User1st’s Spotlight interviews highlight individuals who have advanced the rights, opportunities and boundaries of what was thought possible for individuals with disabilities.
This interview format offers insight about the lives, experiences and contributions of those who look to advance the presence of persons with disabilities in mainstream society.
This feature is on Mary Fernandez. Mary Fernandez is a disability rights and web accessibility advocate.
Born in Colombia, Ms. Fernandez lost her vision due to Glaucoma at an early age. Ms. Fernandez moved to the United States when she was seven years old after her mother decided that there would be more opportunities for the family outside of Colombia.
Ms. Fernandez was actively involved in developing the Employment Development Guidance and Engagement (EDGE) Program, which focuses on developing employment readiness skills for transitioning blind and vision impaired high school students. In addition to her advocacy work, Ms. Fernandez is currently working with Sociality Squared, a social media marketing company.
Ms. Fernandez is a graduate of Emory University.
User1st: Hi Ms. Fernandez, thank you for agreeing to be interviewed: Can you give us a little background on yourself?
Mary Fernandez: I was born in Cartagena, Colombia, one of the most beautiful cities along the Caribbean Coast. Some of my fondest childhood memories from Colombia were those amazing days we would spend at the beach. To this day, nothing makes me happier than basking in the warm Caribbean waters soaking in the sun.
When I was only two years old, and my mother was twenty six, she decided to immigrate to the United States. I have a brother who is four years older than me, and at the time my mother had to make one of the hardest decisions of her life. She was given the option to bring one of us to the U.S. or leave both of us, she decided it would be best for us to remain together. That was the last time I saw my mother until the age of seven when she returned to bring my brother and I to the States. By then I had totally lost my vision from Glaucoma, my mother had to receive this news from across the ocean, and though she was sorely tempted to return to be with her youngest child, she decided that now more than ever I needed to come to the U.S. where I had a chance at getting an education and becoming successful. She was right.
When I was very young I wanted to be a lawyer. I’ve always been stubborn, or determined, as I like to see it, and I had a lot of opinions as a child.
User1st: When did you come to the United States?
Mary Fernandez: I was seven years old when my mother returned to bring us to the United States. She was a stranger, and yet the one human on earth I had wanted to be with as long as I could remember. I remember how it was to have my mother hug me for the first time since I was a toddler, by then I only had a faint memory of what she looked like, but when she hugged me I was able to let go of that memory and live the reality.
Attachment is one of those things we think about a lot when we think about children and their behaviors. Naturally, not having seen my mom in so long, I was terribly afraid that she would disappear again. It took a while for me to stop following her around everywhere, just to make sure that she would remain with me.
The U.S. was the Promised Land for me. Not only was my mother there, but I was also promised that I’d be able to go to school and learn to read books and meet other children. You see, in Colombia I was considered to be unteachable because I could not see. No one knew what to do with a child who couldn’t see, and since school is not free, my Grandmother, who took care of my brother and me, decided that his education should take priority. As a result, I would longingly see my brother leave the house with books and take off to school just like everyone else. Thus, it was no hardship for me to leave Colombia, but alas, things were not that simple.
After spending about three weeks in Colombia doing the paperwork and arrangements necessary to move two minors out of their country of birth and presumably away from one of the parents, we were ready to depart. We had spent a week in Bogota finalizing paperwork, and getting our passports. When we arrived at the airport, bags packs, hearts racing we were not allowed to board the plane. As it turned out, one of the papers my mother had to show as proof that our father gave permission for us to leave with her was a copy, and the immigration officials refused to take it unless it was it was the original paper. Which we did not have. I don’t think I had ever cried as hard as I did that night. I was inconsolable, and as an adult I cannot imagine how hard it was for my mother, who was not much older than I am right now, to leave that airport, two children in hand, one of who could not stop crying, and try to figure out what to do next. She had not planned on staying that long, and we were in a city where we had no family. And so we had to find a hotel to stay in for the night as she planned the next steps.
In addition, she had not brought enough to finance another week at a hotel. Thankfully, we had a box of cereal we shared, no milk for about two days, until we found some friends of a cousin to stay with while everything was straightened out. Finally, about a week and a half after our first attempt we headed back to the airport, and this time we left Bogota headed to New York City.
User1st: How, if at all, did people view your disability differently in the United States than in Colombia growing up?
