Penniless and sightless, I arrived in the United States from Morocco more than two years ago determined to succeed, though the unknown felt overwhelming. I had no idea how I would navigate a new country, let alone technology that I had never had access to back home.
To dream of a better life had always seemed impossible. An orphan in a small, isolated village in the Middle Atlas mountains, I worked for my keep with relatives, a poor family, and could not attend school.
I had steadily been losing sight in one eye when one of those relatives beat and stabbed me in my other eye and I was abandoned at a hospital. I never saw my relatives again. I was 17 years old and totally blind.
With help from others amid years of homelessness, I made my way. I learned how to use Braille in just one day, and finished my education in a school for the blind in half the normal time. I finished college in three years, the normal pace in Morocco.
Still, my world was very small.
The only way for me to learn was usually verbal communication, and my exams were performed with the help of a sighted person through Braille or oral assignments. I needed friends and classmates to read from the internet for me since I could not afford screen-reading technology.
I had heard that a wonderful digital world existed, but without a screen reader, smartphone, iPad or tablet, it seemed like a fantasy. Braille books, my cane and my friends were the only way I could find my way.
I passed my TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) exam and boarded a plane bound for the University of Arkansas and a graduate degree in journalism, thanks to a Fulbright scholarship.
But when I arrived in the U.S., I did not know how to use a cellphone.
When I reached Fayetteville, Arkansas, I did not know the voice of my new host father, who was picking me up at the airport. But an accessibility helper at the airport assisted me. Other than that, I was lost until my host father bought me an iPhone at an expense that would have fed me and covered five months of rent in Morocco.
I was embarrassed to tell him that I didn’t know how to use it. He was so kind to learn about digital tools for the blind and explained the accessibility shortcut to the iPhone’s screen reader. Thus, I met Siri, my new eyes, and I began to explore my neighborhood, and the world. So, too, the VoiceOver screen reader never tired, never became impatient, nor ignored my requests.
Then came a computer with a screen reader, but at first I didn’t even know how to turn it on. I touched the keyboard, and it meant nothing. It felt like a bunch of useless bumps. After failing to use the first computer, my host father did more research and provided me with more machines — a talking computer, an iPad, Braille display and several talking devices, as well as a Braille keyboard. Now I could use the internet for my classes.
I had to quickly learn how to use a computer keyboard to perform my assignments. I thought I would never make it through grad school, never know my classmates or know how my professors viewed my struggles with the technology.
The people of Fayetteville soon began volunteering to read my texts out loud while I rushed to learn this new digital world. I learned how to do the basics and was thrilled after two months that I could do things that seemed so daunting at first. I started using libraries for the blind, such as Bookshare and the Library of Congress, and online Braille services.
I became an independent student, and I deeply appreciated the support of my host family, the Fulbright organization and my friends and classmates.
I realized that if people with special needs are given opportunities, they will perform and work as hard as everyone else. We only need to be given opportunities.
The Fulbright scholarship gave me the opportunity to flourish so that I can now help others.
Coming from a lonely place, where electricity was rare, a bus passed by infrequently and hope was stillborn, I’ve learned that America is not just where the latest technology flourishes, but it’s where humanity helps impossible-seeming dreams come to life.
I recently finished my master’s degree, and I can’t wait to help those who are waiting and dreaming, hope against hope, to see and hear the world come alive — to help people like me.
Itto Outini is a journalist living in Fayetteville, Arkansas. This column originally appeared in the Chicago Tribune.