Blind sisters gain new vision from biology professor

Teacher helps blind sisters 'see' science

SAN ANTONIO - Graciously seeking acceptance as normal college students is a box Katy and Olivia Shaw are trying to check.

Yet, their navigation in the classroom and through everyday life yields the inquiry they've heard a million times: 'How does it feel to be blind?'

"We do everything we can when it comes to living everyday life," Olivia said.

The 19-year-olds said being visually impaired is the only normality they've known.

They are both living with a disease affecting their vision called retinopathy. The sisters were diagnosed after being born prematurely.

Katy is blind in her right eye and the teenager has some vision in her left eye which makes reading large print possible.

Seeing is more challenging for Olivia. She has some light perception and some colors are visible to her.

However, this hasn't stopped the Shaw sisters from doing chores at home, cooking and even earning academic fortitude.

Katy has a 3.9 grade point average and Olivia has a 4.0. The sisters are both dual credit students at Northwest Vista College.

"Definitely having this impairment has made it somewhat challenging," Katy said.

The native daughters of Hawaii love science. However, the students said their classroom experience in the subject has not been beneficial towards their dreams.

"Basically, they (teachers) said just go over there and sit until we're done," Katy said.

Olivia wants to become a doctor and Katy wants to work with animals, marine biology specifically.

"It's scary to walk into a field that's so visual with a blindfold on," Olivia said.

Gladys Malave took the blindfold off.

Malave got the sisters for her biology class at Northwest Vista College. Initially, the challenge of teaching an optically driven course to the visually impaired was too weighty.

"I wanted to run," Malave said. "Not me. Not me."

But Malave settled down and thought 'why not me?'

The biology professor learned braille in less than a month. She designed everything from tactile models to brailled labeled microscopes to accommodate Olivia's needs. Katy's large prints requirements were met as well.

"It's a matter of closing your eyes and you just image you are in their shoes," Malave said.

This was a team experience. Malave said she checks with the girls to make sure she's correct.

Their teacher also revealed this classroom challenge has a personal connection.

Malave was diagnosed with autoimmune disease in 2003 and her eyes came under attack.

"My doctor said I could go blind," she said.

She resigned herself to becoming a visually impaired biology professor.

In fact, she made preparations to learn braille. Then, her eye treatments removed the danger of the educator losing sight and she pushed braille to the side.

"It just ignored the call," She said. "The call came back in the form of Olivia and Katy."

The Shaw sisters are among Malave's top students. Visual challenges are met with techniques registering from the girls' fingertips to their brains.

"It feels like we are almost you--I hate to say it likes this---normal students who are just a part of the class and able to participate in the same opportunities as everyone else," Olivia said.

There is one more Shaw sister, Elizabeth, who is scheduled to join her sisters next semester at Northwest Vista College.

Elizabeth, Olivia and Katy are triplets.  Her vision is fine, but she is hearing impaired.

The science bug didn't bite her though. Elizabeth wants to be a photographer.

Malave is readying herself in case Elizabeth has to take her biology class.

"Sign language is on my list of things to do. Definitely," she said.

© 2017 KENS-TV


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