Mary Fernandez: As a child, perceptions about disabilities in the U.S. versus Colombia were like night and day. Since I was totally blind, doctors did not feature much in the equation once it was determined that there was nothing to be done about my Glaucoma. But as I mentioned earlier, education was the real key in my life as it is in the lives of many disabled people. In Colombia I would have never have graduated from high school let alone college. So when I started attending school here, learning Braille and later getting assistive technology, I could not have been more excited.
I’d like to say I was an easy, outgoing child. But that is far from the truth. I think it was part my life experiences up to that point, and part my natural stubbornness and made me react the way I did. I was always one of those children who gets along better with adults. I had friends in school, but I felt painfully shy around them, I knew I was different, and the older children get in school, the most painfully obvious it becomes that a visible disability makes you “not normal”. But I didn’t have to deal with that until I got to high school. When I first started school, I did not want to speak English. I had heard what native speakers sounded like and I had heard what people with Hispanic accents sounded like, and for some reason, I got it into my brain that unless I spoke it as close sounding to a native speaker as possible, I would not utter one word in English. And for two years I didn’t. This caused great frustration in school. My Teacher for the visually impaired only spoke English, and when it became clear that I understood every word but refused to respond in kind, calls were made, notes were sent to my mother, but after speaking to me, she told them that this was a battle they, the adults, might not win.
A battle she did fight and win though, was my battle to read. I’m not sure why, but I didn’t want to read my school assignments in Braille. My mother finally had enough, she told me to go into my room, and until I finished reading Freckle Juice by Judy Bloom I was not allowed to come out. After much screaming and crying, I finally tired of it. I sat down, opened the book, and could not stop. I then calmly left my room, as if nothing had happened, and asked if we happened to have any more Braille books around. That was the start of a lifelong love affair with literature.
User1st: You began attending Emory University in 2008. Was this your first time living alone?
Mary Fernandez: As I alluded to earlier, high school was not exactly my favorite time. Everyone has a hard time in high school, it is a time when everyone feels they are being betrayed, by their feelings, their identities and their own changing bodies. Add to that a visible disability, the discomfort of other teenagers with themselves, and it is a recipe for loneliness. Not to mention that my school insisted on having an aid trail up and down the school with me, though I did not need her for anything other than Brailling class materials for me. As a result, I focused hard on my academics. It is not uncommon for blind teenagers to excel academically, but not socially, I was no exception. Despite this, I had a close group of friends, we were nerds and slightly different than the rest. One of my best friends and high school, someone who is like a sister to me, was home schooled until her junior year and only then was she allowed to attend public school. The transition was challenging for her, and her curiosity and open mind made her approach me when she saw me sitting on my own with my aid at lunch.
The isolation of high school made college seem like the perfect opportunity to redefine my future. At last I was being given the opportunity to make my own decision. Thus, I turned down colleges much closer to where I live in order to attend somewhere far from home. I wanted to find my own wings, my own independence. Emory was the right decision for me. It challenged me to become an excellent traveler, and for once I felt confident enough to approach fellow students and made some lifelong friends.
Being in college also helped me become a stronger advocate. I was a psychology and music major, and as such had to take music theory and statistics. One of the major aims of music theory is to become versed in reading and analyzing music. And there is very little use for someone to hear math, one must be able to read it and manipulate it in order to learn it. Thus, I asked for Braille textbooks of both of these subjects before my sophomore year. For reasons which remain somewhat incomprehensible, my request was not granted at first by the university. I studied abroad the summer of my freshman year and so wasn’t able to do much about it until July, the semester started in August. And after some back and forth and some support from the national federation of the blind in advocating, the university was ready to provide the Braille books. Unfortunately, Braille takes a while to make, and so long story short, I did not receive my stats books or music theory books on time. Music theory wasn’t much of an issue, my professors were incredibly supportive and flexible. Stats on the other hand was a different story. My professor was not sympathetic in the least, and did not understand why not having the textbook was a definite disadvantage that could not be overcome by one-on-one tutoring, which I took. Two weeks before the semester ended I was headed toward my first F, for what I understand now, was lack of an appropriate accommodation. I was a straight A student, even in college, and this was beyond devastating. Fortunately, my music advisor intervened with the Dean of equal access at Emory, someone up to that point I had no idea existed, and I was able to get a W for withdrawal instead of an F in my transcript.
Students often feel powerless in situations like these. Their success many times depends solely on an institution fulfilling their legal responsibility of equal and timely access. My experience as a college student has made me a strong and vocal advocate of equal access in the classroom.
User1st: What was your first job after graduation?
