When USF student Rebecca “Becky” Skipper was little, her parents rearranged their living room furniture without her knowing.
They wanted to drive home the point that things would not always be the same in life.
Skipper was born 26 weeks premature, and she was put on 100 percent oxygen. At six months old, she was diagnosed with retinopathy of prematurity – where additional blood vessels grow in the eye – pulling the retinas away from the eyes.
It left her blind.
And even after finishing a bachelor’s degree, Skipper still wasn’t sure what she wanted to do with her life. But she recently realized her particular strength is helping individuals with disabilities, said Stephanie Maatta, Skipper’s adviser at USF.
Several surgeries allowed Skipper, who also has high frequency hearing loss, to develop light perception and detect the direction light comes from.
“I’ve never seen shapes, shadows, images … I see parts rather than the whole. For example, if I’m going to my dorm, I understand at this point I turn left or right and the dorm is so many feet,” said Skipper, 27.
If her automated device that detects color tells her a shirt is light, she knows to match it with something the sensor says is dark.
“Color is a very hard concept for me to understand,” she said.
Skipper can hear vehicles, though it’s difficult to tell what direction they come from. But she knows when the Bull Runner C bus she rides nearly every day is close. The bus driver always calls her name.
“Even though life was challenging growing up, I had the best of both worlds because I was around individuals with and without visual impairment … it gives me a different perspective,” said Skipper, who is from Bartow.
Using technology presents a challenge as well.
Skipper uses a digital recorder with eight keys representing Braille letters to help with her schoolwork. As she types, Braille forms along a pad for her to read.
To navigate files on her laptop, she uses JAWS – an automated program that tells her what is showing on screen.
“When it says ‘option,’ I just picture, ‘OK, what’s an option?’ I’ve never seen the screen … most of the time I picture things in Braille,” she said.
Sometimes, she uses Duxbury, a computer program in the USF Library that translates print into Braille within a Word document that prints via a Braille Embosser.
“Because Braille things are presented as they would appear on a page in print, usually I can get the layout of a page,” she said. “I can understand the punctuation, the spelling, I get the visual orientation of a page.”
But Skipper said she doesn’t think about these things too much. She prefers the term “visual impairment,” and she said she’s just like everyone else.
“Rather than thinking that I’m someone to be fixed, I’d rather think I’m someone who has limitations like everyone else that I have to overcome,” she said. “I think the biggest difference I’ve seen is the degree of how people don’t understand how visual impairment varies and how people’s reactions to it vary.
“Sometimes, people will think of the disability first before they consider the person. And I prefer (that) people consider me first.”
Skipper – the only one in her family with a visual impairment – said sometimes she wishes she could see, though.
“I would rather focus on what I know now because seeing is another world,” she said. “I mean sure my dogs, for example, I would give anything to see some of the cute things they do (or) my mom’s face, but I think I have my own way of seeing, and it makes me enjoy life just as much.”
When it was time to pick someone for the 2010 Association on Higher Education And Disability Graduate Scholarship, Skipper was the first person that came to Robert Kindya’s mind.
The $1,000 scholarship, which is based on disability-related leadership and academics, among other things, selects one graduate student from around the country.
They chose Skipper. “It’s a very big honor,” she said.
Kindya, coordinator of Assistive Technology for Students with Disabilities Services (SDS), said Skipper is always looking for opportunities to help someone.
“Last semester, we had an adult blind student … He was a construction worker and he went blind and had to come back to school to try and learn a new trade, and Becky volunteered to help him,” Kindya said.
Kindya said 610 students receive accommodations from SDS – and Skipper has given her perspective on how to make the campus more accessible. She’s particularly concerned about the Bull water fountains in front of the Marshall Student Center.
An individual who may not be able to track noise well could be unable to identify the drop off into the fountain, said Raquel Peverini, Americans with Disabilities Act coordinator for the Office of Diversity and Equal Opportunity.
“There’s a little of what we call detectable warning – a difference between one surface (and) another surface … what she is kind of worried about is the flagstones, which are beautiful visually, (but) might not be enough warning to let a person know that there’s a change,” Peverini said.
Peverini said she’s consulted Skipper about other initiatives, including a campus pedestrian map, new university Web sites and creating a disability checklist to use in new construction.
“Becky is a wonderful advocate. She’s very familiar with various laws and regulations, and she has a real skilled way of presenting her information so that people are receptive to hearing her,” Peverini said.
But Skipper said she’s the one that’s been inspired. The people she has met are a real encouragement.
“They’ve inspired me to continue what I do, and I’m glad I can make a difference, but the real difference for me is being blessed with the ability to collaborate with the other people on campus,” she said.
“She’s definitely an inspiration to me,” said USF student Luis Perez, who met Skipper three years ago and also has a visual impairment. “… She’s really determined, and she’s really pursuing her goals.”
Skipper is in line to graduate this spring with a master’s degree in library and information science, and she was recently accepted into USF’s Structural Design Program. She said she’s looking for a job now.
“I tend to believe that after this life, you go to heaven and you’re made in God’s image, and if we’re made in God’s image and we go to heaven, we’re one with God so … probably visual impairment wouldn’t exist,” she said. “You become who you’re meant to be. You’re not suffering … You celebrate with everyone else, and I think when you’re living in this life, you celebrate the differences.”