Humans of Long Beach: Q&A with Blind Student Jose Espinoza

By Rob Flores

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Jose Espinoza is a current California State University, Long Beach student who shared his story about being born with a disability, losing his eyesight as a teenager, and achieving his goal of becoming a student here at CSULB.

Jose: Hello, everyone. My name is Jose Espinoza. Let me start off by saying, originally, I’m from Mexico. I was born in 1979, and my family and I immigrated to this country in 1980. So, essentially, I am the oldest child in my family. I have a brother and two sisters. I have family around the Boston area and Florida, and mostly in Mexico. Pretty much I had a normal childhood. The only thing about my childhood—I was actually born with a disability; I was born with glaucoma. I essentially had eyesight throughout my life, and I used to have vision up until 1997. I was probably, like, 17 years old, in high school.

The Early Years

Rob: Were you aware of your disability growing up?

Jose: Not so much. I was probably aware of my disability, like, in my high school age, when my parents told me I had a disability.

Rob: How did you cope with that?

Jose: At first it was pretty difficult to adjust to life. It's [actually] not so hard to adjust; you have to learn to trust people. When I lost my eyesight I had to learn braille. I used adaptive technology, you know, to do school work, use the internet, whatever I have to do, etc.

Rob: In early childhood, like elementary and middle school, were you experiencing certain side effects?

Jose: Again, the condition I had was glaucoma. I was nearsighted, so I had to be close to see someone, or read something like a sign or window shop—something on display. I had to be close to read any text.

Rob: Did you have to wear glasses?

Jose: Funny enough that, at the time, the doctors did prescribe me some glasses, but I wasn’t really into wearing glasses, for whatever reason. I wasn’t used to wearing glasses.

Rob: Did your parents ever act protective, like if you wanted to go play, etc.?

Jose: My parents were what you call “helicopter parents.” Yes, they were protective, but not to the point not to allow me to play, you know. I do remember as a young child, when I was in school, that we had recess. I played with the other students that had visual impairment. You have to understand I didn’t go to a normal educational school for the most of my education. I had always been in special ed, meaning I always interacted with students who had visual impairment.

Education

Rob: Was the curriculum a little different [in grade school]? Did they start teaching you braille early on?

Jose: It was a little different. Keep in mind, I didn’t lose my eyesight as a young child; I lost it as a teenager. So, in high school, I was taught braille even before I lost my eyesight. I used to have a teacher in high school who was visually impaired himself. I didn’t know why he wanted to teach me braille, but I get the sense he suspected I was going to lose my eyesight. So, he just thought, “Well it would be a good thing for you to read and write braille and learn it,” you know.

Rob: Was it difficult?

Jose: Personally, for me, reading and writing braille was difficult at first. I would say for me it took a few months to a year to learn. But once you are able to get familiar [with] how to read and write braille, you get used to it.

Rob: In middle and elementary school, did you have particular interests like art?

Jose: Yes, of course. I used to do extracurricular activities. They taught me how to swim. I’ve always been a fan of swimming. I used to be a part of physical education classes. We did some amateur volleyball, a little basketball, some croquet. Just some basic things you do for physical education.

Rob: What was the transition from each school in the K-12 system like for you?

Jose: I would say it wasn’t too difficult, especially for making new friends. Again, I was in special education throughout my schooling, during my education. Of course, you have a change of environment and location and new teachers to get to know, but for the most part a pretty smooth transition.

Rob: Did you think high school was significantly different? Different teachers and periods?

Jose: Very different, especially because in high school I was integrated with the other students. What I mean by this, I was integrated with students who were non-disabled, like any other normal class with the rest of the students. Honestly, the instructors expected me to complete the work with reasonable accommodations and I tried to work with them, and they tried to work with me.

 Rob: What was that like, to be among your peers aside from just disabled students at the same time?

Jose: It was refreshing. I had the opportunities to make friends from both communities, non-disabled and disabled. I seem to be drawn more to sighted people as opposed to visually impaired. But, you know, as long as a person wants to be my friend, I’ll become their friend. I’m pretty open when it comes to creating friendships with students.

Rob: Did you ever also try to join a team?

Jose: No, I wasn’t really into joining a sports team, although I was introduced to the idea of joining clubs, I believe, in high school. I joined the Spanish club and the Key Club, which was the honor society club on campus, so that was my first time being introduced to joining clubs on campus, and from there, I just started to be active in campus life throughout my community college years up to now.

Rob: What was your family's reaction as your condition progressed?

Jose: I would say my family was understanding. They helped a lot, especially when it came to dinner time. Especially my parents, they would let me know where the meat was, the vegetables, where the rice was. They would cut my food for me. My mom was a really big help when it came to helping me choose my clothes [for] what to wear for school at times. Just your basic assistance, help around the house. I want to clarify how I lost my vision: I received a cornea transplant. We knew the risks, and it wasn’t that the procedure went wrong; it was that my body rejected it, and I ended up with no vision.

