Blind Siblings Blazing a Trail at Southwestern
Junior Jessica Espinoza jokes that Southwestern’s blind population doubled when her brother, Michael, arrived as a first-year student this fall.
The Espinoza siblings have been blind from birth. They have a rare condition called Leber’s congenital amaurosis, in which the optic nerve that serves as a passageway between the eye and brain has been twisted, thus restricting messages from eye to brain.
As the first blind students on campus in nearly 40 years, the Espinozas have faced some unavoidable challenges and overcome unique obstacles in order to make the most of their college experience.
Most students at Southwestern must be prolific on the Internet in order to function socially and academically. The Espinozas manage to keep up with their classmates by using a BrailleNote, a specialized computer that converts computer text into braille. These computers are about the size of a lunchbox and can be strapped around the neck and shoulder. They provide access to e-mail, most Web sites, Facebook and almost anything on the Internet besides images and PDF files.
The Espinozas are vivacious and resolute to succeed, and have found the faculty and staff at Southwestern equally determined to help them achieve their goals.
When Jessica first arrived at Southwestern two years ago, there were few accommodations for visually impaired students. It was especially difficult to locate accessible reading material. The process of procuring textbooks in a form she could use was so difficult and unpredictable that she sought an alternate way to complete homework.
Through the staff at the library, she learned about a program called Service to Sight that is sponsored by Delta Gamma, a national women’s fraternity. She leaves her textbooks at the library, volunteers take them home and read them onto tape recorders, and then return them to the library. “I learn all my course material this way,” she said.
Jessica said faculty members also have been very helpful and accommodating by providing alternative options for assignments that would not be possible for blind students. For example, one of her music classes required sight-singing, in which students look at sheet music and sing the musical notes. Because this wasn’t possible for Jessica, her professor provided different assignments for her that were equally difficult but did not require sight.
Michael had a similar experience in his First-Year Seminar about chocolate around the world. The class was asked to create an art project relating to chocolate. Instead of producing a drawing or other visual art, Michael was allowed to create a musical recording.
“My project was a song built around a single chord played on the guitar whose notes were arpeggiated to accent their subtle sound, while I sang a vocal melody over the chord,” Michael said. “Thus, it is like chocolate: a simple basis, with additives (in this case: the vocals), to give it a more palatable texture.”
For Michael, who plays seven instruments, this task was much more manageable.
“Making things accommodating does not mean getting off easy,” both siblings said. “It’s just shifting a few things to make the education accessible. The faculty has certainly not lowered the goal. They have just made an alternate, more feasible path.”
Although there will be some similarities in their experiences in college, ultimately the siblings assume that their paths will be very different but equally challenging.
“I’ve paved a dirt road for future blind students,” Jessica said. “I’ve made some progress for my brother, but it’s still rough and there’s a lot left for him to blaze for himself. Learning what to ask for is the first step. He has his own interests and will have to discover his own questions. I can give him advice, but in the end he’s the only one who will be paving his own road.”
The challenges as blind students are some of the only things these siblings share in common. From Jessica’s interest in opera and Michael’s interest in heavy metal, they openly express their individuality and distinct focuses.
“The beauty of Southwestern is that even if people are in the same family, they are treated as individual, distinct people,” Jessica said. “For example, the openness of religion on campus allows us to explore and practice our very different beliefs.”
Jessica is interested in the Episcopal tradition while Michael practices Heathen religious beliefs, which he discovered his sophomore year of high school by reading books such as Tolkin’s The Lord of the Rings and then learned more about through research and reading of other books, such as a scholarly text known as The Norse Myths by Kevin Crossley-Roland, and the Poetic and Prose Eddas.
Michael said he chose to come to Southwestern because he learned his way around campus visiting his sister. While the student-to-faculty ratio and toleration of religion were also influential reasons to come to Southwestern, knowing the layout saved Michael a lot of time when he first arrived. While neither student relies on human or animal service to move around campus, they do use the aid of walking sticks, which can alert the siblings to unpredictable objects and other obstacles on the path. They both travel around campus easily.
Once, Michael rode a Pirate Bike from his dorm to the McCombs Campus Center. “It was strikingly successful and pretty funny,” he said.
Michael intends to major in psychology, is interested in joining martial arts classes and hopes to create a fellowship for students on campus with Heathen beliefs. Since being at Southwestern, he has invited the campus to participate in ceremonies that draw from the beliefs of the Norse, Celtic and German mythologies.
“Heathens are a very small, religious minority who are hesitant to speak out in general,” he said. “I would like to bring a place to get them out in the open, a place to be together in a group and conduct ceremonies.”
Jessica is a theatre major and would like to attend an Episcopal seminary after graduation. She hopes to combine the theatrical arts and Christian religious tradition in order to enrich and diversify the church. She also hopes to produce plays that would be conducted as a therapeutic device for victims of oppression. She became interested in combining theatre and religion after attending a workshop on Theatre of the Oppressed, in which plays are produced to address social issues such as abuse and discrimination. She wants to create therapy programs through drama to help victims of abuse get back on their feet.
Jessica is involved with numerous organizations on campus, including Theater for Social Justice, the SU Peace Alliance, SU Feminist Voices, and Canterbury, a student-run Episcopalian organization.
-Mikaela Santini ‘10