16 December 2010
Yesterday, as I was leaving my hotel in Union Square I saw a man in the hotel lobby with a red-tipped cane. With some worries about intruding where help was not needed I asked him if there was anything I could do. He said that he wanted to get a cab. I offered my elbow and we left the hotel. I asked where he was going. When he replied, “Moscone,” I realized he was going to the AGU meeting. I said I was too, thinking we might share the cab.
Instead we ended up walking, and I had the real pleasure of getting to know Peter Rayner, an atmospheric scientist from Melbourne, Australia. Peter mentioned that he had a talk later in the morning. I shared with him some of my very fond memories of working with a blind student in a large general education geology course some years ago. Once, mid semester, I’d decided to cut off my beard because it was getting gray. As I was setting up for lecture several students asked where the professor was. I decided to go along with it, and introduced myself as a guest lecturer, and gave the lecture that way. Not one of the 300 plus students challenged me during the class, and only one came up afterward. She asked, “What was that all about?” She was blind, and knew without a doubt that I was the regular professor.
When Peter and I got to Moscone West we walked to the room where he was giving his talk. I was amazed at how easy it was to get there. With more than 19,000 people at Fall Meeting this year, the crowds can feel like they are pressing in from all sides. Not while I was walking with Peter to his room. It was like the sea parting as the crowds made way for us, something that gave both of us a chuckle. As the chair of the AGU Outreach committee, I asked if he’d be willing to share with AGU how we could make the Fall meeting more accessible for people without sight. Peter said yes, he’d be glad to do so after the meeting, but immediately shared that AGU could make simple improvements in the ways equations are handled in journal articles that would increase access for sightless readers. It was illuminating to learn how reading equations–basic fundamentals to advancing science–can present real barriers to those who cannot see.
I attended his invited talk on passive versus active observation of atmospheric gasses such as carbon dioxide, and was so absorbed in the science that I forgot that the person who was giving this polished talk was blind. And I know that’s the way it should be.
I saw Fall Meeting with a new set of eyes today, and am better for the experience. Thank you, Peter.
–Randy Richardson is a professor of geosciences at the University of Arizona, and chairs AGU’s Outreach Committee