When I graduated from high school back in 2008, I was the only student at this particular school with total blindness and autism. Mind you, I lived near a desert, and in an area like Lancaster, California, it can seem kinda lonely.
Luckily, about a year after graduation, I finally moved back to Los Angeles with my family. I’d signed up with the California Department of Rehabilitation and had a counselor named Carlos Amaral who’s now retired. When we met, he told me, “Either move out on your own, or go live with another friend or family member.” So that’s what I did, and the living situation worked out perfectly. In fact, the room I now occupy was where both my aunt and mom slept when they were kids!
Finding the right fit on the road to college
And so, the journey began in February of 2010. Initially, I was supposed to have gone to Los Angeles City College (LACC), but that didn’t work out. The day I went to take a placement test, we waited and waited, but nobody showed up. And the campus was jam-packed with students. It wasn’t the right fit for me.
Once we got home, my mom and aunt sat down and had a sister-to-sister talk. We decided it was best for me to go to East Los Angeles College (ELAC). And sure enough, it was a win-win situation for everybody! Both my mom and aunt went there, and they knew the ins and outs of the campus.
I won’t go into detail about every single class I took, but I will say this: the only class I didn’t shoot for was math. No, it’s not for lack of trying or not enough drive to learn and get the work done. Sure, I started out just fine with the basics, adding through dividing. But when it came time for pre-algebra, algebra and geometry, I immediately withdrew. Advanced math is very visual, and none of the professors had any prior experience with a blind student. In fact, this uphill battle has been going on for me ever since middle school (around 21 or 22 years ago).
Luckily, I did well in everything else, and got mostly As and Bs in my classes. I also appeared on the Dean’s List of students with honors twice! Once in 2012, and again three years later.
The access technology and accommodations that helped me succeed
Now, you’re probably wondering what types of equipment I utilized to be successful in college.
First and foremost, 100% of the work I completed was done on the computer. I owe it all to JAWS (Job Access with Speech), a screen reader that tells you what’s on a home computer or laptop.
I often have to tell sighted family, friends or strangers not to panic. This is especially true if they’re older than I am. In 1975, a movie called Jaws swept the nation by storm. And to this day, if you mention Jaws, most folks would be shocked and horrified by the sight of a deadly shark. But fear not, my friends, this particular JAWS is very different from the shark!
I also used a printer to print out any drafts or completed assignments, depending on the professor’s likes or dislikes. Some preferred printed copies over digital documents attached in emails. Others wanted it the other way around, especially if they had a busy schedule.
As far as transportation is concerned, I often had to go with an assistant. This is because I’m what doctors and nurses call “medically fragile.” In addition to blindness and autism, I was born without certain hormones. A certain kind that the body needs to fight illness or injuries. This means, if I get seriously hurt, injured, or develop a sudden acute illness, I have to be put on special medicines or injections. For a few years, the Northeastern Los Angeles Regional Center paid an assistant to drive me to and from the campus as well as help me with certain things in the classroom. But by 2012, my uncle Ron Ochoa decided to fill that role.
Matthew Saracho: Class of 2020
Overall, I enjoyed the challenges that came my way during this journey. I’d like to go over them in more detail, but I don’t want to be another “free-wheelin’ Bob Dylan,” if you know what I mean. So for now, I guess I’ll save ’em for another time.
However, I’ll end with the last major milestone of this journey. I graduated as cum laude, or as a student with honors, in 2020! Being that COVID was a serious health threat, there were still no graduations or large gatherings permitted. However, I did dress up in cap and gown, and the ceremony was live on YouTube.
Once I get a job somewhere or transfer to a university, I’ll keep every one of you in the know. I’m truly proud of my disability and I wouldn’t trade it for a pot of gold!
About the author
Matthew Saracho is 34 years young and lives in Northeast Los Angeles, California. He was born totally blind with Optic Nerve Hypoplasia (ONH), a rare form of blindness. He was also diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, a form of Autism Spectrum Disorder.
He attended East Los Angeles College for 10 years, and graduated in June of 2020.
To learn more, follow him on YouTube and read his previous #MyBlindStory post, An open door to unlimited possibilities: America’s only theater troupe with all blind actors.