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This technology makes data accessible to blind and visually impaired people

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

When Mona Minkara was 7 years old, she was diagnosed with macular degeneration and cone-rod dystrophy. That's a diagnosis that meant she would eventually lose her sight. One specialist told her mother it was not worth spending a penny on her education. Mom did not listen. Minkara went on to earn a Ph.D. in chemistry and is now a professor of bioengineering at Northeastern University in Boston. And this week, she and her colleagues announced a new way to make scientific data easier to interpret for the blind and visually impaired. Professor Mona Minkara joins me now. Welcome.

MONA MINKARA: Thank you. Thank you for having me.

KELLY: All right. So let's dive into this study. It's describing something called tactile graphics, which are graphics that, as the name suggests, you can trace with your finger. And start with the origins, because this is a technology built on a really old-fashioned art form, the lithophane. Describe it.

MINKARA: So actually what it was, I think it was perceived that maybe a thousand years ago, people produced these lithophanes as a form of art. So if you can imagine, like, a thin piece of material, but you have different densities, and you shine light, then you'll have different shadows - right? - that kind of project.

KELLY: OK, so like an engraving.

MINKARA: Exactly. That's a lithophane. And so what Brian Shaw, professor Brian Shaw at Baylor University, was like, oh, my God, what if we apply this concept to science, to chemistry? Can we do it? And that's exactly what happened. And so this is remarkably revolutionary for somebody like me. So as everybody heard, I'm a blind professor of bioengineering. And I work with sighted students. And so one of the things that would be amazing about having these lithophanes is now we have this form of data. I can feel it, and my students can lift it up to the light and they can see it. So now we have a universality in communication in our science.

KELLY: Something you can both work with at the same time. How have you been doing it? I'm assuming your sighted students were using graphs and charts on a piece of paper. What were you doing?

MINKARA: So basically, what I've been doing, a very simple, cheap solution, is sometimes I'll have them print it out. And then I'll have another student or an access assistant take a hot glue gun and trace the plot. We wait until it dries and then I feel it. That's one simple example.

KELLY: Oh, my gosh. It's just such an extra layer of work when you're already doing really challenging work.

MINKARA: Yeah. Science needs to be made accessible. This would be amazing.

KELLY: And I was trying to figure out why Braille wouldn't work. And then it started to seem obvious in the same way that written English doesn't convey everything that can be conveyed in a chart and a graph. Is it the same with Braille?

MINKARA: Exactly. So Braille is just the letters, right? It's the words.

KELLY: Now, we mentioned lithophanes are a very old form of art. They would originally have been made with porcelain or wax. I assume that's not what you're doing. How are you making them?

MINKARA: The 3D printing materials, Yeah.

KELLY: Oh, OK.

MINKARA: Just, like, the right densities, that's the trick, right? Thin enough, so light shines through, and thick enough at the different parts of, you know, me as the blind person can feel it. And then the sighted student can, like, lift it up to the lights and see it.

KELLY: One thing you and your colleagues note in the paper is, and I'll quote - "the exclusion of students with blindness from chemistry is explicit and systematic." It sounds like this could represent such an exciting breakthrough, but that there's a lot more that needs to change.

MINKARA: A hundred percent. We need to change our mentalities. We need to make sure that things like this are readily available. They're not very expensive. We need to change how we teach in a classroom. You know, as a blind person from a young age, I was discouraged from science because of, quote-unquote, "how impractical it is." Well, you know what? I think any of us who have a passion for a subject should have the right to study it and contribute.

KELLY: Well, Dr. Minkara thank you so much for speaking with us.

MINKARA: Thank you very much for having me.

KELLY: That's Mona Minkara, assistant professor of bioengineering at Northeastern University. Her work is out this week in the journal Science Advances. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.
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