2018 Holman Prize : Blind Empowerment in Mexico

2018 Holman Prize winner Maria Conchita Hernandez smiling at the camera

Once again, I had the pleasure of speaking with all of the three 2018 Holman Prize winners.

Beginning today, I’ll introduce you to each of the winners. You’ll get to know a bit about them and their plans for the $25K Holman Prize.

We’re then going to go back and catch up with the 2017 winners and hear about their progress and more.

First up, Maria Conchita Hernandez. Having had access to opportunity and information that helped her form a positive view of blindness and disability, she wants to pay it forward.

Remember, links mentioned in this episode are below as well as a transcript.

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Show the transcript


Audio: “More Peas”, The J.B’s

Greetings all and welcome to another episode of Reid My Mind Radio.

I’m your host, T.Reid

If you’re a regular listener, glad to have you back. You know where everything is so come on in and get comfortable. Allow me a moment to greet those who are here for the first time.

Ladies, Gentlemen.

Reid My Mind Radio is my space to bring you interviews with people with interesting stories to share more often about blindness or low vision. It’s also a place for me to share my own experiences with blindness as I move along this journey. As I continue to learn and grow I suspect you’ll see some of that reflected here both in the topics and in how they’re presented.

If you’ve been riding with me for at least the past year, you may recall that in 2017 I brought you interviews with the Holman Prize winners.

Not familiar with the Holman Prize? We’re about to get into that.
First, I encourage you to go back and listen to each of the 2017 episodes.

Today though, it’s all about the 2018 winners. I’ll bring you each of the three in a separate episode. So let’s get started with the first…right after my intro music.

Audio: Reid My Mind Radio Intro Theme


The San Francisco Lighthouse for the second year in a row, awarded a $25,000 Holman Prize to each of three individuals who in their own way demonstrate the adventurous spirit of James Holman.

All applicants had to create a 90 second video describing their ambition and how they would use the money.
A team of judges all of whom are blind reviewed each video and eventually selected three winners.

Born in 1786 James Holman a veteran of the British Royal Navy became blind at 25 years old after an illness.

After studying medicine and literature he became an adventurer, author and social observer who circumnavigated the globe.

Undertaking a series of solo journeys that were unprecedented visiting all inhabited continents.

Our first 2018 Holman Prize recipient is Maria Conchita Hernandez.

When I was five years old my family decided to move to the United States. It was only supposed to be a temporary thing… go check it out.
I think my mom really saw the difference between kind of what we had available to us in terms of education but also medically wise. So we ended up staying and we became undocumented at that time when we decided to overstay our visa.

One of 5 children, both Conchita and her brother were eventually diagnosed with Optic Atrophy.

but I don’t think that’s actually what I have. I went to an Ophthalmologist like two years ago and he’s like yeh I don’t think that’s what you have.

I’m color blind, I do very bad with light, I don’t have depth perception so I definitely should have had a cane way before I did.


That awareness of her lack of blindness skills as a child Conchita would eventually come to understand. After not accepting large print, dealing with headaches resulting from reading standard print, she still graduated with a 3.4 GPA.

That’s why people were like you don’t need help You’re doing fine. The thing is I was struggling but because I was smart I could figure stuff out and I feel like that’s the same in college.


For many the time spent in college are considered formidable years shaping political views often for a lifetime.

Growing up in California, Conchita had an early start in activism.


So I went to public school. I grew up in California and I ended up graduating high school and going on to college.

I’ve always been into Civil Rights and advocacy. People are like oh what were you doing in high school I was organizing walk outs (laughs…) for immigration. That’s what I was doing, but I never really learned anything about disability or blindness or anything and I didn’t consider myself blind because there’s such a negative idea around it. My teachers never told me I was or anything, they were like oh you are visually impaired you can’t see very well. It was always like a focus on kind of seeing it as this deficit as opposed to something positive.

During her senior year at Saint Mary’s, a small liberal arts school in California, Conchita took a political science course.

My Professor was Blind. He was like oh ok so you are Blind and I was like no don’t confuse me with those people.

