“Meet my talking computer,” professor Dennis Fantin said upon walking into his office early last week. For this blind professor at Cal Poly, life is a little different, and it was in an air of light-heartedness that he shared his story.
As a lecturer for introductory chemistry and physics, Fantin has been teaching at Cal Poly for the past four years.
Although he has also been involved with the adult degree program in the past, this year he is currently teaching CHEM 110, World of Chemistry, and an experimental class, SCM X335, Nuclear Science in Society.
Yet, with the modern advances in technology, the fact that Fantin is a blind professor seems to blur the line between his unique circumstance and normalcy.
“I went blind when I was about 12 years old,” Fantin said as he described how he had poor vision as a child. “I’ve retained a lot of visual memories; it gives me a kind of context so that I can relate to others now.”
And while Fantin has been blind for the majority of his life, he seemed to manage around his office with ease. He listens to e-mails via a computer with audio screen reading technology and has a collection of textbooks and professional articles on CD.
“Typically, a large chemistry book fits on two CDs, but in the past I’d have to manage 40 cassettes,” Fantin said.
Today, Fantin can navigate through chapters, whole pages, line by line, or even word by word using his computer.
In the classroom, however, some of these technologies can’t follow him.
“Since I’m totally blind, I typically don’t write on the black board,” Fantin said.
He has assistants who accompany him to class to write up any formulas, diagrams, tables, graphs and notes that they have previously discussed to be on the agenda for that day. Currently, Fantin is working with biochemistry senior Carly Kleiman.
“It’s just a completely different experience,” Kleiman said. “Any other teacher wouldn’t need a student there writing notes on the board, and as far as communication, I read a lot of things to him from the books.”
This peculiar relationship between the professor’s voice and the translation to the assistant’s notes makes for an unusual atmosphere for the students of introductory chemistry.
“When I found out from a student that had the class before that he was blind, I was kind of nervous,” said agribusiness freshman Kristin Noga. “I was like how is this going to work? Is he going to talk to us and we take notes?”
Noga was relieved when she found out he had an assistant that wrote notes on the board, and mentioned that Fantin did not seem any different than her other teachers.
“I know he knows the whole periodic table because he has to memorize the information,” Noga said. “He’s doing it straight out of his head without looking at notes, and I think he’s a better teacher for it.”
Fantin, a native of Berkeley, is a biophysicist who received his undergraduate and doctorate degrees from the University of California, Berkeley. In college, Fantin had to teach himself how to type on a typewriter in order to take exams, but mostly functioned as a normal student.
Even within the area, he managed to find other outdoor interests like river rafting and rock climbing.
“The way I engaged in this was I had a good friend who had polio and only had one good arm and one good leg,” Fantin said. “We became a river rafting team; I controlled the oars and he called the orders.”
But that wasn’t the only challenging activity Fantin enjoyed. For 10 years of his life, he spent his summers rock climbing and always finding ways to get into nature.
Currently, Fantin lives in Cayucos where he’ll take strolls from his home to Morro Bay and walks along the coast, keeping the Pacific Ocean at his side for a guide.
Among his other interests, Fantin loves to read and listen to music, and his true passion lies in Russian history.
Fantin has started two programs in Russia with funding from the government. One is a disability resource center at Novosibirsk State University in Siberia, and the other is a teaching program to help the blind learn how to travel independently.
The disability resource center, established in 1999, is working to advance the lives of students with disabilities. The teacher program is only in its third year and Fantin said that it has been a struggle to make the population understand that it’s a wise and safe situation.
“There’s resistance to the idea of blind people traveling independently,” Fantin said.
Having been to Russia three times, he realizes the environment is different with the snow, the non-rectilinear streets and the un-sensitized drivers. “It’s going to take quite some time and training for the public,” he added.
And as if it wasn’t enough to be a professor at Cal Poly and have two ongoing programs halfway across the world, Fantin is also working on numerous research projects. The main one has Fantin working alongside the Environmental Protection Agency.
“I’m collaborating with a hospital center in Washington, D.C., relating human health and climate,” he said.
With the hospital’s sophisticated computerized systems, the team is looking for reasons people are admitted into the emergency room and if it is connected to weather patterns such as heat waves in urban areas, hurricanes, floods and extreme cold.
“The fun part will be after to look at the statistical correlations to see what we can find as far as weather patterns and public disease,” Fantin said.
While Fantin is a part-time lecturer for the university and doing part-time research, he’s also attempting to set up a summer workshop for blind high school students in the San Luis Obispo area.
At Cal Poly, six students will be paired with sighted students to learn laboratory chemistry since, typically, high school science labs are not accessible to the blind.
“Those teams will be help Cal Poly chemistry students to do an eight-day workshop,” Fantin said.
The students will have the opportunity to work with pH probes and lab balances that have digital outputs sent to a computer, which gives readings in audio form.
“Now you can do weighing and determine mass,” Fantin said. “Computerized devices make for a richer environment for blind students.”
Yet, the blind population in the area is very small compared to the more urban Bay Area, Fantin said.
“When I am in a place like Berkeley, my presence is completely un-noteworthy. So it’s somewhat more interesting because there isn’t quite the same level of normal acceptance here,” Fantin said.
While Fantin mentioned that many see his disability as an interesting curiosity, the accomplishments he has made in his life make it a remarkable, perhaps unbelievable, story. Although he’s lost his sight, he certainly does not lack vision.