Thursday, January 26, 2017

Hidden Figures, Fuzzy Figures, No Figures and Why the Blind and Visually Impaired Need News Literacy

The movie, Hidden Figures, has been nominated for an Academy Award.  In Chapter 17 of the book upon which the movie is based, the author emphasizes that women and minorities face "the high hurdle of low expectations."  The expectations in Hollywood and the media are so low where the blind and visually impaired are concerned that last night’s PBS sampling of this year’s nominated movies promises another award night when our needs are ignored.  These samples, like the obituary section of the award ceremony have no narration, just the titles or names on a screen with music or dialogue in the background.

While Hollywood and the media have poor reputations when it comes to recognizing the needs of minorities, The University of Michigan does not.  Several of the African American engineers written about in Hidden Figures were U of M grads.  I was recently sent an article that appeared in Michigan Today, a student and alumni newspaper.  The article is about engineering students at The University of Michigan who are working with a young, blind volunteer and creating products that will make her life easier (“A Visionary Collaboration,” January 10, 2017).  For example, the engineering students made tags that can be read by the Amazon Echo so that when India West says, "Alexa, where are my glasses?” instead of the old answers, "Try retracing your steps." or "Try under the couch.", Alexa will tell her exactly where they are. 

The article, ended with the following information:  “And in the summer, against the odds, West will graduate high school. Less than a third of visually impaired students ever do. As a result, nearly two thirds of that population lives at or beneath the poverty level."  No citation stating the source of this information was given, a major example of why the hottest topic this week is something called "News Literacy."  Sorting the facts from fiction or rumors has become a real challenge recently for readers and viewers.  I question all figures that refer to blindness and visual impairments because they were nonexistent for most of the 20th Century and sometimes are based upon data collected from surveys during the past two decades.  Organizations for the blind and visually impaired are gathering data but are also not citing the sources or providing links to the original studies.

While the African American, female computers written about in Hidden Figures lived with the high hurdle of low expectations, the blind and visually impaired have lived with the high hurdle of NO expectations.  I just jumped over one of those high hurdles after I looked for the book, Hidden Figures, on BARD.  It was published in 2016 and is not available.  I checked and had problems with the website on my iPhone.  Since I was determined to read this book, I tried Learning Ally (  The audio book was there, but it would not download onto a flash drive so it could be read on my NLS book player.  Even more determined, I learned about the Learning Ally App, found it, downloaded it, found the book, downloaded it, and began reading.  The NO expectations of others have been teaching me that I could NEVER do that on my own.  I am, after all, a woman who is visually impaired and almost 70 years old.  I "should" have a male child or grandchild set everything up for me.  Excuse me?  I managed a home for more than 20 years.  I taught research writing classes in secondary schools and universities.  I earned degrees in several subject areas.  I am a published author.  Count me competent!

When it comes to the blind and visually impaired, researchers and journalists need to get the figures RIGHT.  The "hidden figures" that record the successes of this population need to be readily available and cited.  Blind and vision impaired participants in research studies or classes at universities that are fully funded also must raise their expectations.  They need to learn how to get their ideas patented rather than just giving them to any engineer or engineering student who wants to pick their brain.  They need to expect payment for their time, travel, and contribution as a salary and as a contributor on a published article.  Their expectations must be higher than the delight they feel for just having someone pay attention to them, hand them a modest gift card, or praise them for being altruistic and helping others.  They should also expect letters of recommendation when they are seeking acceptance to universities or employment.  Fifteen minutes of fame does not pay the bills or put food on the table.  Business classes are available in high schools, colleges, universities, on Great Courses DVD lectures in public libraries, and from the Hadley Institute for the Blind and Visually Impaired.  Business skills are as important as computer skills for blind and visually impaired students and job seekers who have high expectations because discrimination in the work place is so high that many must start their own businesses when they are not hired for jobs in their fields of study.

While people have looked at me with low expectations and no expectations, it should surprise no one who has seen Hidden Figures or read the book to learn that the career counselor at The University of Michigan who told me, “We are not going to use the word, ‘retire,’” is an African American grandmother with a Ph.D.  Go figure.   

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