Graduating Student Aims to Help Others – and Herself – to Adapt

Posted April 19, 2024, 12:23PM

One day in her 11th grade history class, Sandi Owens suddenly found she could not see out of her right eye.

“I went to read a textbook and I could not see,” said Owens. “My teacher was like, ‘Sandi, stop lying.’”

But Owens wasn’t lying. A classmate had to walk her to the main office, where she waited at least 40 minutes for her parents to make the drive from Philadelphia to Newcastle, Delaware. They took her to an optometrist, who then referred her to an eye institute in Philadelphia.

The diagnosis was retinal detachment, although to this day no one understands why it happened.

Over the next 18 months, Owens underwent seven operations on her right eye. The first surgery left her with blurry vision in her right eye. With the second surgery, she lost all sight in that eye.

Her family hired a driver to transport Owens to school her senior year. After graduation, she enrolled at the University of Delaware, where she majored in cellular and molecular biology.

“It was overwhelming, especially being newly low-vision,” Owens said. She stuck it out for one year, then moved to Fayetteville, North Carolina, to live with her sister. She transferred to Methodist University and changed her major to mathematics.

She adapted by sitting at the front of the classroom, recording lectures and occasionally using note takers. Over time, she improved her own note taking skills.

“I was an awesome note taker, to the point that my classmates wanted to borrow my notes,” Owens said.

She graduated and found work as a middle school teacher of math. To teach, she had a large separate monitor attached to her computer and would expand or bold mathematical formulas on her white board.

After eight years, Owens decided she was ready for a change and moved to Kuwait to work as a contract teacher.

“I’ve always been a go-getter,” she said.

She taught in Kuwait for two years, then noticed the vision in her left eye was changing. She returned to the United States and her position in Hoke County, North Carolina as a teacher, where she worked until December 2019 as her eyesight had deteriorated.

A few months later, the COVID-19 pandemic began.

“I had a year or so to think,” Owens said. “I had some depressing moments. What am I doing with my life? I’m too young to stop here.”

Through friends, she found out about a master’s degree program at North Carolina Central University (NCCU) in teaching students who are blind or visually impaired. She enrolled, then found out that NCCU also offers a master’s degree in assistive technology.

Opening up

Until Owens started at NCCU, she generally did not talk about being blind in her right eye.

“I think it was just being somewhat embarrassed or scared,” Owens said. “I didn’t want to be judged based on a disability. I never really considered myself disabled. I do just as much as a sighted person.”

If not more. She has traveled to Greece, Venice, Dubai, Cancun, Rome and other countries. She is completing an internship as an assistive technology training instructor at a career and training center in Raleigh. Owens has raised and home-schooled a daughter, now 12-years-old.

Off campus, Owens is president of the North Carolina Council of the Blind, which has successfully advocated for accessible crosswalks in Raleigh, holds job fairs for visually impaired people and made it legal for blind and visually impaired people to vote from home.

Her studies at NCCU have not only gained her a master’s degree in assistive technology (she has also completed all but an internship for her second master’s degree in teaching blind and visually impaired people) but has also taught her how to adapt.

“I went into the program thinking it would show me how to help other individuals,” Owens said. “It also helped me. I have an expanded reparatory of adaptive techniques.”

Those include using a cane to go up or down stairs and improving her skills using screen readers, magnification and software to either enlarge or speak text.

She also has become more open about her own visual impairment.

“I gained knowledge about it,” Owens said. “There is a whole community around this. I want to educate people about what this is and what it means.”

She has already started with her own business, Making It Visible, LLC.

“Very few students explore entrepreneurial opportunities before graduation,” said Sean Tikkun, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the department of curriculum and instruction and one of Owen’s instructors.

Owens will work as an assistive technology trainer for people who are blind or visually impaired. She gained her first contract in April and might have another one soon.

*Thank you to Nigel Pierce, Ph.D., assistant professor and program coordinator of special education, for recommending Sandi Owens as a graduate feature. 

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