Merced County visually impaired students face tough odds. Here’s how three succeeded

Three visually impaired Merced County students are getting ready for college thanks to the support of technology and a special education program.

Merced resident Osvaldo “Ozzy” Martinez, 19, and 18-year-olds Morgan Jacobs of Hilmar and Robert Smith of Atwater are blind or visually impaired, which made it tougher for them to fit in with classmates since they started school, according to a Merced County Office of Education news release.

Martinez, who is completely blind, was at first reluctant to use his white cane during school despite it being essential for his independence and mobility, according the the release.

Courtesy of Merced County Office of Education

But with teacher and peer support, he found success in school and as a member of high school leadership for two years, becoming the junior class vice president. Now, he’ plans to study psychology at Merced College to help future students who travel his path.

“I just wanted to accept myself,” Martinez said. “I am who I am.”

Jacobs, has a retinal detachment and retinopathy of prematurity, according to the release. But she will be attending California State University - Stanislaus hoping to study psychiatry or social work.

Jacobs has tried fitting in at school in spite of her visual impairment, once being “very quiet and shy,” said Maria Duran-Barajas, special education director at MCOE.

Courtesy of Merced County Office of Education

But through the special education program, Jacobs had access to technology that enlarged the text in books and assignments, helping her to overcome reluctance and graduate, the release states.

Duran-Barajas also credited Jacobs’ counselor for helping ensure Jacobs could continue receiving support when she moves to CSUS.

Smith is 97 percent blind due to muscular atrophy of the optic nerve. But that didn’t stop him from securing a spot at UCLA hoping to go into business or economics.

Smith’s “teacher of the visually impaired” provided specialized Braille technology that allowed him to access the books and information he needs to participate and succeed in classes, according to the release.

Courtesy of Merced County Office of Education

The former Atwater High Falcons running back and defensive lineman has goals of possibly becoming a businessman working with the New York Stock Exchange and becoming a politician, credited his success to hard work.

Smith’s football coach and teammates were inspired by his resolve, enough to name the team’s “most inspirational award” after him.

The technology and support the three graduates received will be extended to lower grades and the 70 visually impaired students in Merced County, the release states.

“I’ve learned through (these students) what the needs are for visually impaired students and how they can be successful in life,” said Duran-Barajas, who took over supervision of MCOE’s visually impaired program four years ago. “I’m very appreciative of the support they have received from the district staff.”