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The following article was originally printed in the
Hays Daily News
May 8, 2011. At the time of publication, it describes a collaboration that is still in process between a blind student and his professors to enable him to major in paleontology.


Now, Ken Neuhauser, professor of geosciences at Fort Hays State University, knows exactly what subject he will research when he goes on sabbatical next fall.

Jason Hughes, a freshman geosciences major from Ellsworth, [Kansas] is looking forward to a restful summer at home after an eventful year of living alone except for the company of his seeing eye dog.

Hughes, blind since cancerous tumors robbed him of his sight as a preschooler, is one of only a handful of blind students to attend FHSU on campus full time. He is believed to be the first to do so while majoring in a science program. He plans to be the first blind man to graduate with a science degree as well.

Nothing that has happened this year has convinced Neuhauser, or anyone else for that matter, that that goal isn't attainable.

"He will work as hard as he can get to get what he wants," Neuhauser said. "It's a process that's going to take time, but he certainly isn't going to give up."

Neither is Neuhauser. Scheduled to go on sabbatical next fall, he said he "had five other (research) ideas on a piece of paper."

Once he started working with Hughes last semester, he tossed that paper aside.

"The main goal will be to develop ways for Jason to learn structural geology," he said. "Can that be done, or can it not be done, and if not, what other classes could be substituted for that? I don't want to reinvent the wheel, but I have to figure out how far can I go with this."

When he learned in the spring of 2010 that Hughes definitely would be coming to FHSU, Neuhauser started searching for ideas to help teach a blind student.

"I started Googling 'blind paleontologist, blind science classes, blind anything,' " he said.

He struck gold when he ran across a book Privileged Hands, an autobiography by
Geerat Vermeij,
a blind professor of geology at the University of California-Davis in San Francisco who specializes in the study of marine biology.

Neuhauser plans to visit Vermeij next fall during his sabbatical and "pick his brain."

Among other methods for teaching the blind already in use at FHSU is a special pen that raises the paper on which it is used to simulate raised surfaces of the earth and a Braille labeler for maps.

About halfway through their first semester together, Neuhauser said he was so into coming up with ways to help Hughes learn he was concerned about "not paying enough attention to the whole class."

"I knew I needed help," he said. So Neuhauser called Mike Calvello, who had earned his master's degree in paleontology from FHSU a couple of years earlier. Calvello, back home in New York, jumped at the chance to return to Kansas to finish his thesis and learn some more as well. Since his arrival back at FHSU, Calvello has worked on a variety of instructional devices, including making clay models of surfaces and fossils, all the while working closely with Hughes in hands-on activities.

"I wouldn't have thought I'd be doing this, not in a million years," Calvello said, admitting it's been a learning experience for him as well. "It's forced me to think outside the box."

That's something Hughes has been doing his entire life. He said he learned a lot of important life skills from his parents, Randy and Bonnie Hughes, who never sent their youngest son off to a visually impaired school. Instead, Bonnie Hughes went to school herself to learn how to help Jason not only survive, but prosper, as he grew up in a seeing world.

That education started at a very young age, after it became clear that Jason's days of seeing were numbered. Because of a rare form of cancer, doctors removed Jason's right eye when he was 15 months old. Therapy on his other eye proved successful until his sister died of another rare form of cancer -- of the liver -- when Jason was 4 1/2 years old.

The tumors around Jason's left eye had been stabilized up to that point but all of a sudden metastasized rapidly. "The doctors said that it was probably the stress of (his sister's illness)," his mother said. "Within two weeks after she died, he had 30 tumors on his left eye."

She said there was danger of the tumors invading his optic nerve, which then would travel to the brain, so doctors immediately removed Hughes' other eye.

Hughes had made valuable use of the time during that three-plus year span of having the use of his one eye. "We did extra training to teach him things, like the differences in colors and signs, to make a point about colors and their significance," Bonnie Hughes said, adding that they also put Braille signs around the house preparing for the strong possibility of total blindness.

"It was all pressed into my brain," said Jason Hughes, who said he owes a lot to his parents for making sure he knew his colors.

The family lived in Wyoming at the time, not far from Dinosaur National Monument. Thus, Jason's love for dinosaurs and paleontology.

Bonnie Hughes checked out a school for the blind in Utah and attended another school that taught how to teach blind children to read and write Braille. "That helped me to help him," she said. "I also was more aware of what (public) schools should provide for him."

Then came time for Jason to move on after his high school graduation. "I was worried about him getting to the laundry room and getting it done, and would he be able to keep his room clean and stay on top of his dog," his mom said of her son going off to college. "And I had lots of concerns about his crossing the street, even though he had done it."

Yes, Jason does his own laundry and cleans his own room and takes care of his dog, Indy. He gets around campus with the help of a GPS-type device and takes notes in class on an electronic Braille note taker.

"Jason isn't afraid to try anything," Bonnie Hughes said of her son, who even mows the yard at their family home in Ellsworth, where he played football and wrestled in high school. He also played the tuba in the Bearcats' marching band.

While Jason Hughes is admittedly an independent sort, he said he owes a lot to Neuhauser and Calvello. "They have really helped me out a lot, both of them," Jason Hughes said.

The feeling is mutual for Neuhauser. "You find things in your career that are very satisfying," Neuhauser said. "We had a lot of super satisfying moments this year. It's been very rewarding."

Following finals this week, Jason heads home for the summer, and Neuhauser heads into his sabbatical with a renewed vigor. Both promise to be back -- for years to come. "This focused time will relax me, and I'll be able to work and think creatively how to teach Jason," Neuhauser said. "We have a lot of things to learn."

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