Visually impaired ASU grad is leading research in an undeveloped field

8 minutes

She didn’t know it then, but when Bhoomika Bhagchandani’s parents began searching for a husband for her in India, this experience became her first — and most important — source for a thesis she would pen in her master’s in communication studies program at ASU's New College of Interdisciplinary Arts and  Sciences.

Developed out of curiosity when families and potential partners would back out after learning she had a visual disability, Bhagchandani’s research looked at the impact of a spouse’s acquired vision disability post-marriage on the relationship closeness of couples. She found that redistributing household responsibilities is one of the most essential parts of adjusting to the vision loss for these intimate relationships. And that, ultimately, leads to closer couples.

“Mainly what came out from my own study is the reassigning of household roles,” Bhagchandani said. “Especially if a couple has small children. Driving them to school and back or participating in their sports activities or recreation activities can be a challenge. Reassigning cooking and cleaning duties — everything around that changed for most couples,” she said. “An interesting find in my study was that most of the couples’ closeness actually went up. Most of them pointed to how open and genuine communication over the years helped them figure out most of their problems. I was expecting to see different findings because it’s a huge change, but most of the couples were able to maintain their relationship closeness and in some cases improve it.”

ASU grad Bhoomika Bhagchandani poses for a headshot

ASU grad Bhoomika Bhagchandani is researching how visual impairment affects couples.

In December 2020, Bhagchandani completed her doctorate in human communication from ASU’s Hugh Downs School of Human Communication, presenting her dissertation on air travel experiences for people with visual disabilities. Like her master’s thesis, Bhagchandani was inspired to research this topic from a personal perspective. In 2011, Bhagchandani embarked on her first independent journey traveling internationally, where she discovered the myriad difficulties visually impaired individuals experience when traveling in an airport. 

“At that time in India, if you requested assistance during air travel, it was assumed that you will need wheelchair assistance, even if you can walk,” Bhagchandani said. “That’s the only form of assistance they offered. Here, I not only lost the ability to see but my ability to walk as well.”

Bhagchandani’s interaction with the first assistant didn’t go well. He silently wheeled her throughout the airport without any conversational or visual aid in a place and situation that was completely foreign to her. When a more conversational assistant replaced the silent one, Bhagchandani finally was able to embrace her travel experience. 

“I suddenly felt a burst of enthusiasm,” Bhagchandani said. “I felt as if I was being transformed from a piece of furniture to a human being who can actually travel. That was when I realized the value of communication in receiving assistance for someone who is visually impaired. You don’t have access to any visual cues when you’re being assisted, so you rely on talking and verbal descriptions.”

Later, at her connection flight, Bhagchandani wasn’t treated well at the security check. While she wanted to speak up, she ultimately decided to remain silent thinking it may negatively affect her travel goals. It was then that she decided she wanted to explore this experience one day in her studies.

“I could see how power dynamics came into play firsthand,” Bhagchandani said. “For me, as someone with a disability, I saw how someone who is assisting me in a time-sensitive context like air travel could actually have more power over me. I could have confronted the security person, but I was unsure how it would have affected my rest of the travel, given my dependence on them. I got really interested in the intersections of communication, disability assistance and power differences. I wanted to really explore this at some point in my future.” 

Bhagchandani’s dissertation identifies several staff training and accessibility issues that vision-imparied individuals commonly experience in their air travel. Her study also offers recommendations on pressing issues concerning policies and regulations that can inform airline executives and federal legislators in facilitating a more equitable and enjoyable air travel experience for people with vision disabilities.

Bhagchandani is in the process of submitting her doctoral dissertation, “Examining the Air Travel Experiences of Individuals with Vision Disabilities Using a Co-Cultural Theoretical Lens,” to communication and air travel journals.

As Bhagchandani prepared to graduate, she reflected on her experience at ASU and what it means to her to be a Sun Devil. 

Question: What was your “aha” moment when you realized you wanted to study the field you majored in?

Answer: I was the only blind person in my immediate and extended family as well as in my neighborhood. When people in my community learned about the degenerative nature of my eye condition, I could feel a sense of discomfort from them toward me. They either over sympathized or remained eerily silent when I was around. Oftentimes they would assist me when I did not need it. 

Given that I was newly diagnosed at the time, and I did not have another blind person to share and learn from their experiences in the small town that I lived in, I felt very awkward in social situations initially. 

Later, when I moved to a bigger city for a job in a nonprofit that worked for the empowerment of people with vision disabilities, I made a lot of acquaintances and friends in the blind community. I found that they also often experienced similar communication awkwardness in their interactions with people without disabilities. It is then that I got very interested in this topic of communication nuances between people with and without disabilities. In India, there are hardly any programs offered in this area. That’s when I decided I should apply to universities in the United States. 

Q: What’s something you learned while at ASU — in the classroom or otherwise — that surprised you or changed your perspective?

A: I really like the kind of education system we have at ASU. You have the freedom to pursue your interests. It’s very interdisciplinary in nature. Even though I didn't have any other person in my cohort or faculty that directly studied disability issues, I was amazed to see the kind of support and resources that I could get from so many people in the ASU community to achieve my academic goals.

Q: Why did you choose ASU?

A: The master’s program that I applied to at ASU offered a communication studies program with a focus on advocacy and social justice issues. I was thrilled when I learned about the specifics of this program and instantly wanted to study here. Also, I had my sister in Tempe. She moved from India three years before I did. It obviously felt close to home, so ASU was my first choice from that perspective. I actually lived with her the first year to orient myself to campus and figured out the transportation. I took that first year to get used to the place. 

Q: Which professor taught you the most important lesson while at ASU?

A: It was through a class project for a research methods course that I took with my advisor. We were supposed to choose a topic and demonstrate how we would apply different research methods to that topic. I remember when I was completing this class project, I was very apprehensive if I would do a good job even though I was really interested in the topic. My advisor was really impressed with how I was able to apply the different research approaches that I learned in his course. It was something that wasn’t really undertaken by students in the past in terms of the disability area, so he also encouraged me to take it further and see if I could make it into a thesis. I learned that it is important to follow through; if you are really passionate about something else everything would just remain in your head forever.

Q: What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to those still in school?

A: If you're passionate about something, follow through, even if it's something novel or hasn’t been taken up by someone in the past. Be confident and be able to express what you want to do. Have a good working relationship with your professors and advisors. It really helps if you can do the groundwork and explain to the advisors why you want to do what you want to do. Be prepared with all the resources that you have. There's nothing that could stop you if you believe in yourself. 

Q: What was your favorite spot on campus, whether for studying, meeting friends or just thinking about life? 

A: I would only go to the West campus when I was in my master’s program. I would come to the Tempe campus to catch the shuttle, but that was about it. Sometimes I would go to Hayden Library. They have a small disability accommodation center there. It’s a quiet place to study. Of course Student Accessibility and Inclusive Learning Services at the Tempe campus was almost like a second home. I would go there if I needed something or to just hang out. 

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: I finished my PhD just last semester. I’m still gathering my thoughts, but I want to be in a role that allows me to continue to use my research and advocacy skills in bringing awareness about the needs and more importantly the abilities of individuals with disabilities. A role that basically helps in promoting equal opportunities and equal access for those with disabilities. Right now I live in Boulder County, Colorado, and I would prefer to stay here because I have family here.

Julian Klein