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Lindsay Yazzolino Helps Visually Impaired People Engage With Science

Photo shows Lindsay giving a presentation holding a 3D printed smilodon fossil head
Lindsay gives a presentation at the Pacific Division Annual Meeting, holding a 3D smilodon fossil head. Photo by Joan Horvath.

Lindsay Yazzolino, a cognitive scientist who has been blind from birth, is on a mission to support diversity and inclusion in STEM. As an audio/tactile design consultant, she has seen first hand that "informing scientists about the experience of being blind can help them do better science."

According to Yazzolino, cultural and educational experiences offered to blind people tend to be created by people who can see, and they bring their own biases to the project, even with the best of intentions.

"When people talk about blindness, they use words like 'suffering' and 'overcoming.' They don't always realize that blind people can have rich sensory experiences," she says. "People make all kinds of assumptions that are wrong."

As an example of a trope that irks some people in the blind community, Yazzolino notes that, in movies that feature blind characters, that character always seems to ask to touch someone's face in order to get to know the person better. But for Yazzolino and many other blind people, "a face is not a really meaningful thing."

When she's interested in learning more about someone, Yazzolino likes to take that person's hand. "Some people are calm and you can tell; they have a calm hand. Some people are not very affectionate, and I think you can tell," she says. Even the texture of the skin conveys meaning.

Touch and sound are the senses commonly employed in tailored experiences for the blind. Like anyone, visually impaired people are likeliest to reach their full potential if they get a good education and are exposed to culture, science and all the other complexities of the world. Braille books, which blind people read with their fingertips, have been around for nearly 200 years, but new technologies are emerging, too. It's becoming common to present images tactilely, bringing them to life from the pages of books and magazines -- from famous paintings to microbes to maps to charts to depictions of human organs -- and to enhance those tactile representations with audio. 

In some "smart" presentations, "if you touch a tactile picture of a neuron, (the audio) can tell you if you are touching the axon, dendrites or the cell body," Yazzolino says.

There are other new tools, like 3D printers that can grow images into three-dimensional objects. And more scientists are proactively engaging and consulting with blind people on research and products.

"The thing that has drawn me to the labs I've worked in is that the people running them believe in blind people and their capabilities," says Yazzolino.

Currently, she is a contractor for Touch Graphics, Inc., a 22-year-old Elkton, Maryland, firm that uses touchable display techniques in products and exhibits for the blind and visually impaired. Its best-known product is the Talking Tactile Tablet, a computer peripheral device for use with audio and tactile-graphics materials. Touch Graphics also works with such institutions as the National Air & Space Museum in Washington, DC; the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago, Illinois; and the San Diego Museum of Art in California to create tactile and audio displays, guides and other materials.

Yazzolino also does outreach and consults on the design of studies conducted with blind people at the Neuroplasticity and Development Laboratory at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. One study she worked on found that individuals blind from birth have robust knowledge about visual words, like peek, peer, gleam and shimmer.

Prenatal development is a particular passion for Yazzolino, in part because it has been inaccessible to blind people.

"My dream project is to make 3D models of embryonic and fetal development so that blind people can really see all this," she says. "I love leveraging new technology to make science come to life."

Yazzolino, who grew up in Issaquah, Washington, graduated from Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, in 2011, with a degree in cognitive science.

Her career path may seem unique to many scientists. She joined a research project at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Massachusetts, as a volunteer study subject and soon was a research assistant there. She moved to the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary (MEEI), in Boston, as a program coordinator, and later was a staff assistant at the Massachusetts Transit Authority in Boston, working to improve that system's accessibility for blind and other disabled people.

What do blind people do better than the sighted?

"There are a lot of tasks, from typing to dialing a phone, where the eyes get in the way," says Yazzolino. She's good at problem-solving, too, perhaps because when a person is blind, there are a lot of problems to be solved. And, she adds, laughing, "I'm a much better eavesdropper than the average sighted person."

Representative Image Caption
Photo shows Lindsay giving a presentation holding a 3D printed smilodon fossil head at the Annual Pacific Division Meeting in June. Photo by Joan Horvath.
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