(Laughs along with TR)
He said you should really go to this conference and I was like no, I’m good. So one day he took me to his office and was like you’re going to go to this conference, I’m going to call them and they’re going to pay for you to go. And so he calls like the President of the NFB in California and was like there’s this young lady here and you’re going to pay for her to go. Get her everything and I was like alright I guess I have to go and I don’t even know who these people are. And so my first introduction to blindness in a positive light and to really the disability community was when in my senior year I went to a national NFB conference. And that is where I was just kind of blown away.


With such negative stereotypes around blindness, it’s common for those with residual sight to choose not to identify as blind. Often even encouraged.


My teachers always told me you know you’re so lucky cause at least you can see something. You know I had these very Ablest ideas what blindness was and disability and when I met all of these blind people I realized people that were totally blind were doing more stuff than what I was doing because I didn’t have the skills . I didn’t know how to travel independently. Up until that point I never went anywhere by myself. I traveled the world, I went abroad, but I was always with someone. I had this fear of going by myself because I wasn’t sure what I would do. In my mind what was wrong was that I couldn’t see not that I didn’t have the skills because I didn’t even know that was a thing.

That thing? A strong, positive view of what it means to be blind, to be disabled; not only would that become her thing, but it became the foundation for her Holman Ambition.

First, she enrolled in a blindness training program. She learned how to properly use the white cane, Braille, access technology

She knew then she wanted to give other blind children access to the information she didn’t receive.


I didn’t have good teachers of the blind who really should have showed me all of these things No one showed me Assistive Technology. Nobody showed me Braille because I saw too much, but yet I couldn’t function like everybody else.

I ended up going to this Master’s Program at Louisiana Tech and I got my Masters in teaching Blind students.


After working as a Rehab Counselor in Nebraska, Conchita moved to Washington DC where’s she’s been teaching blind students for over 6 years. She’s currently pursuing a doctorate in special education.


I also run a nonprofit on the side which is kind of where the Holman comes in. I started it three years ago with several friends who are also professionals in the blindness field.


That organization is called METAS. An acronym for Mentoring, Engaging and Teaching All Students.

The organization was formed after founding member Garrick Scott received an invitation to serve as a mentor at a school for blind children in Guadalajara. Not being a Spanish speaker, he invited his friend Conchita to join him.


I was like alright if we’re going we’re going to have a curriculum. We’re going to have workshops we’re going to set it up organized , we’re not just going to randomly go on a trip. So we ended up building a curriculum, building these classes.


Two other colleagues; Sachin Pavithran and Richie Flores joined Conchita and Garrick to form the organization.

We’re training the teachers on how to work with blind students because there is no certification for teachers. It’s mostly physical therapists, or occupational therapists or just people who were like I just wanted to help people. So they don’t really have a background in education of blind students.

after we went to Mexico we decided we need to be a nonprofit so that we can ask for money and we can make this something sustainable. So three years ago we did this and we’re all blind, we’re all professionals in the blindness field we’re all people of color and we’re all really passionate about what we do

Audio Conchita Holman Prize Submission


Continuing to build on that passion, Conchita submitted her proposal to create a conference in Mexico providing training and informational workshops for people impacted by blindness.


Anybody who is blind, parents of blind children and professionals in the field.

The goal is to bring people together and organize. . I believe organizing people together and having them advocate for their rights and advocating for what they want makes the world of difference. And that’s what changed in the United States. The reason we have the laws we have, we’re not special, we’re not more advanced than any other country even though people think we are. We’re not smarter. It just so happened that the right people were in the right places at the right time .

I think organizing the Blind in Mexico so that they can see this positive idea of blindness and having parents see this positive idea is going to really transform them being able to advocate for themselves

We’re going to be providing workshops from Orientation and Mobility, to Braille to Advocacy to parents of Blind children. Recognizing the situation is different in Mexico than it is in the United States, But power of people together in one place advocating for their rights can be a really powerful thing.