The Next Step

Rob: Senior year [of high school] can be a time of reflection. Sometimes that’s when people ask themselves, “What do I want to do next? What school I want to go to? What major what career I want?” What was that like for you?

Jose: So, after high school I ended up going to a community college in Whittier called Rio Hondo College, completing my general education, reading, writing, math courses—the general courses to transfer. At the time I was debating what major. At first I considered political sciences because I am a political junkie and I watch a lot of news stations, and I follow the elections, etc. So, I was very interested in political science, but since I am a fluent Spanish speaker I was considering looking into becoming a translator or tutor, but I was told you really have to be quick to translate and tutor. You can’t really think about what you want to say. So, ultimately, I decided to do religious studies. That is what I decided to do when I got to the university [after graduating] from Rio Hondo in spring 2015. I transferred to CSULB fall of 2015. There, I started taking courses for my major.

Rob: Did you know anyone when you started classes at community college?

Jose: Yes, I started to make friends in community college, especially Christian Gutierrez. Him [sic] and I eventually decided to start an organization on campus called the Catholic Newman Club, the Catholic ministry in university and community college campuses, and I thought to myself, ‘There are a lot of Christian groups on campus. Why don’t we have Catholic groups that talk to the young adult Catholic community on campus? I just thought of starting a seminal organization, so from time to time I started visiting the Newman meetings here at Cal State Long Beach that we could integrate at our own ministry at Rio Hondo.

Rob: I think it's so admiring that, on top of going to school, you take the time to get involved on campus. I know there are students who just go to class and go straight home. Tell us what motivated you to get involved.

Jose: There was one particular teacher in high school who motivated me to join clubs or be a part of campus life. It was maybe middle school, Bancroft in Los Angeles. She motivated me to look into joining clubs and to further my social skills, so I did. From that time I’ve just been active through campus life from community college up to now, and I’m always passionate about joining clubs and organizations. Every student I come across, I tell him or her, “You should really get involved in campus life. Don’t just go to classes and go home, or classes to work. Really try to make an impact on campus. Just contribute to the campus community.”

Reflections & Wisdom

Rob: Were there any tough obstacles leading up to where you are today?

Jose: Yes, there are some locations within CSULB where it’s hard to travel. I just ask for assistance. You just got to speak up as a student. If you are unfamiliar with a certain location you have to speak up. There is nothing wrong with asking for help. There are people out there willing to help.

Rob: I like your optimism. You were resilient; you haven’t let a disability stop you. Do you have any advice for those who feel a little pessimistic? They had goals in mind, but they ask themselves, “Is this going to stop me?”

Jose: Yeah, I mean, I would just tell them don’t give up. You know, just be encouraged that there is [sic] people who are out there that do want to help, and just know that you’re not alone, you know. There is a support network that will support you, especially the disabled student service center on campus. There is also the AIM center on campus. We have faculty that will help you if you need accommodations for your classes. We always should be positive and look forward to how we can make an impact for others, and ourselves as well.

Rob: How do you deal with naysayers or toxic relationships?

Jose: I have never had to deal with that. I would say stay away from those types of relationships. I would say try to be with people who only want to have positive relationships. I did have one individual who was working with me at the time, in high school. I was working with someone in the California Department of Rehabilitation, which is a governmental organization that helps people with disabilities with work or school—whatever they need—but this individual counselor thought I wasn’t ready or prepared to go to college. She told me, “Well, after high school I think you should just focus on getting a job and just entirely forget about going to college,” or what have you, but I ended up not heeding that advice because I knew I could do it, and I had confidence that I could go to college, so that’s the only time that I can think that there was a person who attempted to discourage me. I have always surrounded myself with those who encourage me to continue my education.

Rob: Tell us the importance of mentors.

Jose: Yes, it is important to have them in school. In the community, it doesn’t matter if it’s from the clergy, friends, or family members, because your mentors will always support you and encourage you. I had a mentor in high school who was also visually impaired. He helped me read and write braille.

 Rob: Are there any misconceptions about people who can’t see?

Jose: Yes, people think just because we don’t have someone with us 24/7 that doesn’t mean we aren’t able to navigate on campus, or any place we are. We are always encouraged to try to be independent. A lot of people think that we’re asking for a leg up, or we want soft pity from people. What we want is the same respect from people, and we just want people to recognize us for who we are, and we just want to be recognized like any other person. Also, I have heard people use the term “walking stick.” However, the proper name of what we use to walk is called a white cane.

Rob: Any closing statements?

Jose: I just want to let everyone know, especially students of the Bob Murphy ACCESS Center, you can do it. Don’t let anyone, or any obstacle, overcome you. Don’t be discouraged. As you can hear, I am here doing my studies. I am active on campus. I want to encourage everyone to make an impact on campus. Be positive.


We also sat down with Jose for our podcast. Hear more of his story here.