JEROME Santiago was on the brink when he failed for the second time in a subject in the financial management program that required countless graphical analyses. Santiago’s ordeals were heightened by the fact that he has been suffering from congenital glaucoma since he was one year old.

The professor in the subject once told him, “Kung ‘yong mga classmate mo na malilinaw ‘yong mata, nahihirapan doon sa subject na ‘yon, doble or triple ‘yong hirap ‘pag hindi mo nakikita ‘yong graph na kailangan mo i-analyze para ma-solve ‘yong problem.”

To pass the subject on his third attempt, the College of Commerce and Business Administration agreed that the professor would translate the graphs into verbal descriptions so Santiago could provide the required calculations. It was a laborious task, but Santiago saw glimmers of hope.

He passed.

Santiago remained unfazed in aiming for his college diploma despite the congenital glaucoma delaying and agonizing his educational journey. He was already 27 years old when he marched inside the Quadricentennial Pavilion on June 8 as one of the 532 graduates of Commerce for the Class of 2024.

The doctor diagnosed him with this irreversible eye disease in 1998. Congenital glaucoma, which causes gradual vision loss because of optic nerve degeneration, is the third leading cause of blindness in the Philippines, according to the government’s third national survey on blindness conducted between October 2001 and May 2002.

Everything was normal for Santiago when he was growing up in San Mateo, Isabela, a municipality that is 55 kilometers away from the provincial capital of Ilagan City. He was the fifth of six children in the family.

Things turned upside down when he entered Grade 4. The congenital glaucoma, which by then had begun showing symptoms, dramatically altered his life, as the medical treatments forced him to stop schooling from 2005 to 2010.

Santiago had no plans to return to campus anymore, but his doctor gave him an unexpected nudge.

’Yong ophthalmologist, sinasabi niya na wala nang chance na mapalinaw ulit [eyesight ko], so sabi niya, bakit hindi na lang subukan na […] i-send sa school for the blind para baka sakali makapagpatuloy pa sa pag-aaral,” he said. “Doon ulit nagkaroon ng direction ‘yong life ko.

For one year, the school of the blind taught Santiago how to live in the dark: He was taught how to read and write through braille letters and deal with assistive technology.

Confident of what he learned, Santiago returned to public school in Isabela to finish Grade 4. At 17 years old, he earned his elementary diploma.

Learning to be independent

Since he was fervent to study at UST, Santiago endured the nine-hour trip from his hometown to reach the busy streets of España, where he would learn the tough lesson of being independent despite his disability.

Iba kasi talaga ‘yong environment sa college compared sa high school so first time kong mag-college with that environment na hindi na spoon-feeding style,” he said, adding, “Most of the time, sarili mo lang maaasahan mo kapag nagkakaroon ng academic requirements, so andoon talaga ‘yong kailangan mong mag-adapt as a student.”

Santiago dreamed of becoming an engineer who would take the helm of constructing skyscrapers, as mathematics is his forte. But what’s the point, he said, of taking engineering if he had lost his ability to see?

He chose the financial management program because it’s a career that can maximize his mathematical prowess without exerting much effort on visually managing things.

The first two years of online classes had proven to be beneficial because travel was not an issue. Santiago used assistive technology to take quizzes and exams.

When face-to-face classes gradually resumed in 2022, his companion living with him at the apartment was an all-around guide who fetched and picked him up daily. When the professors dismissed the class early, Santiago’s blockmates assisted him in attending the next class.

Professors themselves had to make necessary adjustments. One of them was Jake Rovin Morales, a UST Senior High School instructor who taught physical science.

Morales, Santiago said, formed clay balls to discuss electrons and coded the 118 elements of the periodic table in braille letters. It quelled Santiago’s fears that he would stump at the subject.

Naging very resourceful si sir at the time, and then ako, nakakahiya naman kung hindi ako mag-effort,” Santiago said, adding, “Parang doon din ako na-inspire and sobrang na-motivate na pag-aralan [‘yong subject].”

Other professors, however, registered fears about Santiago’s future that turned out to be more discouraging than intended.

“In her opinion lang naman daw, kahit matapos ko ‘yong degree, she doesn’t think na ma-apply ko ‘yong napag-aralan ko sa real world kasi dahil nga sa pagiging visually impaired [ko], meron talagang inaccessibility and challenge na hindi mo kakayanin,” Santiago said.

Tinatanong ako kung gusto ko raw ba mag-shift ng other majors like human resource or entrepreneurship. Sabi ko is, ‘No.’ Naniniwala naman ako na kakayanin ko siya, and then ‘yong mga points na sinabi niya, parang very minimal naman siya. Parang nado-down ka lang eh.”

Santiago said inclusivity for people with disability (PWD) starts with a wealth of understanding from the higher-ups, where they can respond to the needs of the students without sacrificing the exigencies of the academe.

He also believes that accommodation for PWDs during the UST entrance test can spell the difference in avoiding blocking their dreams of entering the university.

Kailangan ng education and proper awareness ‘yong mga UST staff kung paano ba magco-conduct ng test sa visually impaired or students with disability, kung paano ba tutulungan ‘yong may mga mobility impairment like if they’re using wheelchairs or clutches,” Santiago said.

The newly minted graduate clings to the hope that more students with disability will be granted equal opportunities to receive quality education.

“I believe na marami pang visually impaired or students with disabilities, in general, na very talented din, pero hopeful na in the future, marami pang maka-graduate sa UST kasi I believe na kahit na may disability ‘yong tao, we’re still entitled sa quality education,” Santiago stressed.


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