How does online school look like for someone who’s visually impaired? When touch is your essential connection to the world – how do you find your way from a distance?
I first met Corina in 2019 when visiting a school supported by UNICEF Romania’s Quality Inclusive Education model in Bacău county. Earlier in March, I had a chance to catch up with Corina and her mum for a couple of hours, graciously welcomed to their home.
During the repeated lockdowns and physical distancing measures, hundreds of thousands of children in Romania have been out of school and learning for far too long. The education sector was marked by massive challenges before the pandemic. Learning outcomes are poor, dropout rates high and inclusion is a faraway reality for most children living with disabilities. The pre-existing learning crisis has now – all signs point that way – worsened, particularly for the most vulnerable.
Corina is visually impaired, but far from visionless. At 16 years old, she just transitioned from lower to upper secondary school (where most of the dropout happens in the country). This first meant changing schools, classmates, familiar environment – and then suddenly shifting online. For the past six months – and counting – her means of interaction is a laptop screen.
And yet, there is not a shadow of doubt or despair in her face. Adamant she will make it to the baccalaureate and beyond – her dream is to pursue academic studies in another city – even though this may mean not being with her mum, who so far guides her steps. Her father is mostly not around as he works in Germany, coming home only every few months – a story all too familiar in Romania.
We switch between English and French, which she passionately learns. “What do you do in your free time?” I ask – “I don’t have any, I am busy studying”! Of course. Corina flips out her mobile phone, opens Facebook, finds me in five seconds and voilà, I have a friendship request. Corina smiles. She’s on TikTok and Instagram as well. Of course. She works out, twice a week, in a nearby centre. Of course. On her jacket, it says “Super Girls #Unlimited power”!
Once again, I realise that disability is not incapacity – it’s about having different abilities. That with the right kind of support from parents, teachers, friends – there are few boundaries. Just talent and adapting at play. It’s most often the others who have the blind spots, I think to myself.
I ask Corina what she’d do if there was one single thing she could change in her life, pressing a magic button. She doesn’t ponder for long – “I’d like to be able to see my mother”. She pauses. “Just for maybe a few minutes, and then I can go back – because I am happy the way I am”.
Inside the house, she flips through a book in brail. Her fingers catch sight of a word that makes her smile. I am struggling to make a decent photograph as it’s getting way too dark for my camera – and Corina can’t help laughing “I don’t need any light to read”!
Before I leave, we reflect on what photography means to her – knowing she is being photographed without being able to see the result. Corina smiles, again. “Well, I trust you. And when my mum describes a photo to me, it brings me back to the emotion of the moment.” With tears in my eyes, I realize that Corina’s wisdom has just summarized what every photographer dreams of: making someone “feel” a photograph.
As I am about to leave, we both agree that Antoine de Saint-Exupéry was right, writing in “The Little Prince” that “it is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.” It never rang truer to me.