Dr. Erkan Kaplanoglu said Fatimah Musa could have picked an easier major, but taking the easy route isn’t in her nature.
Musa, who will receive a bachelor’s degree in mechatronics during University of Tennessee at Chattanooga undergraduate commencement ceremonies on Saturday, Dec. 16, was born with cone-rod dystrophy—a type of inherited retinal degeneration affecting the retina’s photoreceptor cells. The condition is characterized by progressive loss of function and death of the eyes’ cone and rod photoreceptor cells, leading to vision loss.
Musa can’t see in the dark; walking around alone at night is a “no” for her. To be able to read on a computer screen or tablet, she needs magnifying devices.
Because she was born with limited vision, “I don’t know what I’m missing,” said Musa, a native of Tunnel Hill, Georgia, and 2019 graduate of Ringgold High School. “I generalize myself as blind because blind does include the visually impaired. It’s like an umbrella term.”
Kaplanoglu is interim head of the Department of Engineering Management and Technology, director of the Biomechatronic and Assistive Technology Lab and an associate professor of mechatronics. Much of his work centers on medically-assistive research for people with a physical disability.
He has worked with students who had lost a limb or had walking disabilities, he said, and, “We can make prosthetics or some external assistive devices to help those students.”
But this was the first time Kaplanoglu worked with a student who had Musa’s type of impairment.
“I learned how to help a person with this kind of disability during our lab sessions. I needed to help her be ready for real life because she will be in the work industry,” said Kaplanoglu, who—like Musa—first came to UTC in fall 2019. “I respect her patience in doing the hard things. She could have picked another major very easily, an easier one for her, but she pushed herself to do more learning.
“She was very kind and open because I asked her many times to make sure she could read or understand. She’s not hiding anything and she’s not scared. She has really accepted her situation, and that helped me a lot in helping her.”
Recalling when she arrived on campus, Musa didn’t have the tablet she has now. She said she would have to take screenshots or pictures and basically relearn classes on her own.
Musa needed special magnifying devices to see and read better and, “We made some bigger-size experimental manuals and technical descriptions for her,” Kaplanoglu said.
He also said some of the computers in the lab didn’t have accessible programs, so they had some designated computers for her to use.
Just as early challenges were being eliminated came Musa’s second semester on campus and the arrival of the pandemic. COVID-19 presented unique challenges for everyone, particularly for someone with a visual impairment.
“Everybody has their stories about that,” Musa recalled, “and I remember being ahead in a couple of the courses. Then the shutdown happened and the shift to online courses.
“The struggle with that for me was I couldn’t see the Zoom course screen shares. That turned out to be a little technical issue for me.”
Erica Hausler, associate director of the Disability Resource Center at UTC, said she has worked with only a handful of students with vision issues at the level Musa experiences.
“I was in the testing center when she was starting here, so I got to know her more on a personal level in the sense that she was in my office a lot doing tests. I remember her saying, ‘Hey, I can’t see this. What can we do?’ and I’d say, ‘Let’s try this,’” Hausler said.
“Some of it was trial-and-error because we were both learning at the same time. Once we got a rhythm, it just became, ‘How are things going? Are you having any concerns?’ and then pointing her in the right direction on campus.
“She’s a wonderful self-advocate. She comes to us and says, ‘Hey, here’s a problem I haven’t found a way to solve yet. Let’s put our brains together.’”
They still converse on a regular basis. Hausler said Musa recently stopped by the Disability Resource Center for fax assistance.
“None of our printers on campus are accessible for the visually impaired, so we assisted in getting some of those done so that she could move forward to something after UTC,” Hausler said.
In summing up her UTC career, Musa praised the resources provided by Hausler and the Disability Resource Center, saying, “They’ve always been on top of everything for me.”
She extolled the virtues of the College of Engineering and Computer Science’s Student Success Center for its work in connecting her to its women’s mentoring program—which in turn led to her landing an internship with QCells, a solar panel manufacturer with a production facility in Dalton, Georgia.
And she raved about how engineering faculty worked together to help her navigate a difficult degree program.
“I think the fact that a lot of my classes had repeating professors helped me out,” Musa said, “but something I overcame was the difficulty and the rigor of these courses. The first time I took these mechatronics courses, I realized everything is so related to each other because it’s everything all at once about every topic. So I realized that I would go to one professor and then the other professor would be talking about the same topics.
“Then the way I connected them and the way I can utilize those topics about electronics or control systems or coding … I can jump from each of these fields of study and understand them in a broad sense, but also take them and use them in a problem.”
What did her instructors learn from working with Musa?
“I learned that there is no barrier and no limit if you have that passion to learn,” Kaplanoglu said.
“We need to eliminate barriers from her future. If she finds the right environment to work in, she’s going to be a successful engineer.”
Crossing the McKenzie Arena stage closes one chapter and starts a new one for Musa, and she’s ready for what’s ahead. Perhaps it’s in engineering, she said, or maybe teaching.
She said she won’t let her visual impairment hold her back—as she’s never taken the easy route.
“Whatever comes up in the future, I think I can handle it,” Musa said. “If somebody rejects me or if somebody doesn’t think I’m cut out for this field, I can easily prove them wrong.”