One of the most prevalent ableist tropes is the conception that, because a person is disabled a certain way, they can’t do certain activities. A Blind person can’t see so they must be unable to read books or watch television, for instance. That we typically use our eyes to read books or watch TV is a signal that, without the sense of sight, the ability to do these things is seemingly impossible. That’s a problem: more than ableist, this sentiment shows a profound ignorance of accessibility and assistive technologies—which, given technology’s capabilities nowadays, can feel downright insulting.
So it goes with building and working with machinery. At first blush, the idea that Blind people could work with CNC machines seems ludicrous because, of course, one couldn’t operate the machines if they can’t see the controls. Such logic follows conventional wisdom. The faculty at Davis Technical College is putting this misconception to bed by running a CNC machining program specifically designed for Blind and low vision students who want to get into the machining industry. At the completion of the program, students earn a certificate and are ready for employment. The certification also means they are halfway to an Associates degree as well.
“With this program, our goals were to expand access to new types of manufacturing jobs and trainings to the blind and visually impaired community and to help integrate these students into machining roles at the companies where we are already placing our CNC Machining students,” said Geoff Vincent, a CNC Machining instructor at the school, in a recent interview with me conducted over email.
The overarching goal of the program, Vincent told me, is to “show [CNC machining] employers that these students are just as capable, smart, skilled, and ready to get to work.” Davis’ program is the only one of its kind in the country, and its origin story is one of diversity and inclusion. The school’s president and chief executive, Darrin Brush, learned of a Blind machinist in Seattle and took another instructor, Troy, to meet them. After talking with the person and touring the facility, Brush and Troy resolved to “create a program to teach this [Blind and low vision] community machining” upon returning to Utah. The school consulted with members of the Division of Services for the Blind and Visually Impaired in Salt Lake City, who would tinker around the machine shop and advise on necessary safeguards and accommodations. Vincent said Davis “[works] with the students to see what modifications they need” like touchscreens so someone can zoom into controls. “We were adamant about creating a real-world environment that would mirror what the students would experience in professional shops [with] small modifications,” he said.
Vincent explained roughly 10% of the Blind community is fully blind; this means those in this group do not perceive light. The other 90% does have light perception. Vincent shared an anecdote about a student who’s 98% Blind; she uses a tablet with a Braille keyboard to help her operate the machines. Text changes as the screen changes, and “she can plug in measuring equipment and read it back in Braille,” he said.
“The interesting thing about machining is that none of us can really see what’s happening in the machine anyway, you have to listen,” Vincent said. “Many Blind and visually impaired students have an amazing ability to hear what’s happening in the machine, often catching specific noises—and therefore problems—that many of us wouldn’t have noticed. The students are also trained to feel the parts in the machine to ensure smooth edges.”
An integral component of the CNC program’s success is Autodesk. Vincent said the company’s contribution to the CNC program comes by way of its Fusion 360 software, which he described as “way more accessible than other [CAD] programs we have at the school.” Vincent said of Autodesk’s solution: “As we train the students on Autodesk Fusion 360, they’re learning the tool they’ll be using in future careers. We incorporated touch screen monitors into the shop so the students can zoom in on the screen to use the software, hovering over certain areas to learn about different functionalities.” He added, coupled with Windows’ speech recognition technology, students can control Fusion 360 through what he called “audible commands.”
Feedback on the CNC program from Davis Tech students has been overwhelmingly positive. One such participant is Marley Passey, who said in a statement machining is an area of great interest and she “leapt at the chance” to be part of the school’s pilot. While Passey was initially skittish at running the machines and using measuring tools, the confidence and skills gained from the program have inspired her to “find success just like any sighted machine worker” in the field. Passey said “the sky is the limit” and hopes someday to work in auto manufacturing, the aerospace industry, or even art.
“I gained so much from the CNC Enhanced program that I never would have thought possible otherwise,” she said.
As for the future, Vincent believes it is bright for Davis’ unique program. They modified the class curriculum and began integrating the Blind and low vision students into the CNC Enhanced course last month. In addition to the three original students in the pilot, Vincent noted there will be two more joining at the start of the next term.
“Our success in the CNC Machining program shows the possibilities for creating similar training opportunities in other focus areas here at Davis Tech, including composites, automation or robotics,” Vincent said. “When you can see what these blind and visually impaired students can do, the list of what they can’t accomplish is miniscule. Given advancements in technology, the barrier to entry is growing smaller by the day and I’m excited to see what lies ahead for these incredible students.”