Two months ago, I received news that changed my life completely. I learned that I had been accepted to study at Harvard University on a full scholarship. As this news went viral, many seemed to believe my story is a reflection of the educational situation of people with disabilities, both in my country, Uruguay, and in the world. But nothing could be further from the truth.
I am totally blind and despite living in a country where people with disabilities are often perceived as people who cannot progress in our lives, I was lucky—and privileged—to have a family that, against all odds, never failed to support me. My mother learned Braille when I was 3 years old and taught it to me so I could read and write.
When I started elementary school, in a school where there had never been a person with a disability, my mother became my main ally, having to transcribe all the things I did in Braille so that the teachers could correct them. By high school I no longer depended on her help because I had a computer that, through a screen reader, read me most of the materials the teachers sent me. And since I learned to type at a very early age, also thanks to the support of my family, I could take notes at a very high speed, so I did not fall behind.
But even all the support I received did not prevent me from having problems in my educational path. I once had a professor who wanted me to use pictures for everything, even those assignments could have instead been done in an accessible way. And there was an English as a second language professor who, after I asked him to describe a picture in Spanish so I could work in English, told me “well, this is not a translation class, so I can’t help you.”
So, getting into Harvard for me was nothing more than a dream (which seemed impossible) come true. But for other people in my situation, dreaming is not even a possibility. There are structural problems that hinder the access of people with disabilities around the world to an education that allows us to develop our potential.
In Uruguay, for example, 37.7% of people with disabilities over the age of 25 have not had access to education, and in the United States—a country that is often used as an example in this type of situation—16% of students who did not finish high school were students with disabilities, and 22.3% of students with visual impairments did not graduate from high school. And these percentages, while painfully striking, are often ignored in favor of stories like me.
When my story came to light, those in charge of Uruguayan public education were quick to speak out about it, praising the inclusive nature of public education in the country. From the Minister of Education to public agencies, such as the Secondary Education Council, many turned what had happened to me into a concrete example that showed them, somehow, that inclusion in education in our country was a reality. But they forgot about the many other realities of people with disabilities in Uruguay: A person in the interior of the country whose family does not even know that their child with a disability can go to school. A blind child that the system does not know exists, and therefore does not help, because he lives far away. Teachers who have the best of intentions but find that they were never really taught what it means to have a student with a disability, because in teacher training programs in my country, and around the world, this is still a pending subject.
While I can appreciate that stories like mine, of being accepted into Harvard, are celebrated and shared, their sharing should also be accompanied by real, concrete actions that make similar stories possible. It makes no sense to only highlight these examples when so many students with disabilities still don’t even have the tools to be able to aspire to fulfill their dreams. So many people with disabilities struggle to receive a decent education in a system that, even in the 21st century, still does not work.
When I think about my story, I can only acknowledge all those who made it possible. My family, my friends and all those people – some within the system, some not so much – who made sure that I learned under the same conditions as my peers. We must lay the groundwork for change, for us to strive for a reality in which success stories are no longer exceptions, but common realities in their own right.