Mary Fernandez: After college I, like many students in 2012, was desperately looking for a job. After applying to about a hundred jobs online and being rejected, I had to come home after graduation. My mom saw me moping around, and asked me if I had let anyone know that I was looking for a job. I explained how, in this new world, one had to apply online. She said something to the effect, that this may be so, but that thankfully in the old world personal connections were the way of getting a job. And so, I took her sage advice and sent my resume to everyone I knew. Through the grapevine it landed at Brown Goldstein & Levy, a civil right litigation law firm which has represented the National Federation of the Blind in countless cases. I got a call to set up an interview, it was one of the happiest days of my life.
After an interview that lasted about two hours, and which involved speaking with about five different people from the firm, I got a job offer that same week. So off I went to Baltimore to work somewhere I had never even considered. Getting the privilege to be the lead paralegal in two federal trials was both exciting and a tremendous learning opportunity.
After almost three years at BGL I decided it was time for me to find my next challenge. While I figured out what I was going to do next, I was able to attend the Louisiana Center for the Blind to sharpen my blindness skills such as travel and technology. Though I had traveled extensively by then, I wanted to know in my heart of hearts that I was the best I could be. Once I graduated from the program, I headed back to my home state of New Jersey and began looking for the next adventure.
User1st: What do you currently do?
Mary Fernandez: After I returned to New Jersey, I heard about the Employment Development Guidance and Engagement (EDGE) Program which the New Jersey Commission for the Blind would be starting in collaboration with a non-profit which would be implementing the program. I was very excited to hear about this program, as when I was in high school I participated in a similar program, the LEAD Program, which introduced me to successful blind mentors and other blind students. This experience in high school made it possible for me to know that the dreams and ambitions I had were completely achievable.
The EDGE Program focuses on developing employment readiness skills for transitioning blind and vision impaired high school students. Through workshops, mentoring, specific professional development tasks and employment experience, EDGE gives students the tools to be successful in work or college post-graduation. I was fortunate enough to be part of the development of the program from the ground up. The most important goal for me was making sure that we created a program that challenged students and gave them the confidence to pursue their dreams.
I left the EDGE Program in September of 2016 to pursue other professional and personal interests. Since college I had not really had the opportunity to take a break and assess my life, and do some much wanted travel of the world. I’ve been able to do those things now with my boyfriend, who happens to be blind, and have visited Canada, a number of islands in the French West Indies and France since October of last year. In June we will be visiting about nine Northern European countries as well. In addition, I currently work as an independent contractor for Sociality Squared, a social media marketing company.
This opportunity has been not only a way to make a living while maintaining flexibility, but it has also allowed me to pursue my passion of advocating for web accessibility. Social media, the web, and technology in general are part of our reality, and creating an inclusive world has never been more possible. However, it is the lack of knowledge regarding accessibility which are creating barriers between full access and people with disabilities.
User1st: During your lifetime, have you noticed any changes in perceptions of individuals with disabilities in mainstream society?
Mary Fernandez: I can’t say that people with disabilities are viewed much differently in mainstream society. Unfortunately we still face the stereotypes of being either incredibly inspirational for doing the things everyone else does, or being objects of pity. These images reflect society’s view of people with disabilities. As a blind woman, one of the biggest challenges I face is not being able to read street signs, or as some people think, being able to slay in high heels; rather it’s people’s perceptions of my capabilities simply because of my blindness.
User1st: What do you believe are the most common barriers that prevent individuals with disabilities from participating in mainstream society to their full potential?
Mary Fernandez: I think that most people with disabilities will agree that it is societal misperceptions about disabilities that present the biggest barriers. As an example, about seventy percent of people with disabilities are unemployed. Among the blind community, it is not lack of skill or education that holds us back, many times it’s the misperception that a blind employee will simply be unable to complete the duties of a job which prevents employers from hiring them. It is a depressingly common experience for a blind person to walk into an interview and not be asked about how they will contribute to a company, or what ideas they have on improving efficiency. Rather, they are asked about how they will go to the bathroom, or how they will get to work.
Being underestimated is not just frustrating on a daily basis- like all those times I have to ask strangers in the street not to touch me as they assume I must be lost- it is also harmful. Being underestimated means that we are often overlooked as employees. Or that our children are taken away as we are seen as incapable of taking care of them. These are real issues which affects our quality of life.
User1st: What are some common misconceptions that many people have about individuals with disabilities in the workforce?
Mary Fernandez: There are so many misconceptions, some of which I know, some of which I don’t know it would take pages to describe. But in general, again, it’s the perception that we are less capable. And as a result we are not given a chance to even prove those perceptions wrong. As someone who has traveled the world, who studied abroad while in college, who graduated from an excellent university, and who managed to get to a given interview, I would hope that my potential employer can figure out that clearly I have found ways to function in life and be successful. But unfortunately, so often the focus becomes on how I could possibly achieve the most quotidian tasks that my skills for the job become secondary and often forgotten.
