06.04.2022 17:00

Marco Casadei, 1st visually impaired graduate in Aerospace Engineering

An interview in which he talks about his university experience, to make it an increasingly ordinary reality

Marco Casadei was the first visually impaired student to graduate in Aerospace Engineering at the Politecnico di Milano, in September 2021.

He offered to tell us his story in an interview as a demonstration to all of us - especially other young people with similar disabilities - that no matter how hard it is, even visually impaired people can successfully complete a course at a technical-scientific university like the Politecnico.

It is an extraordinary story, of courageous choices and daily challenges, which we would like to be just the first of a long series. We tell it so that it can become an increasingly ordinary reality, a stimulus to believe accessible even what up to now does not seem so, or which, according to others, never will be.

It is also an opportunity to get to know our service Multi Chance Poli Team, a multidisciplinary group part of the Equal Opportunities Unit, dedicated on a daily basis to making it possible to participate fully in university, accompanying students with disabilities and Specific Learning Disorders - DSA throughout their careers, from orientation to post-graduate work placement.

Hi Marco. Thank you very much for agreeing to this interview. Would you like to introduce yourself, tell us something about yourself...?

First of all, let me make one thing clear: I decided to tell you my story because I am always very open about my disability, I have no problem talking about it. So, you can ask me anything you want to know.

As far as my educational background is concerned, I attended a Liceo Scientifico [science-based high school] in my hometown, Cesena.

After high school, I decided to enrol in Aerospace Engineering at the Politecnico di Milano. I describe it as my biggest challenge because, as you can see, it took me a little longer to get my degree than usual, there's no point denying it. Obviously for a student with a disability it is more difficult to stay on track, but I did it in the end.

What is the name for your visual impairment and how did it impact your academic career?

The disease is called bilateral congenital glaucoma; it affects the optic nerve causing a significant loss of vision, meaning that I am only partially sighted.

The condition isn't stable; over time, I have suffered detached retina, had corneal transplants, etc. I have had to have multiple surgeries over the years to try to stem the disease, even during my time at at university. I had to suspend my studies for a few months two or three times to undergo the necessary surgeries.

For those who do not have major sight problems, it can be difficult to understand what it actually means to be partially sighted or blind. How does your daily life unfold in a city like Milan?

When I go out, I travel around the city with a white cane. I don't read the signs, but once I know the routes, I am fairly independent. In a city like Milan, I manage to travel around on foot quite easily. Even though it is a lot bigger than Cesena, there are a lot more services and overall it is more accessible.

What about your life as a student?

Obviously, being partially sighted makes following lessons and studying at home more difficult. In class, I used a tool called video magnifier: it is like a camera that films the blackboard and transfers the magnified image to my laptop. At home, I have a desktop magnifier for text and exercise books.

How did you come to choose the Politecnico di Milano?

One of the reasons why I chose the Politecnico was definitely the inclusivity that I felt right away. During my last year in high school, I attended the Open Day and I was really impressed.

I was also struck by the amazing support offered by Multi Chance, the special service for people with disabilities. Right from the start, when I was not yet a student and I was still debating if I should enrol or not, this service supported me in every way possible, giving me advice and insights about tools and strategies for people with sight problems that I had never heard of. For example, in high school no one ever told me about remote video magnifiers, which proved to be very useful tools.

Did you continue to perceive this inclusivity when you became a full-fledged Poli student?

There were certainly a number of difficulties but I also received a lot of help, both from Multi Chance and from the individual professors, who were almost always extremely understanding and accommodating, including making their lessons as accessible as possible.

Sometimes it doesn't take much. Some highly mathematical subjects are hard to explain with audio alone. I remember a professor who never forgot to say whether he was reading a matrix by row or by column. It may seem like a small thing but it enabled me to follow the lesson without having to look at the board.

What about your fellow students?

I had a really positive experience; from the classmate who gave me his notes to another who read me something I missed on the board. And despite the fact that there was a race to grab the seats at the beginning of the lessons, I was always given a seat in the front row, which was essential for me to use the video magnifier.

What has life been like for you with a visual impairment?

I have never really had to accept it because I was born with it. Children are extremely malleable and adaptable, so since childhood, I developed strategies to navigate situations where my sight was a problem.

Obviously, there were times when I suffered a bit. I mean, the period when teenagers all start to think about getting a moped or a car, for example.

Or when it comes to sport. In middle school, I really loved football; I used to play every Saturday afternoon. At a certain point, however, I was told to stop because it was too dangerous due to the eye surgery I'd had: I couldn't risk being hit by the ball. Obviously, I found that really hard.

And at school?

There was one time that I felt bad, but it actually ended up making me stronger.  I got six minus in a maths test; I was used to getting higher marks so that was definitely low.

I remember that, at the parents' meeting, the professor told my parents that perhaps it would be better for me to change school, because the last three years of liceo scientifico could be too complicated, and "with my problems" I might not manage.

That was really hard. Yet, after that, I felt a renewed sense of pride. I thought: Nowadays there are tools to make education and culture accessible to everyone, therefore I have the right,but also the duty, to try to make the most of my talent.

