persons with disability

[New School] Being a blind student in film school

Charlie Vitug
[New School] Being a blind student in film school

Alyssa Arizabal/Rappler

'My college has been so inclusive to me, never treating me different from others, but still being accommodating whenever necessary'

In December of 2013, I was diagnosed with bilateral optic neuropathy (i.e., permanent damage on the optic nerves of both eyes). While the condition does not entail total loss of vision, it causes me to be highly dependent on low vision devices and accessibility features such as magnification and text-to-speech. The cause remains to be unknown, so it has also been difficult for even the best doctors to find a cure. 

I was just 10 years old back then. In the start, it was unclear why eye glasses were not enough considering it was our first time hearing of such a condition. Ophthalmologists initially suggested that it could be glaucoma or a brain tumor. 10-year-old me had no clue what either of these possible conditions were. I remember heading straight to an eye clinic after class in the fifth grade and having this exchange with the head doctor: 

Me: “Am I gonna die?”

Them: “We don’t know yet.”

Me: “Oh. Okay.”

Luckily, it was neither glaucoma nor a brain tumor, but it was the start of me being terrified of what the future entailed for me. I used to be on the honors roll in school but quickly started failing classes in middle school and high school. Everyone around me knew that it was because of the sudden loss in vision, but part of me knew that it was also because of the loss of motivation.

We experimented with several low vision gadgets that would help me cope with the mainstream curriculum (having chosen not to attend a school for the blind) until a low vision specialist told me that the best gadget to aid me was an iPad. Yes, an iPad. I spent the rest of middle school and high school using its camera to zoom in to read and write. This was helpful in allowing me to participate in activities but just until the bare minimum, finishing reading comprehension quizzes in school but never actually finishing the assigned story. It was also quite depressing outside of school, having grown up loving drawing and playing tennis but eventually struggling to perform these activities with blurred vision and blind spots. 

Now being 19 years old and taking film studies in college, things are somehow turning out well for me in terms of academics and extracurriculars. I finally got back on the honors roll despite not having much improvement in vision. There were several factors to this, but perhaps the biggest ones were having a strong support system and a sudden boost in motivation. 

My family has always been incredibly supportive. This has always been the case. Perhaps the biggest change was the school. My college has been so inclusive to me, never treating me different from others, but still being accommodating whenever necessary. It is a wonderful middle ground between feeling safe enough to ask for help and not being separated from the rest of students. For the first time, I was no longer known as “the blind kid” in school. This inclusivity could be seen in almost everyone in the college, including but not limited to professors, students, guards, and of course, the office in charge of inclusive education. It felt unbelievable at first, formerly coming from a school that tried to convince me into transferring to an institution for the blind.

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There are still occasional challenges here and there. My first short film assignment for class required a bunch of reshoots for the funniest reason — I did not notice the Lysol spray bottle in the background. Not realizing small details became a recurring issue for a while. Nonetheless, the passion still remains there. I also decided to focus more on screenwriting, a skill in filmmaking that required less eyesight. 

I love being a screenwriter because it allows me to write about what I want to see and having a production team bring that sight to me — a sight that would have been difficult for me to experience and appreciate (in terms of visuals) outside of a movie set. People often ask me if filmmaking is a difficult course for me because of how dependent it is on visuals, which is a legitimate concern, but it eventually occurred to me that whatever course would have been difficult for me because of that reason. It was passion and support for that passion that drove me. 

It has almost been a decade since the low vision specialist told me to use an iPad camera to cope with daily life. Being so dependent on cameras back then makes becoming a film student feel like a full circle moment. Instead of being dependent on cameras, it is now cameras that empower me and allow me to bring stories to life. 

Of course, this is not the case for everyone. I understand that I come from a position of privilege for being part of communities that are capable of being so supportive and for not losing the entirety of my vision in general. I definitely could not have made it through without the family, friends, and institutions that have been so supportive. –

Charlie Vitug is a film student at the De La Salle-College of Saint Benilde. She wrote and directed the short film Romuelda (2022), which recently won Best Screenplay at the Hong Kong Super Short Film Festival 2022.

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