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Meet Conchita Hernández, teaching blindness across the border with the Holman Prize

Meet Conchita Hernández, teaching blindness across the border with the Holman Prize

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Since 2017, LightHouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired has presented the Holman Prize, which funds the ambitions of three blind individuals each year. One of the 2018 prizewinners is Conchita Hernández, from Washington, D.C., USA. Conchita will convene the first-ever blind-led conference in Mexico devoted to bringing masses ofblind people, their families and mentors together in Guadalajara to understand there is an alternative to the traditional expectation of dependence and poverty.

Last year Conchita Hernández hosted a blindness workshop in the border town of McAllen, Texas. She wasn’t sure how many people would show up. McAllen sits on the US border with Mexico, a city surrounded on all sides by government checkpoints – a civic purgatory for undocumented immigrants who can’t move back or forward. It wasn’t clear how many blind students there were in McAllen, but, when a quality service is offered, word spreads. Sixteen families showed up, each united by the same pursuits: healthier options, better information, and a better life for their blind children.

Life is not perfect for blind children in South Texas, and many blind children still do not qualify for services in the American system because of their immigration status. The prospects in Mexico, however, are worse. Blindness alone is not a qualifier for asylum, and so many families with blind children attempt to cross the border on their own. One case, in Nogales, AZ in April, saw a blind 6-year-old and her 4-year-old brother taken from their mother while she was held indefinitely.

Herself a child of immigrant parents who brought her to America at age 4, along with an older brother who is also legally blind, Conchita didn’t live the same struggle as if she had stayed in her birthplace, the Mexico City exurb of Jocotitlán. Instead, she was raised in California, learned English, made friends, went to college. By age 30, she had lived in the Bay Area, New Jersey, Nebraska, Louisiana, and ultimately settled in Washington, D.C. to pursue a doctorate and a career as an educator.

This might not have been possible had she stayed in Mexico, a country where blind people are vastly unemployed and rarely live independently. Here, blind people mostly sell government-apportioned lottery tickets and snacks on street corners and metro stations, and no education is promised. Schools for blind students are private, meaning they cost a lot of money. When they can’t afford tuition, Conchita says, families must beg public schools to accept their visually impaired children, and it doesn’t always work. “There is no ADA or IDA,” she said over the phone from DC last week. “So, a public school can just tell them, no, we don’t know how to serve you.” Despite the fact that Mexico has recently adopted some new rules and regulations regarding disability, they are little regarded or enforced.

This is why Conchita started Mentoring Engaging and Teaching All Students (METAS), a US-based nonprofit run by similarly passionate, blind, first-generation millenials who have made it their mission to empower Latin America with consistent, quality information about blindness. In multiple trips to the country, Conchita found that word spreads quickly – once families realize there are solutions they can afford. That’s the same reason that, last year when they started holding workshops on the Texas side of the border, people really showed up.

The Holman Prize will fund Conchita to take these workshops to the next level – this time, in Guadalajara, Jalisco State, a region with 8 million people and an estimated 40,000 blind residents, where she knows the people and the immense need. A center for blindness schools, Jalisco State has been called the Mexican Silicon Valley. With funding to provide staffing, lodging and scholarships, the “Changing Lives” conference (Cambiando Vidas) will be able to serve Mexican families from all over the country. “We’ll be bringing the people from Mexico together to have them access the resources and information that already exist but are unknown,” she says. “We’re going to have workshops on O&M, braille and daily living, so that they can come together in one place, learn and realize they’re not alone.”

“There really hasn’t been a blindness-focused conference run by blind people,” she says. “What’s different about this conference is that it won’t just be professionals talking at people. We’ll be having breakout sessions, as well as providing training. We’re also going to have an exhibitor hall, where people can find out about resources that are available to them in their areas.”

In a place where blind people are openly considered to be a burden, the idea behind Cambiando Vidas strikes at a deeper insight: you can have the best education in the world, but if your family doesn’t believe in your capability, you are at a great disadvantage. For this reason, it’s equally important to educate parents and relatives about what their blind children can achieve. “We can teach skills, we can teach you to use a cane,” she says, “but if we don’t teach them empowerment, it doesn’t mean much.”

For her Holman Prize project, Conchita plans to bring Cambiando Vidas to Guadalajara in July 2019. “The goal is that this will serve as the beginning of people coming together and advocating for themselves and advocating through the government as well,” she says. “We want better education for our children. In the short term, it’s just about them being able to find resources amongst each other so that what is possible for a blind person can shift, and so that the people who are begging can find something else.”

Video: Watch Conchita Hernández talk about “coming out” as blind, for Allure.

Cambiando Vidas is just a small piece of Conchita’s much greater ambition, but it’s a project where the Holman Prize will go a long way. On this, Conchita is clear: “I don’t think people should have to cross the border to access these services, but more importantly I don’t think that they should have to cross the border to lead a dignified life. Wherever you’re born you should have the same opportunities as everyone else.”

“The LightHouse believes that all blind people, whatever their nation of origin, should have access to modern thinking and tools to enable them to live in an accomplished manner,” says Bryan Bashin, CEO of the San Francisco-based organization. “Our struggles and accomplishments are the same in whatever country we live, and it gives the LightHouse great pleasure to help bring these options to blind people around the world.”

Get to know the other two prizewinners, Stacy Cervenka and Red Szell.

Meet the blind judges who picked the winners.

Support The Holman Prize

The LightHouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired, which is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization based in San Francisco, is actively seeking sponsorships and support for the 2019 Holman Prize, including donations of equipment for the winner’s projects. To offer your support, contact holman@lighthouse-sf.org. Individuals may donate any amount using LightHouse’s secure form. For sponsorship inquiries, email us or call (415) 694-7333.

For press inquiries, contact press@lighthouse-sf.org.