Were you always interested in aerospace engineering?

In my last year in high school, I was already sure I wanted study engineering. I have always had a natural inclination towards mathematics and science and technology. However, there were two or three courses I liked and didn’t know which one to choose.

Even when I chose the university, I had to right, because I was told that, for me, engineering was absolutely impossible. When I insisted, they said: "OK, so how about computer engineering?" because it was the only course considered possible for someone with blindness. But I said no: I wanted to study what I really liked, and that was mechanical engineering. At a career guidance centre for the blind in Bologna, I was even told to take the telephone operator course, which was pretty much the compulsory path for most blind people. Or, if I really wanted to go to university, they recommended physiotherapy.

Why is there a tendency to direct visually impaired people towards certain areas and not others?

The problem for the blind in Italy is that, until about twenty years ago, there was just one career path: take a course to become a telephone operator and then hope to find a job in a public administration or in a bank. These are perfectly respectable jobs, but it shouldn't be the only option. Force everybody to follow that career path, even the people that despite their disability may be capable of doing something else, is extremely degrading and conceals an attitude of seeing the blind as welfare cases.

For me, this logic was totally unacceptable. In recent years, there have been increasing numbers of blind people attending university, but very few choose technical and scientific courses, and even fewer opt for engineering. According to my research, there are only a few dozen of us in Italy. Of these, 99% attend do computer engineering, which objectively is an excellent solution for a blind person; using screen reader systems, it is largely accessible.

But I preferred mechanical engineering, despite the fact that I knew it was less accessible for me. Based on what the various blind unions told me, I'm the first partially sighted student to graduate in aerospace engineering. And I found out that there is already another guy here at the Poli who is taking the aerospace engineering course.

So, you don't regret your decision?

Definitely not. It was a bold choice, but I have no regrets at all. I made major sacrifices, but I think it was worth it.

You told me you have had more operations during your time at university. How does glaucoma evolve?

In itself, glaucoma is not a degenerative disease, it can be kept relatively under control. The main problem is that this condition increases the pressure of the eyeball, and this pressure pushes the eyeball against the nerve at the back, damaging the endings, and against the cornea at the front, blurring the vision.

If you are able to manage the pressure with daily treatment or with surgery, the disease doesn't progress. Obviously, each time the pressure is high even just for a short period of time, new nerve endings are burned.

Glaucoma is not uncommon: it is one of the main causes of blindness in Italy. However, we are accustomed to seeing the onset among the elderly, for example as a side effect of diabetes or other more serious systemic diseases.

In this case, it progresses much faster. With congenital glaucoma, on the other hand, if caught in time and kept under control, you can reach even sixty with some residual eyesight.

The progress of the disease varies greatly from one case to another; there is no general rule.

You mentioned the Multi Chance service. Tell us about your experience, which I believe could be useful to many other aspiring Poli students...

As I said, the staff at Multi Chance supported me even before I decided to enrol, in career guidance, and then continued to support me throughout my academic career.

For example, at the beginning of each semester, I wrote to them to tell them which courses I was taking. They then contacted the professors directly to tell them I would be on the course and the type of support I needed. One important aspect is organising the exams because for written exams, I needed certain essential tools. Having a direct intermediary at the Politecnico is much more effective than contacting each individual professor separately.

And after graduation?

I post graduate service has also been a massive surprise. They are also offering support in getting my first job. After getting my Bachelor's degree, I decided not to take a Master’s degree and now they are helping me to get in touch with companies that have expressed interest in employing people falling into legally protected categories, to help me get a job.

What are your dreams for the future?

I am well aware that when you finish university, you graduate with a lot of theoretical notions, a base upon which to start building, a method for learning. On a practical level, there is still a lot to learn, especially after a Bachelor's degree. So, at the moment, I have a few ideas, but I'm open to suggestions and willing to discover new things.

One area of the aeronautical world that has always caught my interest - and on which I am now focusing my research - is safety, i.e. risk assessment and other related topics. I am also interested in the operations, so project management or production planning, supply chains.

I had also considered doing a first level Master's degree in air transport management here at the Politecnico, but for now, given the crisis in the sector, I would like to gain some work experience. I can always go back to university in a year or two if I want to.

What made you decide not to continue with a Master's degree?

There are various reasons, both theoretical and practical. Having reached the Bachelor’s milestone at 28 and a half, it would be highly unlikely that i would complete a Master's in just two or three years. So, I risked finishing university really late in life.

I believe that to grow, you have to challenge yourself in any way you can, as I have always done; especially when others want to impose limits on you. But then there comes a time when you only mature by accepting some of those limits. To do my degree, I came up against many people who told me it couldn't be done. And thanks to the experience I have now, and the experience of my friends who were already doing a Master's course, towards the end of my degree, I came to the conclusion that it was a bit out of my reach considering the time I have.

I am not speaking for all visually impaired people; I'm just talking about my personal situation. The Master's degree programme is much more project-based, much more practical, and you learn things that would be difficult to put into practice in an actual job situation, as a partially sighted person.

