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Blind Physics Student Steps Up to Bat

Categories: Blind or Visually Impaired

Learning Ally member Aqil Sajjad is a Ph.D. student in theoretical physics at Harvard University. He is also an athlete and active member of a local sports team, the Boston Renegades. Originally from Pakistan, Aqil lost his eyesight in eleventh grade at the age of sixteen. He quickly learned braille but says his mother reading his school materials aloud is the reason he was able to complete a business degree. “She worked very hard to get me that information,” he says. Then five years after losing his vision he found Learning Ally, at the time called RFB&D. “I discovered RFB&D much later than I wish I had. In the beginning I used RFB&D for calculus books. It has also been an important part of my life when it comes to subjects like history, where audio format is wonderful.” Audiobooks increased his ability to access reading materials independently, as he no longer needed to rely on another person to read aloud. He also attributes his ability to continue his academic studies overseas to audiobooks. “What I really wanted to study was science—physics. I saw the opportunity to do so in the United States, so I went to Oregon State University for my undergraduate degree.” One of his physics professors was blind and introduced Aqil to a number of assistive technology tools, a few of which the professor had invented himself, that allow blind users to solve math and physics equations more easily. In addition to using specialized software, Aqil also reads equations in braille. This is useful for mathematics but he finds braille too slow for text. “My philosophy is that early school should definitely include a lot of braille, but later on people should use whatever works best for them, whether it’s braille or audio. I feel more comfortable with audio,” he explains. Now at the graduate level, Aqil says it’s fastest to hear a math problem read aloud and then perform the calculations in his head.

Though Harvard academics are demanding, Aqil still makes time for extracurricular activities, his favorite of which is beep baseball. He says, “I really used to miss one thing after I lost my sight, and that was sports. I discovered beep ball three years ago, which as far as I know is the only accessible sport offered in my area. Initially I wasn’t sure if I was even going to like it, but I checked it out and it was awesome.” Beep baseball, or simply beepball, is in many ways similar to baseball, but Aqil says that the number of modifications make it a truly unique sport. The most noticeable difference, from which the sport takes its name, is the ball, which is the size of a softball and contains a speaker that emits the characteristic high-pitched “beep." This allows players to determine the ball's location. One of the most rewarding aspects of the game, Aqil says, is the community. “It’s such a welcoming group of people and the coaches are wonderful. Whenever I think about the team it never ceases to amaze me how unbelievably awesome these guys are.” Included are the other visually impaired players, but also a number of sighted volunteers. Their involvement is essential and well appreciated, as Aqil emphasizes, “They do it for us—they’re volunteers and they put in so much time to make it happen.” The coaches and pitchers are sighted individuals and, unlike traditional baseball, the pitcher works with the batter—it’s their job to throw the ball at the same spot every time so the batter can hit it. “It requires a lot of muscle memory. In this way, the sport is very much about consistency and precision. The pitcher says, ‘Set, ready, pitch,’ and then throws the ball, and we have to react in the exact amount of time it takes to get to us.”

Opportunities to challenge himself are part of the appeal of both beepball and physics for Aqil, and he offers this advice to other visually impaired students who are considering the sciences:

Sciences are fascinating, but it does require working more than your sighted peers at times. However, there are new assistive tools being invented every day. Learning Ally books are a good resource, especially in terms of how diagrams are explained. Learning Ally has developed excellent protocols to verbally describe images. That is the kind of support one needs. That said, being blind doesn't mean you can’t do sciences. Once you decide you’re ready to put in the extra work, you definitely can do it.

If you’re interested in supporting the Boston Renegades or want to learn more about the team, please visit their website at: http://www.blindcitizens.org/renegades.html

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