By Hayden Dahmm
As a teenager, my passion was the visual arts. I wrote and illustrated a series of comic books, had paintings displayed in the US Capital Building, and sold my original pastel drawings to fundraise for charity. After seeing my art, strangers were often surprised and confused to learn that I was legally blind. For them, my abilities seemed incompatible with my disability. One woman even asked if I drew by “smelling the colors”.
Instead, my poor vision was compensated by a determination to create. I would spend hours with my face almost touching the pastel paper, leaving my nose coated with a rainbow of chalk dust. For fine detail, I would place my drawings under a closed circuit television to magnify the image, moving my pencil and pastels by staring at the monitor as if it were a video game.
In a strange way, my blindness may have actually aided my art. “While you might not be able to see well” – an art instructor once told me – “you know how to look”. Being legally blind meant that I could never see details; rather, I was forced to see the larger composition and determine what elements deserved scrutiny. When making a painting, the goal is not to capture an image exactly but to reduce the image to its important features. In a peculiar way, I think my eyesight helped me edit the visual world.
During high school, my eye condition deteriorated, leaving me with no functional vision upon graduation. At the same time, my interest shifted from art to science. Although my reduced vision made drawing an increased challenge, this was not the reason for my change in interest. Art allowed me to create for myself, but I saw science as a way to create for others. At Swarthmore College, I studied engineering to understand how technology can address global environmental and social issues.
Being a blind engineer presents unique challenges. Engineers use diagrams and graphs for communicating a range of concepts, but none of these visual aids were accessible to me. Working with my professors and classmates, I collected a set of tools and techniques that communicated graphics into my unique domain. While much credit goes to the support and generosity of my College, I attribute some of my success to my background in art.
First of all, art taught me to be imaginative with the tools I had available. In a mechanical engineering course, I would develop an understanding of system diagrams by constructing physical representations out of Legos, string, plastic bottles, and random objects pulled from my backpack. Since I had a functional system to toy with, I actually gleaned greater understanding than a line diagram could communicate.
My experience with drawing also taught me to construct an image in my mind’s eye. When a professor described a particular diagram, I could envision a representation; while not a substitute for the actual image, this allowed me to better understand the lecture. Just as drawing required me to put my face a centimeter from the paper, engineering required that I have creative determination.
Having figurative vision does not require literal vision. Instead, it involves a different way of interpreting the facts of the world. Although my blindness can be a limitation in engineering, I truly see things differently. I hope that my alternative perspective might help me in making a contribution.