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Being blind won’t stop graduate from teaching

Watson School of Engineering and Applied Science

Name: Gary Chan
Degree: BS in mechanical engineering.
Plans: Work for Teach America, teaching math in the New York City school system this fall.

Legally blind, Gary Chan has proven it is possible to take life’s challenges in stride and share with others an unassuming sense of optimism and vision.
A native of Hong Kong but raised in New York City, Chan was only 11 when, while playing baseball, he was struck in the eyes by a flyaway ball. Since he had been diagnosed with juvenile retinitis’ (detachment of the eye’s retina), the ball’s impact caused immediate blindness.
“Things came upon very abruptly,” said Chan, adding that his “total vision” was lost immediately, but some was recovered as he received a few surgeries. “Everything just became very traumatic.”

With the support of his family and friends, Chan realized that his disability did not have to ruin his life. “My family really supported me and I had a lot of good friends,” he said. “I really think the reason that I am at college is because my family really pushed me through and gave me the support so I could do anything.”

Chan soon learned to adjust to his new life. “It certainly impaired me in physical activities and gym,” he said. “In class, I had to learn how to take notes and learn how to read and write again. I had to get used to having low vision.” He immediately began wearing glasses with a small “telescope” mounted on one lens during classes.

However, being blind and attending school far away from home can take some getting used to. “I wanted to get out of the city life and I had to learn to go about my everyday life without depending on my parents or things around me,” he said.

Adapting to school had its challenges, but within weeks, Chan learned how to cook and shop for himself — tasks, he said, which depend much on being able to see. His professors also adapted their teaching styles to accommodate him. “Not a lot of people can tell I have a disability and I have to really show the professors that I have a problem,” he said. “They have adjusted to writing things bigger and making handouts larger. This way I can see the chalk board when they are writing.”

Ron Miles, professor of mechanical engineering, said Chan’s enthusiasm to learn was proven each of the many times he visited his office, simply because he wanted to learn the material. “I thoroughly enjoyed having Gary in my class,” Miles said. “He clearly puts in a lot of extra effort and is extremely capable. He seems like a person who doesn’t let his extra challenges get in the way and he carries an infectious, positive attitude.”

Now, Chan is planning for the next few months, when he will receive a Teach America placement in a New York City school. Although he is not sure where he will be placed, Chan will teach math in midtown Manhattan or the Bronx.

“I love engineering but after studying it for four years, I don’t think that I have the right stuff to delve into it further,” Chan said. “There is so much competition and I have never been good at the hands-on projects, but rather the more theoretical. With teaching, I will be able to help other students while also getting an incentive to go to graduate school.”
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Last Updated: 10/14/08