think much of anything is impossible. You just have to be willing to try.”