In Focus, episode 8: Thriving without sight in Arizona

Elijah Harris, 19, became blind when he was three years old. He now attends Pima Community College. (Photo by Dannika Borges/Cronkite News)

Hiris Vela, 20, grew up legally blind. She is studying to be a special education teacher. (Photo by Dannika Borges/Cronkite News)

Many people lose sight as they grow older, but there are more than 15,000 visually impaired Arizonans between the ages of 18 and 34. In this episode, we hear the stories of two of them. Hiris Vela, 20, and Elijah Harris, 19, are both community college students who grew up legally blind in Arizona. They share what it was like to try to get by in high school and how they learned to thrive without sight. And we wrap up the In Focus season with a roundtable of producers, who share their behind-the-scenes insights from their reporting across the state.

The In Focus theme song is called “Wounds (Remix)” by Ketsa, used under Creative Commons.

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Hiris Vela, 20, has optic nerve hypoplasia and astigmatism. Her optic nerve is underdeveloped and the little sight she has is blurry due to the astigmatism.

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Vela did not have an easy time growing up. She didn’t learn braille until high school, so she had to rely on the little amount of vision she had to read books in 40-size print, and she struggled to find her way.

“There was always me, like missing steps or you know it’s just me. ‘Hiris just falls all the time,'” she said. “But you know, it’s just because I couldn’t see the steps there.”

Elijah Harris, 19, had similar problems growing up. He developed glaucoma after playing in a dust storm when he was three.

“They threw me into a special education class because I was blind,” Harris said. “They thought that I wasn’t able to read anything that they provided just because I couldn’t read it because of the sizing style.”

These are not uncommon experiences for people who grow up with visual impairment. Members of the blind community in Arizona have few resources available to them. There are seven total resource facilities in the state — the majority of which are located in downtown Phoenix. For students living elsewhere, it can be challenging to find the right instruction and support.

Both Harris and Vela were introduced to Southern Arizona Association for the Visually Impaired, SAAVI, which is a vocational and rehabilitation center. At a SAAVI summer camp, Vela and Harris learned how to properly use a white cane for independent mobility, read braille, cook, sew and live independently.

“They opened doors to kind of be able to reach my full potential with my education, and know that I’m a blind student but can do the same work everybody else can do and just succeed like everybody else,” Vela said.

She and Harris are both now studying at Pima Community College.