Blind graduate student analyzes Air Force Space Command computer systems

Dec. 1, 2014

Eleanor Skelton
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“Images, no detail – that’s the short version.”

Joseph Lininger has hypoplasia, an underdeveloped optic nerve. Two other medical terms describe his eyes: nystagmus and esotropia. Nystagmus means that he cannot control eye movement and esotropia indicates that his eyes point inward.

“If I really focus, I can sometimes make them move a particular direction, but because I only see out of the corners of my eyes, if they move, I only know if someone tells me that I did,” Lininger said. “It’s probably because I never developed the muscle control to do it.”

“You get better at using [your other senses]. Physically, my ears are the same as yours. I just pay more attention to it. You don’t because you don’t have to,” he said.

Lininger’s undergraduate education began in a high school dual-enrollment program at Pikes Peak Community College. He later attended Metro State and then transferred to UCCS to complete his computer science degree.

He graduated in 2013, and is now enrolled in the UCCS computer science graduate program.

Lininger uses e-books and audio textbooks provided through the Office of Disability Services. He can set his e-reader and absorb content at about 450 words per minute.

“I’ve been using the same [speech] system for seven years, so you can speed it up because you get used to it,” he said.

Lininger uses a talking computer, a talking watch and the screen reader on his Android phone to adapt technology for his needs.

A white cane assists him in navigating campus, and he uses public transportation and rides from friends to get to and from campus.

Throughout his undergraduate studies, Lininger worked as a computer science tutor and a session leader for college algebra (Correction 5/21/15: business calculus) and pre-calculus courses in the Math Center.

Students needing help read problems aloud to him, and he sometimes asks them to repeat details before assisting the student. Lininger can understand students in the Math Center who need to have a concept explained another way because of accommodations his teachers made.

“If somebody mentions a derivative, [there’s] two things that I immediately think about,” he said. “I had a teacher who […] made a tactile graph so I could see how it was a rate of change. She drew it out with string. And I remember sitting up in her office and having her verbally give me the gateway exam.”

Professors drew large versions of graphs in a way that Lininger could see it. Others described computer science concepts verbally, which allowed him to form a mental image.

“I can’t see any details, so it has to be big enough that I don’t have to see detail.”

Lininger strongly associates auditory memories with mathematical ideas.

“When I worked in the Math Center, there was always a couple of weeks when they did the derivative rules where you couldn’t go in there without hearing somebody reciting one of the derivative rules,” he said.

In a society that is not designed for someone with visual impairments, Lininger still believes the struggle to adapt is worthwhile.

“Basically, it’s like this: I can either expend the energy [to get an education], or I can sit at home and collect a Social Security check. To me, that second choice is not an option. That’s unacceptable,” he said. “Because I think that I’m capable of more than that. I think all blind people are capable of more than that if they have proper training and they get opportunities.”

“If I want to be treated as an equal in society, I have to act like one. I can’t go around complaining about it.”

Lininger has also held a variety of jobs in the field.

“I’ve been everything from a lab technician to a system administrator for an internet media company to math tutor,” he said. “Now, I’m basically a computer scientist for the Air Force.”

Most positions have provided accommodations like adaptive technology or rides when he traveled to Houston on company business. Lininger’s work focuses on systems analysis, rather than coding.

As a hobby, Lininger collects and shoots various collectable firearms.