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First Blind PhD Graduates

Date: August 16, 2010

Ray McAllister has become the first completely blind student to graduate with a PhD in Religion from the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary. What’s more, according to the Society of Biblical Literature and National Federation for the Blind, Ray may be the first blind doctoral student to ever tackle a degree so heavily dependent upon Biblical languages including Akkadian, Hebrew, Greek and even Cuneiform.
Ray was born in 1975 with a degenerative eye condition known as Peter’s Anomaly. At the age of five, one eye was removed. Then, at the age of 12, his one “good” eye finally died, resulting in total blindness. He had a passion for education, eventually graduating from a mainstream high school and earning three higher education degrees: a Bachelor of Theology, a Master of Divinity and a PhD in Religion.
In the spring of the year 2000, Ray decided to pursue a doctorate. Ten years later, on August 1, 2010, Ray walked across the stage to receive his diploma, making history for himself, Andrews University and for the blind community.
Along the way, Ray has made remarkable accomplishments and repeatedly found highly innovative ways to learn. According to Roy Gane, professor of Hebrew Bible and Ancient Near Eastern languages at the Seminary, “Ray is the first blind person to complete a PhD in Religion (the highest academic degree our Seminary offers) at Andrews University, and he has done it in an area that is especially challenging for a blind person: Old Testament Exegesis and Theology, which makes intensive use of Hebrew language.”

   On Sunday, August 1, Ray McAllister awarded a PhD in Religion from the Andrews
   University Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary. (Photo by Katelin Mitchell)

Ray says, “From the moment I began taking doctoral-level classes in January 2001, I saw God's hand of providential leading.” The Michigan Commission for the Blind committed to assisting and supporting Ray’s education. He was able to use an old DOS-based Bible software from the mid-90s, which allowed him to study the Hebrew Bible while reading English letters instead of Hebrew symbols. Ray scanned countless books into his computer so his computer could “read” the material to him. He discovered some materials, like technical Bible commentaries with great amounts of Hebrew letters, wouldn't scan properly into his computer. In his Ezekiel and Malachi classes, he and another student were allowed to choose similar enough research topics. The student partner would read and record the commentaries. Ray would take notes from the recordings for his studies.
During his years while studying in the Master of Divinity program, Ray met Sally Ann Trottier, who later became his wife and his helper. Over the remainder of his studies, Ray repeatedly came up with creative solutions for his study needs. During his studies of cuneiform, Sally took notecards, turned them over and created the impressions needed to represent parts of the cuneiform language.
In the summer of 2002, Ray taught Old Testament Survey, a four-week summer intensive. It was the first class he had ever taught. Since he could not see raised hands for questions, Ray led discussions using skills he’d learned as an amateur radio operator. When someone wished to speak, the person simply called out his/her name, and he answered that person when appropriate. Lecture notes were stored in a talking laptop, which he could check as needed to ensure he was covering the right material.
Ray still had a fair amount of struggles as he learned to adapt to this new challenge of teaching. Just a few days into this experience, he felt impressed to memorize the following day's lecture notes. The following day, the keyboard on his laptop quit working, resulting in Ray completing the entire lecture from memory.
In addition to some traditional tools used by the blind, Ray often found he needed to get creative to continue toward his educational goals. He found toy, magnetic Hebrew letters which helped him learn the shapes of the letters. A Braille Hebrew Bible allowed Ray to read letters directly with his fingers instead of using a cursor to go letter-by-letter and having a computer-generated voice attempt to pronounce complex transliterations.
Ray in his office using his BrailleNote. (Photo by Katelin Mitchell)

When he began more aggressively studying the Hebrew Bible, Ray was able to locate basic text files of the entire Hebrew Bible and other important texts. This, again, allowed Ray to use his computer to help him learn this ancient Biblical language. Once the Michigan Commission for the Blind learned of these files, and that Ray’s laptop was getting out-of-date, they helped him upgrade to a laptop with a voice as well as a Braille display.
On April 21, 2010, Ray defended his dissertation, “Theology of Blindness in Hebrew Scriptures.” “I remember counting down the days, hours, minutes, even seconds, until the moment when I could defend. Unfortunately, I had to add a few extra minutes onto the countdown because my external examiner got a flat tire driving to the campus.”
Now that he has completed his education, Ray says, “I would like the opportunity to teach or in some way serve the blind community. And if all else fails, I’ll go to massage therapy school. I gotta get a job now, right?”

-Written by Keri Suarez, media relations specialist, Office of Integrated Marketing & Communication

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