Hoby Wedler - Part 2

Hoby Wedler In Front of the Capital Building, Washington DCHoby Wedler has a passion for history, science and the study of wine. He has tutored a lot of children who are sighted and in the future wants to teach science to people who have hard time learning science. His life experiences and the challenges he has faced help him to identify with other people, with how they feel. Terry Wedler spoke with me about her son's strengths:

"Truly, I believe that Hoby's greatest strength is his caring for other people. He has been so helpful and steadfastly caring of every one of his friends throughout his life. His general feeling about anyone he meets is, 'What is their life story? What makes them tick? How can I learn from them?' If he becomes close to a person he always thinks about what he can do to make their life better. He really listens to people when they tell him what they think about things and how they feel."
[Terry Wedler]

Earlier this year Hoby received Learning Ally's National Achievement Award. While in Washington he had an opportunity to speak with Kareem Dale, US President Obama's Special Assistant for Disability Policy and to meet Alexa Posny, Assistant Secretary for Special Education and Rehabilitative Services at the Department of Education.

(This is the second part of a two-part story)

PART 2: No matter what tools or formats you use, access to print gives us the tools to think

Hoby's Story: in Conversation, Continued

When did you begin to mentally visualize things and how has this ability affected your life?

Hoby Wedler and Alexa Posny. Hoby is holding the Learning Ally Certificate of Achievement This goes back as far as I can remember. I need to feel where things start and finish. I'm a very curious, independent person, and I want to move around by myself. To do that you have to be able to visualize where you are, the layout of where you are. I've always held those images in my mind whether moving or still, visualizing where things are, small and large scale. Things get mapped out in my head, I make a mental picture and then think through that picture.

I fell in love with chemistry in high school and in university was fortunate to find a great reader/math assistant who could describe chemistry diagrams. She taught herself braille in 3 weeks, so that she could transcribe my exam into braille for me.

Although I started studying chemistry I decided I should have something else as a back up just in case, so I got a degree in 20th Century American history. I was ready to study history in graduate school and then I met with a UC Davis chemistry faculty member, Dean Tantillo, who introduced me to computational organic chemistry. I joined his group as an undergraduate researcher and worked with other group members and Dean to make the lab completely accessible. Having an accessible lab to work in changed my mind and pushed me to study organic chemistry in graduate school.

What is it about chemistry that interests you most?

Hoby Wedler and Kareem Dale, US President Obama's Special Assistant for Disability Policy, talking at the White House Chemistry uses the same skills of visualization that I've been using since I was a small child. Thinking about chemistry is no different from thinking about where things are in a classroom or elsewhere. The execution process, theoretically and in action, is the same. When I get lost (in a chemistry problem or somewhere physically) I use cerebral problem solving for both. It's all theoretical to me.

It's hard work; studying chemistry takes me longer than it does a sighted person. My chemistry assistant is much like an orientation and mobility [O&M] instructor for chemistry. Once I work with her to get a molecular structure into my head, I can work independently and apply my own chemical intuition to the problem at hand much like I apply my own problem solving skills when I'm traveling.

When I was much younger I attended a National Federation of the Blind summer camp. A group of NASA scientists who were blind was there and together we launched a 10 foot rocket. That was when I realized I could succeed in science. More recently, I founded and instructed an annual three-day camp in California where we teach chemistry to blind high school students. We used senses such as smell rather than sight to demonstrate chemical reactions. Last year one of the students said 'I like chemistry but I also like physics, can I apply the same skills?' I told him the same principles apply, just in a different way.

What challenges have you faced with accessing information and do you have a preferred reading format?

I read for pleasure as well as for study. The vast majority of what I read is from Learning Ally (which was RFB&D), but I also read some braille, and also sometimes just read books that I come across online from sources like Audible.com. Learning Ally books are so accurate and the readers describe the photos, graphics and diagrams.

I started with RFB&D in elementary school when I was in about grade 5. I'd been reading braille but it took too long. Because my mom had been a teacher for visually impaired students for a long time she knew about RFB&D and helped me get lined up for their service. It was a life saver. It allowed me to get through all of the reading I had to do, and there was a lot of it. Learning Ally was an indispensable resource. I was able to access all of the materials at a level comparable with my sighted peers. I'd speed up the playback speed.

