Utah student is hoping others will see blindness differently
SALT LAKE CITY — At the beginning of every semester, Madelyn Stafford stands and tells her class that she will be needing a little extra attention.
"The world is not going to stop for me while I get caught up," she said. "I want to succeed, and I want to do my best, but I am forced to work so much harder than almost any other student on this campus."
Stafford, 21, is a student at the University of Utah and she is visually impaired in a number of ways, which makes it difficult to learn at the same pace as her peers. But she is doing it, and she is changing the way it is done so other people who are blind don't have as hard a row to hoe.
Though she was raised to think she was "normal," Stafford learned how to advocate for herself and be confident despite her disability through skills classes and accessible activities offered by the Utah Foundation for the Blind and Visually Impaired.
The nonprofit organization has been offering resources to the state's blind and visually impaired, aged 5 to 25, since 1987. It aims to eliminate barriers to education and employment that people who are blind often face, and help them live independent lives.
Rachael Swetnam, executive manager at the foundation, said its impact is huge.
"Our alumni tell us they wouldn't have gone to college or pursued a career without it," she said. "It's more than just learning the hard skills of going shopping, getting around and cooking for themselves. It has a lot to do with the soft skills, like confidence, believing in themselves and believing in each other, believing they can do it and do what they want."
"It is important for them to be in this kind of environment," Swetnam said. "It's what keeps us coming back and doing what we do."
The foundation is hosting its only fundraiser, Love is Blind, on Feb. 5 at The Leonardo museum, downtown. It will include an auction and dinner, as well as a comedian-narrated, blindfolded dessert experience.
"Our guests are going to learn what it is like to perform an activity with a visual impairment," Swetnam said. "And lucky for them, it involves chocolate."
This year, the foundation is hoping to garner enough donations — both at the event and through private donors — to expand throughout the state, to offer programs and activities more frequently and in different locations so families don't have to drive far to experience potentially life-changing opportunities.
"We have big dreams at the Utah Foundation for the Blind, that's for sure," Swetnam said, adding that the mostly volunteer-run organization doesn't take the impact it has on participants lightly.
Stafford said the foundation gave her so much more than she ever expected.
In addition to teaching her to advocate for herself and "not put up with a lot of the hardships in life," UFB, as she calls it, also taught her to play and love Goalball, a sport created exclusively for people who are blind.
"When you grow up blind and visually impaired, you're always told you can't play sports," Stafford said, explaining how competitive she has become in diving for the ball that has bells inside, and feeling her way around the court that is lined with tactile wiring. "It hurts and it's dangerous, but it is totally worth it."
A number of nationally ranked athletes have come out of the local program, showcasing what a benefit it is for some people. And it is something to help people who are blind and visually impaired overcome stereotypes and stay safe while being active.
"I want to enjoy life like everyone else and have it not be such a fight for everything," Stafford said.
She has been helping teachers at the U. rework their curriculum to incorporate students with disabilities better, enhancing and sometimes creating accessible course materials.
"I fell through the cracks of education my whole life," Stafford said, adding that she didn't learn to read until fourth grade. She had to go to school early for extra help and stayed late almost every day, and she missed out on the opportunity for fun, elective credits.
"I still had to play catch up every year," Stafford said.
Aside from the frustration and potentially illegal practices she's encountered throughout her education — which she says is due to a lack of education and information for teachers — Stafford has remained upbeat and determined to make a difference.
"I want to change what it means to be blind," she said. "I want an equal access world for everyone."
The average person, Stafford said, would be surprised at how many things in daily life are restrictive for people with disabilities.
Stafford was born with glaucoma, a degenerative condition. She is completely blind in one eye and nearly blind in the other. She cannot see at all at night and is color blind. She can't identify faces and struggles to put on makeup and paint her nails.
But her disability isn't visible on the outside, and she doesn't feel it at all on the inside.
"If I wasn't visually impaired, I'd still be who I am today," Stafford said, adding that she wouldn't fix her eyes if given the chance. "I see the world in a different light, and I enjoy seeing it in a different light. My blindness is not who I am."
And she wants others to treat her and all of Utah's blind and visually impaired people that way, too.
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