In Mexico, poverty and policy are some reasons that account for the differences in the lack of education among children who are blind. Conchita once described a blind child’s options as a choice between a beggar or living with their family for the duration of their lives.


60 percent of the kids who are blind or low vision have zero education. That’s not even to the 6th grade.

In the United States we have IDEA which says public school has to take you and has to provide accommodations . You have a right to a free and appropriate public education. That doesn’t exist in Mexico. A public school can tell you I’m sorry but we don’t know how to help you we don’t know how to educate you.

So you don’t have access to public education.

The only state run school for the blind is in Mexico City and the others are privately run which means they charge some type of tuition. The school we work at in Guadalajara, they go up to 6th grade. It’s kind of like a boarding school or kids can go there just for the day.

The thing is there’s nothing after 6th grade.

you can go up until free public education in 12th grade but you have to buy your books in all public schools even kindergarten, you have to buy your uniforms, you have to buy your lunch. So parents make the choice well do we have enough to pay for that or should you start working. So it ends up being are we going to pay for 6 more years of books uniforms or lunches really any school supply or are you going to go to work. Many times the kids decide on their own , I’m going to go to work because I’m going to support my family.

The good thing is there’s a lot of family support. But it ends up being the family taking care of them as opposed to them living independently. The people who live independently are few and far in between.

[TR in conversation with Conchita]


I inherently believe that people should have access to information, access to resources no matter where they live.


Conchita and her METAS team have already seen examples of the success their curriculum can have.


We hosted this workshop in McAllen Texas which is in the Rio Grande Valley where we worked with 16 blind adults and their families who are Spanish speakers. And so they learned, many of them for the first time, how to use a cane, how to do Braille, technology and daily living skills. And then we had workshops for the families. We had an activity where we asked them what are your fears and expectations and dreams for your family member. And it was a lot of fears and kind of what are they going to do when we’re not here and how are they going to be able to do such and such. By the end of the workshop it was just amazing to see how excited they were. They were saying now we want to know how we can support them in being independent and how can we help them reach their goals. We know they’re going to be fine because we met these great blind people.

Some things to consider when planning this conference? Organizing from outside of the country’s borders is just one.

[TR in conversation with Conchita]
Are there going to be some challenges to kind of get everyone in one room? Just financial challenges?


Yeh definitely. I think that’s going to be the biggest barrier.

So with Part of the money we’re offering scholarships to people so they can travel there.

We’re trying to make connections with organizations that can serve as sponsors that can also provide financing for people in their state. Different states have different policy. So for example The state is Jalisco and the city is Guadalajara, they have an Office of Disability that’s a state level position. So they have money and grants that we’re planning on applying to also help pay for this. But also having the blind people from the different places apply to those grants and in those entities and also try to get companies to sponsor in order to make that feasible. That is going to be the biggest challenge.

the goal is 200 people .

[TR in conversation with Conchita]
Are you familiar with the political structure there in Mexico?

There’s so many layers. Mexico just had a presidential election and the left wing government won. That can be a positive for disability. In Latin America historically the more left leaning countries have done disability laws.


While the Holman Prize is specifically to assist with bringing this project to fruition, the real goal with any sort of movement is sustainability.


So I see this as being the beginning of something annual and having it be whatever the people there want it to be. Having them have the buy in that they will be the ones to do most of the organizing for the next time and they will be the ones who are like this is what we need and this is how we want to do it. So definitely having it be an annual thing but being run more locally as opposed to me who is in a different country.

Even though I am Mexican, even though I understand the situation, that is not my reality and so being very careful about not telling people what to do but rather giving them the resources and information and letting them decide what they want to do , I think that’s really important.


The conference will be held in Guadalajara Mexico tentatively scheduled for July 26 through the 29th 2019.

Conchita is also a founding member of the Coalition of Latinx’s with Disabilities. This advocacy organization consists of individuals with disabilities from throughout the Latino diaspora. They work on issues including immigration.


