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20130920 LJISD Visual-disability-award 1269LA JOYA—Twenty years ago, Irma Ramirez dropped off her children at school and arrived at work when she realized she had trouble seeing one September morning.

A data entry clerk at La Joya Independent School District , Ramirez couldn’t see the words on the screen. She immediately went to a doctor who diagnosed her with Usher Syndrome, a genetic disorder affecting both sight and vision.

Ramirez’s sight went quickly.

“You right away say, ‘What am I going to do? You look at your life,” she said. “What is it you want to do? And I said, ‘I still want to be normal. I still want to travel. I still want to work.’”

Two decades later, Ramirez said she’s proud to see the district recognized for working with her and others with disabilities. Monday, the Texas Department of Assistive and Rehabilitative Services presented Jimmy Carter Early College High School, where Ramirez works in a variety of roles, with the Division of the Blind 2013 Business of the Year Award.

Ramirez left the school district in 1995 when she completely lost her vision. At the time she had four children, ranging in ages from 8 to 16. Her daughter soon had to learn to drive in order to get everyone around. Ramirez realized if she wanted to go back to work she’d either have to learn to get around with a cane or a guide dog.

That’s when she got involved with the Department of Assistive and Rehabilitative Services.

“They were the ones who said, ‘You can still work. You can still do things you normally do,” Ramirez said. “It took determination and a lot of training.”

“It was not easy. It was tough. A lot of people say, ‘It looks like you can see because you’re moving your eyes and you’re looking at me.’”

However, getting used to a new lifestyle took time. Ramirez had to relearn things as basic as getting dressed or eating a meal. Her children had to learn, too. When at a restaurant, they tell her where the drink and the food are located by saying, “Mom, the tea is at 1 o’clock” or “the bread is at 12 o’clock.”

Ramirez opted for a guide dog over using a cane. Her daughter saw a news story on an organization out of New York called Guiding Eyes, a dog training school that provides guides to the blind and visually impaired at no cost.

A trip to get her first dog, a Labrador named Kirby in 1998, was Ramirez’s first time in New York. She was there for a month, learning how to cross five lanes of New York City traffic and navigate the subway with only Kirby to show her the way.

“I said if I can do it in New York, I think I can do it anywhere,” Ramirez said.

She’s been back to New York twice more for two more dogs over the years. Kirby lived eight years, and Stanley, another Labrador, replaced him. Just last year, Ramirez got Kyra, a golden retriever.

Ramirez gets attached to each of them, and they all have different personalities, she said. For example, she can tell Kyra, her first female companion, loves the mall and attention.

She returned to La Joya ISD as a volunteer in 1998, doing whatever fill-in jobs were needed, but she was hired back full-time 10 months later. The school district provided her with a computer that has nodules on the main keys on the keyboard, so she can be sure her hands are positioned correctly. It also has software that talks to her, telling her what’s on the screen.

“I love it; it’s amazing,” she said of working at the district. “You really can still live normal. I don’t think you should give up. You’re facing a challenge, and you get up and move on.”

At the award ceremony Monday, Bobby Druesedow, employment assistance programs specialist with the Department of Assistive and Rehabilitative Services, said the award is given to a business that goes above and beyond in hiring people with disabilities and providing them the equipment and support they need.

Eden Ramirez, district spokesman, said going above and beyond is the La Joya ISD standard, adding “Doing things like this is just part of what we do every day.”

The unemployment rate for people who are blind is upwards of 70 percent, according to Ralph Rangel, Harlingen field director for the Department of Assistive and Rehabilitative Services.

“One of the highest unemployment rates in the nation is for people who are blind, disabled,” he said.

Sylvia Sepulveda, principal at Jimmy Carter Early College High School, said Ramirez works as a student advocate, parent liaison and teacher supporter, always on the phone trying to get parents to school events.

“I met her in 2000 when I worked in La Joya High School and I found out without Mrs. Ramirez, it would be very, very difficult to promote our parental involvement program,” Sepulveda said. “She teaches us a little lesson in reference to despite her disability because she is here with a smile every single day.”

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