Blind World Magazine

Blind ambitions.

January 23, 2006.

Ahshira Santos' life changed one morning, eight years ago, when, on her way to class, she bent down to tie her shoes.

"When I got up, everything was black, and I said, 'Oh my God, what's going on?'" What was going on was that one of Santos' retinas had detached, and even repeated surgeries could not completely save her vision, which was already weakening because of a related diabetic condition.

Santos, now 27, is legally blind, but like a growing number of visually impaired people, she is not letting her disability keep her from setting her sights high.

"I want to finish my B.A. and get my master's in international business," Santos said. After recently completing her two-year degree at Los Angeles City College, Santos applied to USC, where she is now waiting for word on her acceptance for the 2006 fall term.

"I'm in love with everything about USC. The football team, the campus, the school colors - everything," she said. "USC is where I want to be."

Santos, who would be the first person in her family to graduate from a four-year college, is aware of the extra effort needed to succeed at USC.

Carmen Apelgren, a community relations coordinator for the Braille Institute who is visually impaired herself, said research shows that a blind person must work four times as hard as a sighted person to get to the same place in the workforce. Yet, when visually impaired people graduate, they really know their stuff, she added. Apelgren, a co-worker of Santos' at the Braille Institute, said Santos is creative and intelligent and will no doubt succeed at the university level.

Santos thanks the Braille Institute in Los Angeles for the special training they provided her for adjusting to a visually impaired way of life and also for their inspiration.

"Just because you're visually impaired doesn't mean you can't do almost anything a sighted (seeing) person can do," said Adama Dyoniziak, regional director of the Braille Institute.

One of the key philosophies of Braille is to empower visually impaired people to get out in the world and live full, active and productive lives, Dyoniziak said.

"The sky really is the limit for the visually impaired," Apelgren said.

She said there are visually impaired lawyers, teachers, psychologists and physicists.

"There are even blind computer geeks, and a computer geek - blind or not - is still a computer geek," she said.

What are the challenges for a visually impaired student? For starters, Santos said looking at the chalkboard is tough.

Santos manages, however, by always sitting up front and using a monocular (a magnification device for one eye). Santos also said it helps to ask the teacher to speak loudly when he or she writes something on the board.

To help read textbooks or handouts, Santos has two devices. The first is a Closed Circuit TV, a machine where written material is placed underneath an optical apparatus that projects the text onto a monitor.

Additional controls allow the user to manipulate text size and clarity.

And with special software, Santos can scan virtually any text into a computer and literally have the computer read it out loud to her.

Santos said she especially likes that she can change the voice to either male or female.

Santos said that exam-taking can usually be arranged through the Office of Special Services, a department on most college and university campuses.

USC's Disability Services and Programs offers assistance for many students with disabilities.

For the visually impaired student, these services include "books in alternative format (either digital format, on tape or in Braille), extended time on exams, note-takers, CCTV, large print, readers, scribes and screen readers," said Katherine Hammons, interpreter coordinator for DSP.

Hammons said there are currently 12 visually impaired students registered with DSP, "but I am quite sure there are other students out there who don't use our services."

With moist eyes, Santos said that her hero and role model is her mother.

"She's been there for me through the good and the bad," she said. The good was when Santos recently graduated from Los Angeles City College with her two-year degree. The bad was last July, when because of diabetic complications, Santos was rushed to the hospital and remained in intensive care for a week, with her mother by her side.

"She's everything to me," Santos said. "When I'm sad, I sometimes know that she's sad, but she will never show it to me. I want to be strong like her."

What sometimes makes Santos sad is that she cannot go out at night when it is dark to visit friends or go to restaurants. But, keeping a good sense of humor is important to maintaining a cheery disposition, she said.

"Sometimes my mother will make a silly mistake, and I'll joke and say, 'Hello, Mom, I'm the blind one here - not you.'" Santos also said her friends even joke that there is a place in San Diego called "Chula Vista" (beautiful view) that Santos can never visit because she doesn't have beautiful vision. Santos said the banter is all in fun, and she does not feel hurt or insulted about it.

Santos said when her doctor told her she was going blind, she cried and became depressed, but then she finally told herself that this was not the end of the world, and she could continue on.

And whenever she gets down, Santo said she always cheers herself up by saying tomorrow is another day.

"You can do it. You can achieve more. You can set your sights even higher," she said.

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