Let's talk about your free time, which apparently is pretty scarce. I've been told you have a passion for chess, which you also brought to the Poli...

After just two years at the Politecnico, I really felt that I wanted to give something back to this university that had always supported me.

One day, I ended up talking about chess with another student I'd met by chance, who also loved to play. So we thought, why don’t we try add this sport to the activities offered by the Poli, given that back then there was no organised activity. We therefore decided to create a student association and, in 2014, we launched Scacchi Polimi.

Since then, we have organised tournaments, courses and conferences. With our competitive team, we also took part in team competitions outside the university.

During the pandemic, there was a boom in on-line gaming and, in March 2020, we entered the world of online chess, organising student tournaments and participating in on-line competitions between universities, which has been very successful.

I have to say that the pool of chess enthusiasts among students, especially engineering students, is very large; and in fact, our association is still going really strong after seven and a half years.

Was it rewarding to be the founder of a student association?

Yes, it was one of my biggest satisfactions at the Politecnico.

Calls for cultural activities for students are a great opportunity. It is exciting to build something from scratch and see it grow in our hands thanks to our efforts and an adequate financial support from the university. 

When did you develop your passion for chess?

I have played chess since I was a child, in primary school. In middle school, I started to take part into competitive tournaments. When I started university, chess was one of the interests that I was willing to sacrifice to focus on my studies. Then, also thanks to Scacchi Polimi, I managed to reconcile chess and study and I started to play again in the championships for the blind, in which I have been national champion for several years.

Chess has also enabled me to enjoy enriching experiences abroad, such as the Paralympics in India in 2012, in North Macedonia in 2017 and in Greece in 2021.

Do you think chess is an inclusive sport?

Yes, very. The beauty of chess is that there is no chess on the one hand and chess for the blind on the other. Chess is chess and, at most, there are minor changes made to the material to render it more accessible. It helps us to get away from the self-marginalization of “adapted” sports.

However, it does make sense to have special tournaments for blind people because in terms of ability, we are at the same level, but the real difference is in the training, because it's hard to find accessible educational material and it takes us longer to read it.

You've also played baseball in the past. How would you describe your experience?

I played for three years in the Lampi Milano baseball team for blind (BXC), though I have too much going on now and I've had to stop for now.

In fact, this is a sport that has been adapted for the blind. It is all based on sound feedback, as the ball has bells on it to help localize it on the pitch. Each base also has its own sound feedback.

In my opinion, it is one of the few adapted sports where the dynamics and meaning of the original game are transposed into the game adapted for the blind. However, it remains an adapted game and therefore there will never be a match between a blind team and a sighted team.

It is also one of the few sports for the blind that makes you feel truly free, given that you are not "tied" to a guide and you move according to the sounds.

How do you spend the rest of your free time?

I really enjoy reading audio books. For technical university books and chess manuals, it is more practical to use a magnifier, but as far as fiction and pleasure reading is concerned, the audio book is the best by far.

When I was in school, you had to buy or borrow CD-ROMs for every single book. The problem back then was that they were very few, and although this service was absolutely commendable, the quality of the product was not great because it was essentially based on the work of volunteers.

In the last three or four years, audio books have made a come-back and there has been a boom in new services set up by large commercial publishers. Thanks to these new products and a very wide range of available books, I have rediscovered the pleasure of reading. With just a pair of headphones you can read a book anywhere and at any time of the day.

During our chat, I really felt your desire to share your story...

Yes, that’s exactly what I have been trying to do in the past few months. I hope that my experience and my journey will not remain something for the few, an exception. I would like to be the living proof that you can do it.

To any visually impaired student who is currently in high school and loves technology and science, I would say that, with the right tools, the right awareness and the right help, this career is possible, it is very rewarding and you just have to believe.

I am certainly not saying that all blind people should study engineering: that would be totally wrong. However, for those who have an inclination in this direction and have developed an interest over the years, don't exclude it a priori as an academic career. Apart from university, there are many other equally valid paths you can take.

But no one should think that they have a predestined, unavoidable career, such as working as a telephone operator. There are many possible paths, among which engineering, if you want to do engineering. It will be very hard; there will be times when you will regret your choice; there will be times when you will fear not making it to the end; but with determination, you can succeed.

With this I do not want to end up in the banal rhetoric of the "disabled superhero" who with willpower faces and overcomes any limit. Insurmountable obstacles exist for everyone, it is good to say this clearly. The important thing, however, is not to be frightened by their impending presence, with the risk of not seeking solutions even when in reality they might exist for us too.

Your latest dream?

I would like to create a group, or even an association, gathering all blind engineers or graduates in technical subjects in Italy.

I've been thinking about it for a while; I think it is very important in order to hear other people's stories, to network, to share experiences and to reveal our world to "the other side”, i.e. the educators, teachers and experts who offer guidance to the families of young blind people, informing them about all the things of which we are capable.

To make people understand that the world is mature enough to allow people with sensory disabilities to play an active role in society.