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One day, I spoke with one of my professors about if it were possible for a blind person to obtain a professorship in my university. This was motivated by thinking on the russian and blind mathematician Lev Poyntriagin who made important work in topological groups and control theory.

So my question, which is hypothetical, is the following one: Suppose that we have a blind person such that is a very "good" researcher in his/her field in the sense that he/she has "good" articles in his/her field, which problems would this person have in applying for a professorship in a University due to his condition?

Ii is important to address the problem that this person would probably need an assistant for continuing doing his/her research and for giving lectures at some extent. So, will this be something that would could count negatively?

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This is highly country dependent. In the US, the Americans with Disabilities Act requires employers to make reasonable accommodations for disabilities including not treating a disability as a negative in hiring. –  Bill Barth Jun 15 at 13:36
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Note also that in reality, most (all?) of these hurdles would have been encountered throughout the person's career. If they're a serious contender for a professorship, they will presumably already have their own strategies for dealing with such issues. –  avid Jun 15 at 14:18
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@BillBarth There's similar anti-discrimination legislation in the European Union, too. –  David Richerby Jun 15 at 15:19

6 Answers 6

Here is a very interesting 2002 article on blind mathematicians from the Notices of the American Mathematical Society. Some quick highlights:

1) Although Lev Pontrjagin is the best known blind mathematician -- and was a wonderful mathematician; "who made important work in topological groups and control theory" is quite true but may be an under-sell -- there have been others. If we count mathematicians who were blind for a substantial portion of their professional career then even Pontrjagin gets outclassed: there is, after all, Leonhard Euler. And there are more contemporary examples, such as Bernard Morin and Lawrence W. Baggett. Both of the latter are still living but retired (on the other hand, the article is 12 years old). It would be interesting to have even more contemporary examples.

2) Being a blind mathematician is rare but not singular. In fact there are enough to notice that blind mathematicians tend to specialize in geometry and topology. This is very surprising, as these fields are thought of as requiring visualization skills beyond the norm (I for instance have felt a little locked out of certain parts of geometry and topology because of my limited skills in this area....though my vision is fine). The article really shines in the way it addresses this point: the insight it offers goes far beyond, um, sight. At the same time there are blind mathematicians in other fields: e.g. Baggett is an analyst.

3) Blind mathematicians must in many ways work harder than sighted mathematicians. But of course mathematics is hard for everyone, and much of being a successful mathematician is embracing the struggle and continually pushing yourself out of your comfort zone and beyond your current range. This is a key point of Terry Tao's career advice. For that matter, I am suddenly struck by Andrew Wiles's famous description of mathematical research as exploring the rooms of a dark house one by one: you spend almost all of your time in the darkness; when you find the light switch you flip it and go on to the next room. (I don't mean to trivialize the challenges of literally living in the dark, just to indicate that the experience of dealing with and gradually surmounting challenges that to a static observer seem totally insurmountable is a somewhat familiar one.) Reading this article made me wonder about the OP's assertion "this person would probably need an assistant for continuing doing his/her research and for giving lectures at some extent." Some might need or want a formal assistant, but some might not and might be self-reliant and of course reliant on the informal assistance of colleagues, friends and family...as we all are. The mathematicians featured in the article are much more independent than one might have assumed possible.

The question was not specifically about blind mathematicians, but that was the example given, and I am a mathematician, so I ran with that. Off the top of my head I would suspect that blindness would be less of an issue in mathematics than most other academic fields...but as a sighted mathematician, how the heck could I possibly know that?!? I would be very interested to hear about blind academics in other fields and what challenges they face.

