Andrews Seminary Grad Is
First Blind Doctoral Recipient
Will work for Christian Record Services while seeking teaching position
BY KERI SUAREZ, Andrews University
Ray McAllister of Berrien Springs, Michigan, has become the first completely blind student to graduate with a Ph.D. 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, McAllister 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.
McAllister 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 Ph.D. in Religion.
In the spring of 2000 McAllister decided to pursue a doctorate. Ten years later, on August 1, 2010, McAllister walked across the stage to receive his diploma; making history for himself, Andrews University, and for the blind community.
SCHOLAR AT WORK: Blind student Ray McAllister studies for his doctoral degree, which he just received from the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary at Andrews University. He utilized a number of tools, including BrailleNote and a computer with voice capabilities, to help him in his studies. [Andrews University photos]
Along the way McAllister 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, “McAllister is the first blind person to complete a Ph.D. in Religion (the highest academic degree the 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.”
McAllister 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 McAllister’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.
McAllister 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 read and recorded the commentaries, and McAllister took notes from the recordings for his studies.
During his years while studying in the Master of Divinity program, McAllister met Sally Ann Trottier, who later became his wife and helper. Over the remainder of his studies, McAllister 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, McAllister taught Old Testament Survey, a four-week summer intensive. It was the first class he ever taught. Since he could not see raised hands for questions, McAllister led discussions using skills he’d learned as an amateur radio operator. When someone wished to speak, the person simply called out their 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.
McAllister 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 McAllister completing the entire lecture from memory.
GRADUATE CONGRATULATED: On August 1, McAllister was formally awarded a Ph.D. in Religion from the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary. Here he is congratulated by Andrews University President Niels-Erik Andreasen.
In addition to some traditional tools used by the blind, McAllister 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 McAllister 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.
When he began more aggressively studying the Hebrew Bible, McAllister was able to locate basic text files of the entire Hebrew Bible and other important texts. This, again, allowed McAllister 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 McAllister’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, McAllister 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,” he said.
Now that he has completed his education, McAllister will work with Christian Record Services as a Sabbath speaker in churches near Berrien Springs, as well as serving as a part-time representative for the ministry, said Larry Pitcher, president of the organization. The graduate hopes to obtain a teaching position in the future.
-- with additional reporting by Adventist Review staff.