There was a guy who was Deaf who was in a detention center being held by ICE and so we did a lot of advocacy on his behalf. He didn’t have an interpreter. He knew home sign, that his family invented. He didn’t have formal sign language from the states or from the country he was coming from. So he had no way of communicating with anybody except his sister and that was denied to him while he was in detention. So we really advocated for his release and for him getting accommodations. So he was eventually released.

I think more than anything it’s just disability is a whole different world in the Latin X community. There’s a lot of stereotype and it’s just a different history. So just finding a group of individuals who kind of are proud of being disabled and who also have Latinx backgrounds who can share this and advocate for each other.

A lot of people ask me this. They say do you think Latinx’s have a more negative idea of disability? And what I say is we just don’t have access to information. So the fact that I had to go to college to find out about this is an injustice because the majority of people who are big disability rights advocates are white, wealthy, college educated.

and so there was a hash tag, I don’t know if that was a couple of years ago, that was disability too white.

[TR in conversation with Conchita]
too white, yeh, yeh!
If you come from a working poor background you’re not going to go to college panels about disability.

When we talk about the history of the disability rights movement in the United States we leave out all of the people of color who were there and they never get highlighted

When the disability rights movement was happening in California and they were organizing and protesting at the capital, The Black panthers were the ones providing food and there were a lot of disability rights advocates who were teaching the Black panthers how to organize. There was just so much collaboration and that really gets left out of the conversation about the ADA and how it came about and you see a lot of white faces. I think a reason why the ADA was passed under the Republican leadership was because they painted it as a white issue . The people signing were white. I mean those people are also really amazing people and I’m friends with some of them. There really amazing but we always leave out the people of color that were just as much doing as much work as anybody else, but we don’t hear about them as much.

[TR in conversation with Conchita]

Why should disability be different from the rest of society, right? (Laughs…)

Yeh, exactly! (Laugh)


It’s pretty clear to see that Conchita is an educator at heart. Her own experiences are guiding her desire to share the knowledge about blindness and disability that she wishes she could have gained earlier in life.

She can’t change when she received the information, but she’s doing everything possible to pass along her message.


blindness doesn’t have to be as detrimental as we make it out to be. What tools can you use as a blind person to do x, y and z. As a parent of a blind child what kind of expectations should you be setting for your child and it’s something as easy as make your blind child do chores, don’t let them sit back while everybody else does. There’s ways to have them do it. Have them do the same things their siblings do. Something so simple can really make a huge difference.

Congratulations to Conchita and METAS. Looking forward to hearing good things about your efforts in Mexico and other projects in the future.

If you want to follow their progress or learn more you can visit www.MetasInternational.org. The site contains a link to their Facebook page which Conchita says is more frequently updated.

You can find the National Coalition for Latinxs with Disabilities

Of course we’ll have links on Reid My Mind.com.

TR: Gatewave
This is Thomas Reid for Gatewave Radio. Audio for independent living.

TR: Close

It’s probably no coincidence that James Holman’s adventures began after his education. That curiosity pushing him to seek out more real life experiences.

Our first 2018 Holman Prize winner featured today has a similar sequence. However, her mission is pretty specific. Empower other blind people who have little opportunities to improve their own lives by organizing with others who are blind.

Next time I’ll bring you the second of three 2018 Holman prize winners. Then we’re going to reach back out to our 2017 winners and Reid My Mind Radio alumni…

Penny Melville Brown of Baking Blind

Ahmet Ustenel AKA The Blind Captain

Ojok Simon, The Bee Keeper & Honey Farmer!

We’ll hear about what worked with their plans and what sort of adjustments were required. And of course lessons learned.

If there’s one lesson I want Reid My Mind Radio listeners to learn; that would be , how to subscribe to this podcast.

Apple Podcast, Google Podcast, Sound Cloud, Stitcher or Tune In Radio. Of course, whatever podcast app you use, you can find it there by search for Reid My Mind Radio. Just remember, that’s R to the E I D!

Each episode lives on the blog, ReidMyMind.com where I include links to any resources and a transcript.


Being very careful about not telling people what to do but rather giving them the resources and information and letting them decide what they want to do.

Audio: Reid My Mind Radio Outro



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