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Do you know how they work with formulas? They are much less linear than text. –  Davidmh Jun 15 at 17:41
    
@Davidmh: First: I don't know anything about this topic that I didn't learn by reading about it. I have not personally known any blind mathematicians (or other blind people, unfortunately). So there's not much point in asking me specific followup questions, except to get pointers to the literature (sorry!). Second: you're on to something. The article talks about the difficulty of working with formulas as a reason why geometry/topology is a preferred field. But I also gather that the technology here has improved in recent years. Again, you can read about it too... –  Pete L. Clark Jun 15 at 18:31

There are really two questions here:

  1. What problems would a blind mathematician have in doing their research?
  2. What problems would a blind professor have in handling their teaching/service responsibilities?

I think the first question has been answered fairly well by others. Since I'm not a mathematician but I am a (sighted) scholar in Disability Studies, let me address the second.

Academia is on the whole much more accessible to blind people than private industry. Most internal department administrative business is conducted over e-mail or in face to face meetings. For the most part, you're mostly doing your own research or teaching. There's little printed media that isn't renderable into an accessible format. For example, I have all of my students submit papers online, so I rarely deal with paper anymore.

However, there are very few scholars with disabilities and there is still prejudice in the academe. It will be key to establish a good track record of publications and some experience teaching so that you can put these fears and prejudices to rest.

Try to network with other scholars with disabilities whenever possible. There's strength in numbers.

Just as a total aside. One of my colleagues wanted to bring in a Deaf scholar to give a talk, but the scholar would give her talk using American Sign Language. While the university will provide enrolled Deaf STUDENTS with interpreters, there was no provision for providing external SCHOLARS with interpreters. We had to bring this up to the provost level in order to accomplish anything. But this is an example of the differential treatment of students with disabilities vs. scholars with disabilities that you might face in the future.

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Specifically addressing professorship, as opposed to researcher, the most immediate question that comes to my mind would be one of teaching techniques. Much college education takes advantage of blackboards or other visuals to present the formulas and techniques that students will have to learn, to supplement the lecturer's voice. That could be a challenge for a blind instructor. You should probably be prepared to explain and/or demonstrate to the school how you will address this, perhaps with citation of other instructors who have used the same solution.

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The American higher education institutions I am familiar with have put a great deal of emphasis on improving diversity. So I would expect a successful blind researcher to do well on the faculty job market.

Otherwise healthy blind adults do not need assistants. Many sighted faculty do need assistants.

Presumably a successful blind researcher has already overcome significant barriers to access; as a faculty member I think the main barriers they would experience are a few faculty who are ignorant about disability.

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A professor's principal job is conducting research. Depending on field, blindness may or may not be much of a problem at all. Sheena Iyengar is an endowed full professor at Columbia Business School and is blind. Her research is fascinating and she seems to be doing pretty well for herself.

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I may add personal experience with a blind mathematican I've seen in an invited talk some time ago. He was giving two lectures about the same topic and I could only attend the second one. He worked on the blackboard an turned towards the audience to speak. He needed help in the beginning to get familiar with the size of the blackboard and also had help to clean the blackboard (he was already a senior mathematician but turned blind gradually in the last years). He started his lecture with a crystal clear recap of the previous one, without writing on the board. Then he started the new lecture and as usual, he wrote full theorems and formula at the board. I was shocked. What he wrote was totally unreadable. In most cases one could only read the first few letters of each word while the rest was just a wiggly line. Also he did not have a good orientation on the board. It happend frequently then he wrote directly over his own writing - sometimes three or four times over the same line. The blackboard was a hell of a mess. However, I usually listen more than I read in lectures and my notes reflect more what I hear than what is written on the board. Hence, I started to use the blackboard only for crude reference for what he referred to when he pointed to places where he suspected the formulas he needed, but took notes on the basis of what I heared. It turned out the be one of the best guest lectures I heared - ever. Even the mess on the blackboard was helpful. It gave the lecture some spatial structure although I could barely read the letters. I still knew what he had said at the respective points and could follow the lecture without problems although it was only loosely related to my own area.

Finally, I have been told that he still give lectures to students at his home university and the students are happy.

That story probably illustrates that at least lecturing should not be a great problem without eyesight.

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