User1st: What do you believe are some things that parents of children with disabilities can/should do to help their children better integrate and socialize with their peers?
Mary Fernandez: I think that high expectations are the key to raising successful children. My mother has been the most influential person in my life and I would not be a successful adult without her. When she left Colombia she had two abled-bodied children, when she came back her youngest was blind. Though she did not know any blind people, she had no experience with disability, her goal became to make sure that no matter what I would be able to fend for myself in the world. That meant that I needed an equal education, that I needed to be a hard worker, and that I had to know that I could do whatever I set my mind to even if the rest of the world didn’t know I could. It was that attitude that helped me start believing in myself. Even before I met anyone else who had a disability, I knew that at least one person in my life knew I had what it took to become the successful woman I wanted to be.
Allowing children to take risks and to fail is one of the hardest things for parents to do. It was not easy for my mom to see me go to college half way across the country. It was not easy, though I was an adult, to see me move to another state to work and make mistakes as an adult woman. It wasn’t easy for her to let me take public transportation as a teenager. But she did it. It wasn’t easy for her to see me struggle in high school because I felt isolated. But she let me. Because she knew that life isn’t easy, that one of the things that makes us stronger is to make mistakes and to learn from them. So for parents out there, all I can ask is to let your children take risks, to make their own mistakes, because it is those mistakes and those risks that allow us to become confident. Sure I got lost a few times when I traveled on my own, I still do, who doesn’t? Yeah, I gotten two burns while I cook, I’ve cut my finger a few times. But who hasn’t? The important thing is that letting me do those things my mother taught me I could. Without her influence and her willingness to suffer a mother’s pain of letting go, I may still believe what the world tells me, which his “you can’t”.
User1st: What impact do you think the internet has had on individuals in the disabled community?
Mary Fernandez: The Internet is the best and the worst representation of human intelligence. For people with disabilities however, the advent of the Internet and assistive technologies such as screen reading software, speech recognition among others, has given us independence and access to information that simply was not possible before. For those with print disabilities, access to print information has always been one of the greatest barriers. I count myself as being extremely fortunate to have grown up at a time where getting books, reading the newspaper and magazines, being able to read and write my own words is possible. These were things of dreams not so long ago.
Small things like shopping online for my groceries and being able to browse the selection of olive oils and choosing what I want. Or even watching House of Cards with audio description, or downloading a Braille or Audio Book with my iPhone, these are things that permit me to have a full and independent life.
User1st: How do you think individuals with disabilities can be better prepared to join the workforce?
Mary Fernandez: Everyone is different, and this goes for people with disabilities as well. What has worked for me may not work for someone else. But if the aim is to be successfully employed, education, without a doubt, is vital. This doesn’t mean that everyone has to go to an Ivy league or private college, but education suited to a student’s abilities, and which challenges and expands their horizon is possible for all children. This means that parents must be advocates for young children and insure that their children are not being failed by their institutions. We are fortunate to live in a country where laws insure an education, I did not have that in Colombia and would have never been able to graduate from college there.
Aside from education, drive, determination and social skills are so very important. Again, everyone is different, every disability is different. But we all have dreams and ambitions. There is more than one path to success, and so we must determine how we want to live our success.
Last, mentorship and support. Without the support of my family, my friends and finding a community in the National Federation of the Blind, it would have been harder to get up when things got rough for me. Having people who believe in us, and knowing and connecting with other disabled people is key.
User1st: What can the average person interested in contributing to the advancement of opportunities for persons with disabilities do to help further the cause?
Mary Fernandez: All I can ask of you, reading this, you who may not know anyone with a disability. I ask you to give us a chance, to not assume that just because we are different we are less capable. Being a good and helpful person means that you respect my right to say no. So, if you see someone with a disability and wonder if they need help, ask them. If someone with a disability applies for a job in your company, and if they are good enough to interview, do not focus on the things you think you would not be able to do with that same disability, focus on what they have done and what they can do as an employee. I ask you to be open-minded. I ask you to remember that diversity includes disability. And I ask you to simply see me as another young woman who is trying to live the American dream, who just happens to be blind. Our disabilities don’t define us, they inform our choices in some instances, they shaped us, typically to be fighters, but they do not define us.
To learn more about Mary Fernandez, check out her LinkedIn page.