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ORANGE COUNTY PEOPLE: ACHIEVEMENTS AND CELEBRATIONS
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Hardship Breeds Tenacity

Ana Garcia, who is legally blind, said she didn't pursue an education until she began to lose her sight. New worlds have opened, she says.

April 19, 2001|LYNN O'DELL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Ana Garcia had a secret. She was going blind.

She bumped into people, had trouble with stairs and occasionally gave the wrong change at the outdoor swap meet where she worked..

Only 18, the young Mexican immigrant who spoke no English came to the United States to find out what was wrong with her vision. The answer was retinitis pigmentosa--RP--a degenerative disease that slowly destroys vision. There is no cure.

She didn't want to tell her employers or her boyfriend. As her vision worsened, she became deeply depressed.

Thirteen years later, Ana Garcia is a Braille Institute success story--proficient in English and Spanish, a single mother, a junior majoring in sociology at Cal State Fullerton and a reservations agent for Marriott Worldwide Reservation Center in Santa Ana.

She's a happy statistic: Only one in three visually impaired people of employment age is in the work force, according to the institute.

Garcia has even bigger plans, she hopes to be a teacher. And these days, she can even laugh about being legally blind.

But her journey hasn't been easy.

She came to the United States in 1988 from Mexico with her mother and started seeing doctors in Orange County. It wasn't until a year later that her problem was diagnosed. But the doctor didn't tell her anything about her disease except that her poor night vision and difficulty with depth perception would worsen until she was blind.

Later, a doctor at UCI Medical Center explained RP, which is like having tunnel vision or looking at the world through a telescope's constantly shrinking aperture. The cause is unknown, although it may be genetic. In advanced cases, the patient's central vision fails.

Garcia said she doesn't consider herself blind because she still has light perception and can see indistinct shadows.

In her early 20s, Garcia left home and moved in with her boyfriend--who left her two days before the birth of their daughter, Amy. That was eight years ago and Garcia, who prefers to count blessings, said her vision then still was good enough that she was able to see her baby's face.

With her mother's help, Garcia managed to care for Amy and return to school, where her lack of English skills meant seven years working on an associate of arts degree.

She learned Braille and mastered a computer program with audio software that enables her to type without being able to see.

"She's a great gal and very determined," said Kelly Perez, training manager at the Marriott reservations center, where Garcia is among 15 employees who are blind or visually impaired.

Among the skills she's had to master for her job, one of the toughest is listening to Marriott customers with one ear and simultaneously to her "talking computer" with the other. Perez said that all of the reservation center managers have had to take a class in which they try to do the job the same way the sight-impaired employees do. "Eighty percent of them walk out of there with headaches," she said.

Perez met Garcia at the Braille Institute's Orange County Center in Anaheim, where Garcia turned for help after her daughter was born. She took mobility and typing classes and worked as a receptionist in the front office. It was through the institute that Garcia found the Marriott job.

Garcia admits she still has bouts of depression because of her RP, but is able to offset it by reminding herself that her visual problems led her to pursue an education.

And, she says, she was inspired by a blind couple, Don and Lisa Brown, she met at a restaurant where she worked as a cashier years ago.

"She was a speech teacher and he was a lawyer and he told me he had RP, too," Garcia said.

The couple told her about the Braille Institute and encouraged her to pursue an education, she said.

Even though her vision has continued to erode, Garcia said new worlds have opened for her. She's developed a love for opera, is studying French and Italian, and intends to pursue a master's in special education and become a teacher after she completes her bachelor's degree.

"I'd rather stay blind and have an education," she said. "I went to school mostly because of my vision problem. I'd probably still be working as a cashier and might not have even learned English" if her failing eyesight had not driven her to action.

For more information, Braille Institute Orange County Center, (714) 821-5000; Web site: http://www.brailleinstitute.org.

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