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It was isolating to know that I was one of the only visually impaired students at WHS

SPOKESMAN FILE PHOTO  - Alyson JohnstonA 14-year-old walks into class on the first day of freshman year. She sits down next to her friends at a table near the front. Nothing seems off — she's just another teenager in history class.

An hour goes by and the students are tasked with studying for a geography test on Friday. The bell rings and she walks up to the teacher and says,"Hi. My name's Aly. I have vision issues and I was wondering if there was any way that you could enlarge the font of the upcoming test for me?"

A squinting of the eyes and a tilt of the head follows the question. "I don't know how to do that," says the teacher. "Can't you just use a magnifying glass? You do know what a magnifying glass is, right?"

Her cheeks turn beet red and tears begin to well up. "I'll see what I can figure out," the student replies. "Thanks."

That student was me.

Being significantly visually impaired as a teenager was never something that was part of my plan. I grew up envisioning myself as the stereotypical teenager: taking a rigorous course load, hanging out with my friends in the evenings, studying until the early hours of the morning for a final.

When I was diagnosed with Stargardt's Macular Degeneration at age 12 my reality changed. I was faced with the prospect that I would be legally blind by the time I was 25.

Having to change my entire life around my diagnosis was difficult. I had to learn to be my own and advocate for what I needed to be successful. I had to accept that I would be the "odd one out" in many activities, and recognize that nearly every aspect of my life was going to be different from that point forward.

It was isolating to know that I was one of the only visually impaired students at Wilsonville High School. It seemed even more incomprehensible to me that I was leaving behind everything I knew; the comfort of knowing my surroundings had been stripped.

The one thing that I had been able to keep constant through it all was my school work. No matter how many hours I spent in doctor's offices, how many times my eyes were dilated beyond use or how exhausted I was from diagnostic imaging, I was able to focus on my academics.

Almost every teacher I've had has been willing to work with me since day one. They've enlarged handouts, allowed me to take photos of projected work, and spent their mornings and afternoons with me so I could succeed. These incredible educators have made me feel included, intelligent and grateful for the extra time they've put in. I owe so much to them.

There were only been a handful of teachers who couldn't quite grasp the impact vision loss has on a student. I hope that they were just naive — that all of this was new to them, as it once was to me.

I also hope that we were able to learn from each other. I needed to understand that there is a learning curve when it comes to helping visually impaired students and the teachers needed to recognize that every student — not only ones with documented disabilities — may need individualized help and instruction.

I don't know if teachers know the magnitude of the impact that they have on the lives of students. But I am forever in debt to the teachers who have been in my corner, fought for my accessibility to education and supported me. The words "thank you" don't seem to be enough.

It doesn't seem fair to focus on the issues I've had with accommodations since there has been so many positive experiences.

I dream of a system, though, that allows every student to have their needs met all of the time. I imagine a world where a student does not fear ridicule over a disability they cannot control. By having an open mind and a willingness to help, every teacher has the special opportunity to positively impact a student's life forever.

Alyson Johnston is a junior at Wilsonville High School.

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