Visually impaired Shocker busts through barriers to achieve STEM aspirations


Emily Schlenker has a gift for all things science. 

“I know that I was born to do STEM. I've known that from a very young age,” said Emily, who graduated from Wichita State University in 2020 with a degree in biology and a minor in chemistry. “I love it. I love calculus. I love organic chemistry.”

Emily was also born blind. She was born with a retinal impairment that only allows her to perceive light and shadow.

She says, because she’s blind, a lot of people tried to dampen her spirit for STEM.

“I was discouraged for a long time,” she said. “I don't know what it is, but once you turn 30 — at least with women — I think you just get tired of that crap. Life is too short for me to not make it my own and to let other people decide for me what's hard and what's not hard.”

When she enrolled as a biology and chemistry student at Wichita State in 2016, she didn’t feel that she had the support she needed to be able to succeed. With her brain for science, she needed help to be able to visualize, in her own way, what was being taught. 

“In organic chemistry, I needed diagrams because it's a very visual class,” she said. “I don't believe that just because it's visual and I don't have functional vision, that means that I can't take the class. I'm able to process things in my brain and basically visualize how things should be.”

Ultimately Emily’s voice for change led to a coordinated effort at the university to make significant positive changes in support of Emily and other blind and disabled students.

The University turned to John Jones, director of the Media Resources Center (MRC) on campus to lead the University to improve the accessibility of its website and curriculum resources available to students and faculty.

“I got to know Emily a little bit through some interactions we had, and I was impressed with her.” Jones said. “The university needed somebody to step in and help her, and I said I'd be happy to do that. I started interacting with Emily in a very direct way and taking a look at her coursework and solutions to help her be successful.”

Once the MRC team stepped in, Emily saw changes almost immediately. 

“I've never seen so many people learn so much so fast,” she said. “I was told for years that blind people just don't do STEM. That is not the case. There has to be a willingness to look at things as a learning opportunity instead of as extra work, which the MRC did. There's just a mentality over there that works extremely well with new things and creativity. Those people never want to stop learning.”

I was told for years that blind people just don't do STEM. That is not the case. There has to be a willingness to look at things as a learning opportunity instead of as extra work, which the MRC did. 
Emily Schlenker, 2020 graduate in biology and chemistry

One of the tools Emily needed to succeed was tactile drawings with raised lines to help her understand and visualize diagrams. John said the MRC uses a machine called Picture in a Flash (PIAF) to create those diagrams. The PIAF uses a special medium called Swell paper that’s treated which a plastic chemical. When the Swell paper goes through the PIAF, it does just that – it swells.

“Wherever there are lines, especially black lines, the plastic creates a raised texture that's touchable. It’ll handle shading and a lot of different patterns and different sized lines. We can do a nice variety of detail,” John said.

The PIAF also allows for Emily and other users to draw freehand with a Sharpie-like marker to create diagrams on the fly.

Emily says it’s not just visually impaired people who need vision accommodations, and she’s hoping these changes will help others in their academic journeys.

“There are other people who cannot use print for whatever reason, like dyslexia, where they need something that can either be read by a screen reader. There are all kinds of reasons why a PDF document does not serve a significant part of the population,” she said. “I've never wanted this to just be about me.” 

John said that once the process and tools were in place, Emily’s instructors really embraced the opportunity for innovation in their classrooms. In biology, for example, one teacher took advantage of her perspective to explore different ways to reinforce and enrich lessons for the rest of the class.

“When they were doing microscope work and students were looking through the microscope and seeing the structures in cells and stuff like that, Emily obviously couldn't participate,” John said. “But he had the students do drawings that they would run through the PIAF. So the students were having to recreate that, cementing their learning; and she's getting the experience of actually being able to see it.”

Most of Emily’s instructors really took her involvement in each class as an opportunity to explore.

“I think we all shared the main idea: Her success is our success,” John said. “It was important to clear the obstacles out of the way so that a person with her gifts can shine the way she deserves to shine. There’s nothing about what we've done that has changed the rigor of the work. We've just taken the artificial limits out of her way.”

Though Emily graduated in May, she’s is working at the MRC as an accommodations assistant. Emily proofreads and tests software and support systems to ensure the university is accessible for people with visual impairments.

Next year, she plans to attend pharmacy school, but she’ll be leaving a valuable legacy at Wichita State. 

“A lot of the accessibility improvements benefit a much broader community. We’re making Wichita State a much more welcoming place to the visually impaired population,” John said. “We're creating an environment in which people can succeed. The advocacy that Emily provided — championing change for herself but also for the people who will follow — made it possible.”

Emily says she hopes the accessibility improvements pave the way for future learners. 

“It's never been about me. There are so many blind students with so much potential, and sometimes they just get shut down before they ever get to find out what lights their fire. Every student deserves the opportunity to learn and explore, and I trust that John Jones and the university will keep it going.”

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