Hayden Dahmm is a senior engineering student at Swarthmore College. He and his twin brother Ethan, were born more than three months premature.
"We suffered a series of health complications as a result of that. Fortunately for me, the only lasting complication that I have, was becoming legally blind," he says.
"Legally blind means that I had some vision, it just wasn't very good," Dahmm explains. As he got older, his vision began to decline even further.
"By the time I graduated from high school, I was at a point where I really didn't have functional vision in either of my eyes. So I had to enter college and learn new tools for how to function as a blind student."
One tool that Dahmm had to develop was a way to process visual data.
"As a sighted engineer, in theory, I could just look at a graph, and understand the relationships that it's trying to show. But since I can't see those graphs I have to find another way to access that information." With help from his teachers, Dahmm has developed a program that converts graphs into short sound bites. He calls the program Sound Plot.
"It takes a regular graph that you might have, where you have two axes, and there's a curve that's described by the variables on those axes. And it converts it into a function of time. So no matter what I'm showing, the independent variable will be time, and the dependent variable will be the pitch of the sound that my computer is producing," he explains.
Dahmm says the program is extremely helpful. He demonstrates an example where Sound Plot helped him identify a mistake in his homework. "I thought I had it correct," he says. But when he played a graph of the data, he was surprised. "What I heard was that it started off extremely low, and then went up exponentially, which is not at all what should've been happening."
After fixing a simple mistake, he heard the correct relationship play in the Sound Plot: a pitch that starts higher this time, rises up slowly, and then comes back down. The way Dahmm describes it, "it almost sounds like a siren that's wailing as it drives down the street." He adds, "I was able to make that correction because I was able to hear that relationship through my computer."
Dahmm maintains that there is a precedent for engineers who are blind. "The man who invented cruise control for automobiles was actually blind. The story goes that he was going on a ride with his secretary, and he was very frustrated by the way his secretary would constantly speed up and slow down when they were on the highway. So he went off and worked on inventing cruise control so there would be more consistent velocity."
"Just because you can't see the technology doesn't mean you can't understand it," he says.
Dahmm says that it never occurred to him to study a subject where the material could simply be read to him, such as English. He says, "I wanted to do engineering, and just because I'm blind doesn't mean that I can't pursue that dream. It just means that I have to pursue that dream, sometimes in a slightly different way."