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"I didn't think I was blind. Then, it hit me."

Danielle Castillo. Photo by Olivia Duffy

Until I was 13, I didn’t realize I was blind.

Growing up, I was never treated differently by my sisters or the neighbor kids. I was just part of the group. We rode rollerblades and bikes, went to the library, and played tag. It really never occurred to me that my vision was different. It was just my normal.

I am the middle of three daughters, and my sisters and I were home-schooled. My mother tightly controlled the information we had access to from an early age. We couldn’t learn about the secular world’s science, history and culture, or get information about our own bodies.

I was never told that I was legally blind or that I had albinism, which is a genetic condition that reduces the amount of melanin pigment in the skin, hair and/or eyes. People with albinism have varied vision challenges that are not correctable with glasses.

I didn’t know any of that nor did I meet another blind person until I was a teenager.

Access to diverse viewpoints and technology was limited for most of my life. Our entertainment had to be approved by Mum, which usually consisted only of Christian and classic media. I carried a CD player around everywhere well into 2014 to listen to books. Our views were painted by our carefully curated education, leaving no room for questions or exploration outside the “correct” perspective, which was a narrow and negative viewpoint about anyone or anything outside my mother’s beliefs.

Information bubble starts to burst

After starting high school, since I was visually impaired, my parents saw fit to give me a tablet, set to kid’s mode, so I could access e-books for classes. That tablet included Webster’s Dictionary, Wikipedia and Hoopla, the library app.

My mother trusted me to self-filter any media that she wouldn’t approve of, but I soon figured out how to get around the child settings and access the Internet. As I chugged along in my tween and teenage years, the cracks in the carefully constructed bubble that sheltered my sisters and me from the outside world began to deflate.

It started with Google searches. I would search terms such as: “What does legally blind mean?” “Albinism definition” and “20/200.” I learned more about myself and the resources that were open to me. I found ways to access books, and I learned that I qualified for a guide dog.

At that time, I was too young to apply for one, but I researched every guide dog organization inside the United States until I knew the ins and outs of the application processes. I could identify which dogs came from which programs by their harnesses.

Four years later, after working with Leader Dogs for the Blind, I received a black Labrador named Dux.

Danielle with her guide dog Dux.

20/200: A different perspective

The year 2020 was an eventful year for many because of the coronavirus pandemic, but for me, the shutdown wasn’t any different than my normal life as a home-schooled high schooler.

The biggest disruption for me came in the fall when Dux and I left home and moved on campus to attend Rochester University. Prior to this, I could count on one hand the number of nights I had been away from home.

Because of my sheltered upbringing, it wasn’t until I came to RU that I noticed people treating me differently from my peers. This became especially pronounced during my senior year when Dux retired. I now walk around campus with a white cane — my ninja stick — and using this makes me stand out.

Many times, people don’t know how to interact with me or are too nervous to ask directly. I’ve seen everything from people diving away to having adults trying to grab my arm or hand without permission. Mostly, people seem to feel awkward and don’t know how to act or what to say.

Personally, I’m an open large-print e-book. If I have no qualms about my disability, why do ablebodied people? For me, it’s something I try to laugh at. I don’t want to be “fixed” or pitied: disability isn’t a bad word.

RU: An insightful community

The community I’ve found at RU is small but strong. This environment challenged my beliefs and allowed me to critically evaluate my values. Like “Doubting” Thomas in the Bible, I found myself asking questions and wanting proof for the things I had been taught.

Growing up, this was frowned upon, but at RU, those questions and my community gave me the space to disentangle my inherited ideology.

I’m still working on detangling my belief system. This journey of sifting fact from conspiracy, theory, ignorance and hateful ideology is not fast nor is it easy.

I am grateful for the opportunity to learn and grow at RU. There’s much I still have to learn.

Now that I am free to explore different perspectives and ask all the questions, curiosity propels me as an aspiring journalist and helps me delve deeper into an understanding of my faith.



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