How a teacher regained his independence after losing his sight

In June 1986 I was an average, somewhat nerdy and mostly quiet teenager who lived on a ranch in South Texas. It was the summer between my freshman and sophomore years at San Diego High School and I was looking ahead to my burgeoning independence. 

I began driving to a nearby town, where I made new friends. Our home telephone rang more often, and the callers asked for me. For someone like me, this was cool. It could only get better, and I was looking forward to the future.

And then July came, my whole world turned upside down, and my life forever changed.

After losing most of his sight in high school, Roel Garcia graduated from college, became a journalist, and then a teacher.

Over the course of a few weeks, my vision dramatically changed. Routine things became impossible. I was unable to see dashboard dials in the truck; I lost the ability to read books; and then I was unable to make eye contact with people. And I lost the ability to drive.

In a short span of time, a hazy reddish-green cloudy mass covered the central portion of my visual field. I was able to only see peripherally. 

My independence was lost. 

Suddenly, isolation

Panic gripped me and my family. After a slew of visits to eye specialists, there was no definitive answer as to what it was or what caused this sudden onset of vision loss. More than five years passed before a specialist attributed my eye condition to optic neuropathy, but no cause has ever been given.

At an emotional loss, I remained at the ranch, isolated, not seeing the point of going anywhere since I was able to see little more than snippets. During sophomore year of high school, I was categorized as homebound and a teacher came out to the ranch several days a week for a few hours. My grades suffered and my top 10 ranking plummeted.

The self-imposed isolation brought on depression. For months, I saw no one other than my family and the homebound teacher. My bedroom became my haven. 

With encouragement from family, I reluctantly resumed attending school regularly, but it was so uncomfortable for me. I stood out. I was the “blind” kid.”

Making progress

Gradually, my vision improved by my senior year and I was able to wear glasses. A small gap in that cloudy mass opened up, allowing me to regain some of my central vision in my right eye.

In spite of this, I was never able to drive a car again. And most of my central vision never returned.

I managed to graduate high school with some effort, then moved on to college at Texas A&M University-Kingsville, about 40 miles from my house. I was unprepared for college and had no direction. I was lost once more. But I had to attend college, as there was no alternative.

It took me a few years and some missteps before I settled into English. Eventually, I received my Bachelor of Arts in English and history. A few years later I earned my Master of Arts degree in English.

All set, right? Wrong. I struggled after graduating, with no idea what came next with this master's degree. I fell back on journalism, since I wrote for the college newspaper.

Although his vision loss once isolated him, Roel Garcia learned to adapt and challenge himself.

Gaining confidence

I ended up working at a local newspaper in Alice, Texas. It was a great experience. The job taught me to write more effectively. I also met many people and became more extroverted. And my vision disability seemed not to affect me. I used a mini tape recorder to record interviews, and I hitched rides with other reporters to get to my sources. It was a solid start.

That newspaper job did so much for my self-esteem that when I moved to Holland in late 2003, I was ready for the challenge at a bigger newspaper market. I applied at The Holland Sentinel and got the job as night reporter.

The position challenged me because I attended to breaking news at night. That meant going to fires, car crashes, drownings on Lake Michigan. I once even attended ice-rescue training in February at Holland State Park. I never let my vision disability stop me from doing my job, even though it was difficult at times.

Another direction

After six years, it was time for change and to utilize my master’s degree. In 2009 I transitioned to Grand Rapids Community College, where I became an adjunct English instructor.

It was during this time and with this position at GRCC when I fully embraced my disability. I underwent mobility training and started using a cane in 2013. JAWS reading software became part of my daily life to assist in reading (listening) to students’ assignments. And I began taking MAX bus service to the various GRCC Lakeshore Campus locations. In 2023, I won the Excellence in Education award for adjuncts at GRCC.

Another teaching opportunity afforded itself in early 2022. I took on a second job as an instructor in English as a second language for Zeeland Adult Education in the Holland community. It is an enriching job teaching immigrants to speak English. I benefit from the job because I get to experience so many different cultures.

I think back to the statement I made earlier, where I said I lost my independence. Did I really? While I lost a great deal of my vision, I gained so much in life. I gained new perspectives. I use skills I had no idea existed in me, and I persevered despite my vision disability. 

I survived and I am independent. 

This article is a part of the multi-year series Disability Inclusion, exploring the state of West Michigan’s growing disability community. The series is made possible through a partnership with Centers for Independent Living organizations across West Michigan.
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