Hoby Wedler seated at the far left at the Learning Ally Roundtable When RFB&D switched from cassette to DAISY it had a huge impact. The cassettes were so much more bulky, but what was really wonderful was that with DAISY I could highlight/bookmark something I wanted to study in depth, and then go back and reread that material. It was night and day. It was beyond my expectations. Learning Ally materials changed my life completely.

I also use an electronic braille display with a braille note taker. Sometimes I use audio books and an electronic braille note taker together so that I can read and take notes at the same time. Often, chemistry is easier to absorb when I have braille and tactile figures to study. Also, I spend a lot of time with a 'live reader' for specific chemistry applications. Synthetic speech is being used more widely now (recording the audio with a live reader takes a lot of time). While synthetic speech is faster and can be brilliant for some subjects, it does need to have a pleasant tone. Some are excellent now and convey the material very well in a pleasant voice. Learning Ally is starting to use it now as well.

No matter what tools or formats you use, access to print gives us the tools to think.

How did you become interested in wine & how did you get involved with wine tasting 'in the dark'?

Sonoma mountain vineyard with Mayacamas mountains in background, Sonoma County, California, USA My parents live in wine country and enjoy a bit of wine. The majority of Californian wines come from two places. One is Sonoma where I live. I was interested in the fact that what was grown locally was enjoyed worldwide.

I was introduced to wine chemistry in a class about three years ago when I was an undergraduate – the flavor components, sensory components that go far beyond color. Wine is very complex and wine tasting is something you don't have to see to do. I enjoy studying the history of wine and discussing wine with others. Everyone enjoys it nonvisually.

I was asked by Francis Ford Coppola's assistant to lead a wine tasting in the dark at the winery, an experience he'd had. It was a life changer for me – hosting wine tasting in the dark. People were blind folded at door. We talked about wine for about an hour and a half, tasting, smelling in the dark – all of the various aromas that are very specific, then tasting and dissecting what they were tasting and smelling. I was able to:

  1. Illustrate that wine is a combination of many flavors and chemistry helps to explain the flavors.
  2. Motivate folks to know that they can taste wine more discerningly when they are not distracted by what they are seeing around them (people have said they enjoy wine more now that they've enjoyed it nonvisually).
  3. Show people that wine is just as much of an art as visual arts such as painting or sculpture. You don't need to see to enjoy intricate art.

Wine is the one thing that through nature and a bit of chemistry becomes a brilliantly complex art form. Red wine in particular is by far the best antioxidant, ten times more so than blueberries or artichokes.

Hoby Hiking in the woods near his parents cabinDo you have any additional interests?

I'm also passionate about cooking and rarely follow a recipe.

My family has a cabin on Fallen Leaf Lake, which is a small lake about 1 mile south of Lake Tahoe which is a large mountain lake in California. It's still one of my very favorite places – I love hiking there.

When I asked Terry what she sees as Hoby's greatest strengths and his weaknesses she said that his strengths are his curiosity, his will to survive and his drive. She explained that Hoby has a huge reservoir of 'I will overcome, I will make it, don't feel sorry for me, I can do it', and that his other wonderful strength is his caring for others. His belief that our job in our life is to make life better for everyone comes from inside him and from his family. Hoby has a strong sense of wanting to make things good for others.

There was much more to the conversation with Hoby than is presented here. He spoke with affection about his older brother Jesse and how Jesse was always very supportive of him, paving the way for him in school. His brother mentored him and advised him both in terms of study and school life. They've always helped each other. Hoby also talked about the meeting Peter Beran who was assigned to him for the three days at the Learning Ally Awards ceremony in February. Peter is a trained chemist, has his Masters in organic chemistry and is the Chief Technology Officer for Learning Ally. He has also become a mentor to Hoby. They are staying in touch and Hoby feels he's made a very good friend.

Image Source

The photograph of the vineyard is from the Wikimedia Commons. The original description was "sonoma mtn vineyard with mayacamas mtns in background, sonoma co calif USA". The image is on the Wikipedia page Wine Country (California). Permission is granted to copy, distribute and/or modify this document under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2 or any later version.