The Gift of Low Vision and Higher Education

Yokasta Urena is a light skin Latina wearing a large blue hat and blue jean jacket sitting in front of an old wagon with some colorful fall flowers!

Yokasta Urena, MS.Ed., Sp.Ed., TVI

Doctoral Candidate at New England College

Email:  Yokasta.urena1@gmail.com

Instagram: beyond20201

The educational journey for people with low vision and blindness can be challenging. It is precisely those challenges that empower us. They build our character and can empower us to create lasting change in the lives of others.

“If we wish to know about a man, we ask ‘what is his story–his real, inmost story?’–for each of us is a biography, a story. Each of us is a singular narrative, which is constructed, continually, unconsciously, by, through, and in us–through our perceptions, our feelings, our thoughts, our actions; and, not least, our discourse, our spoken narrations. Biologically, physiologically, we are not so different from each other; historically, as narratives–we are each of us unique.” – Oliver Sacks: The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat and Other Clinical Tales

Vision is Just One Aspect of Me

I love the above quote from this incredibly interesting British neurologist! It captures how I view myself and my life, a human being just like anyone else with my own personal story that no one else embodies but me.

To give you just a snippet of my background, I am a 43-year-old Latina born in Queens, New York. My son, Liam (a Sophomore in College), and I both have low vision due to Leber Congenital Amaurosis (LCA). I am nearsighted, color blind, and have difficulty with different degrees of light. Basically, I shouldn’t drive you anywhere until they test out those self-driving cars… then, we will be in business!  

I am primarily a print reader and use e-formats and apps to access print and audiobooks. I use reverse contrast when looking at a screen (black background with white letters) as well as VoiceOver to access longer texts. I use a long white cane when I feel my vision is not going to help me avoid those pesky, ridiculously thin dog leashes! I also use it when traveling in busy areas. I am a firm believer that as an individual with low vision, I must remain honest with myself regarding the level of accommodation I need to be successful. It is my decision alone to make. After all, I am an independent and competent thinker. If my vision should change, I need to change with it.

Education

Believe me when I say, my educational journey has been a long and bumpy one! There were countless moments of feeling inadequate and powerless. But, as a child, I loved learning and always knew that the world was an interesting place I wanted to explore.

I attended high school and my first year of college in the Dominican Republic. When my family and I returned to New York, my credits were not accepted. I had to get a GED and attend a community college. I dreamed of attending an Ivy League University! Although I was incredibly disappointed, I don’t believe in having a “Plan B.” And so, I completed my associate degree and set out to build myself up no matter the obstacles set before me. Throughout my journey, I have found great mentors who taught me how to gain confidence in myself by learning new skills.

After over 20 years in the field of Education, I realize that there is no one way to achieve one’s goal. Today, I hold a master’s degree in education and several certifications including Teacher for the Blind and Visually Impaired and Early Childhood General/Special Education. I am currently a second-year doctoral candidate at New England College in their Educational Leadership Program.

Same, Same, Different

In many ways, I am just like any other adult who is enrolled in higher education. I want to gain more knowledge, advance in my profession, and help others by having a seat in the discussion-making process. That’s why I am pursuing this degree; the field of low vision and blindness needs passionate people who will ensure we have the same opportunities to enjoy life. But change does not happen without action, and action cannot take place without someone to make it happen!

In other ways, I am completely different from my peers: Having low vision sets me apart. Many teachers go their entire career without having a student who is blind or low vision. As a result, they simply lack training on how to make sure our learning needs are met. Even at the highest level of professional development, I still need to advocate for myself—from getting accessible books to participating in accessible activities… and, yes! I am thinking of the “Let’s build rapport (Ice-breaker activity) by throwing the ball at one another!” Still trying to win that game!

The Gift

Having low vision is all I know. It is an essential part of who I’ve become. There were difficult times to be sure. Now, however, I see the power of knowing—knowing what students with special needs require in order to learn. Knowing how I must approach Administration and foster a positive relationship so that I can get my students what they need. Knowing that teachers may not understand how blindness and low vision impact learning. And finally, knowing that I do! I have the life experience, educational background, and passion to educate others and help to change the system.

No matter the obstacle, I view my life as a beautiful journey of discovery. I firmly believe in aligning myself with good mentors that will inspire and push me to be my best self. I have no “Plan B!” A successful, happy life is the gift low vision has given me.


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