Conchita Hernández: Changing Lives Through Education
By Olga Collazos
One of my first memories of Conchita is of her walking along the edge of the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool in Washington, D.C. The obelisk reflected on the water while Conchita, wearing a green blouse, walked confidently using her white cane. The way she walks reflects her independent and determined personality. Nobody could guess that she was an expert "faller" when she was growing up. "I didn't use a cane. And so, I would fall all the time, and I just learned to be really good at it," she laughs.
That shy girl who was often disoriented at school because she didn't have the right accommodations works today for the Maryland School for the Blind and the Maryland Department of Education overseeing the education of blind students in the state. She is also pursuing a doctoral degree in special education, focused on blind students that are English learners.
And, if that wasn't enough, she was recently appointed by President Biden as one of the fourteen members of the National Board for Education Sciences. The board looks at education and research and gives recommendations on funding priorities. After growing up as an undocumented student that didn't know English and had a disability in a public school, she recognizes how humbling it is to be able to make this kind of high-level decisions.
How did she end up where she is today? It wasn't something she had planned. She didn't even want to be associated with blind people! However, thanks to the guidance of others and her hard work, she found her passion. She wants to make systematic changes.
"I had a college professor my last year in college. I took a class on political science because I needed a class to fill. And he was a blind professor, and I was telling him about my accommodations, and he's like, oh, so you're blind. And I'm like, that's not me. I'm like visually, legally blind." "And he really convinced me that I needed to go to this conference, and I was like, no, I'm not going." The professor called the National Federation of the Blind in California and asked them to pay for her to attend the Conference. And they agreed without knowing her.
"I ended up going to the convention of the NFP, and it completely kind of changed my mindset… All of these people that I was so adamant that I didn't want to be associated with are doing way more than I'm doing… I didn't know how to do anything because I didn't receive good services. So at that point, I ended up going and getting training in Nebraska."
I think that the most important part is that I was learning this positive idea of blindness that I had never been introduced to before.
"I attended the Nebraska Commission for the Blind and Visually Impaired… And while I was in the program, they introduced me to, you know, you can be a teacher of blind students. And I was like, that's what I need to do because I had horrible teachers of blind students." "I didn't receive what I should have in school, and so I want that to be different for other students. And so that's kind of what took me on the path to then do my Master's. I did my Master's on being a teacher of blind students… And then, I decided to pursue my doctorate when I realized, like, I wanna make systematic change… I love working with kids, and I love the one-on-one, but I think I can make an impact systematically. And so that's how a doctorate will help me to be able to do systems change as opposed to just individual students."
And that's what she is doing. She is also at the right place at the right time. Recently a new accessibility bill was introduced by Senator Duckworth, and people with disabilities are taking ownership of the disability rights movement instead of having sighted people leading the work, as it was in the past. Conchita is very excited about it.
When Conchita and Maria Victoria Díaz, Dicapta's CEO, met, they realized how much they had in common. They were two Latinas with disabilities working to bring about change for the community. And, of course, they started to collaborate. The image of her walking along the edge of the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool is from one of those collaborations. "Just kind of imagining what is possible, and I think that's what Dicapta does well. It's pretty exciting being able to help with different initiatives through Dicapta that directly impact communities." "You see the audio description; you see the projects that are being worked on and how they have a direct impact on individuals, Spanish speakers, but also English speakers."
In working with the Latino community, Conchita believes it is important to build on the idea of interdependence. "Instead of being like, we want your child to be totally independent,… we should be reaching out to families and saying, we love how you're supporting your child. Let us give you ideas on how you can better support your child. So instead of taking their hand and walking them to the table, what if you support them by letting them do it on their own so that you know you are part of supporting them so that they can learn these new things. I think there's a lot of mind shift change that needs to come from both the community but then also from educators trying to work with Latino communities to try to get these concepts that are culturally responsive. Because if we just use this idea of like, independence, independence, it doesn't make sense to our families and our communities."
She can't emphasize enough the role of the parents as strong advocates for their children. "Be the parent that is the argumentative parent… If you get a good IEP in elementary school, that is going to help your child get what they need later in life. Don't be scared to be that trouble parent."
"I speak a lot to Spanish-speaking parents, and they don't know their basic rights under the IEP. They don't know that they can have an interpreter at an IEP meeting. They don't know that they can request an IEP meeting at any time. The IEP is a legally binding document, and as such, you can sue if things on the IEP are not being met. I think part of it too is educating parents, especially from immigrant families on what's possible."
Conchita's activities are not limited to Maryland or the U.S.A. In 2016, she started METAS, a non-profit that trains educators in Latin America to provide high-quality instruction to blind and low-vision students. They started working in Mexico with a school for the blind and did a conference in 2019. Then, because of the pandemic, they have been doing monthly webinars, open to anyone, anywhere. They are now connected to over a thousand families across the world.
METAS also started the program Cambiando Vidas, a mini-training for adults where they learn braille technology, orientation, and mobility. And the families are a part of it too. "The first place we had the training was in McAllen, Texas. So McAllen, Texas, is completely surrounded by border patrol. So if somebody is undocumented, they cannot leave the city ever." They intended to open the training to 12 people and their families but ended up working with 17. And some of those who came to the original seminar are leading future sessions.
In addition to changing other families, her family also had to learn that she could be independent. She is one of five children, and when she was little, she was overprotected. She wasn't allowed to sweep or cook; however, she was allowed to chop food; go figure! Learning to be independent was a process. It wasn't until she believed it that her parents believed it. It was difficult for her mother to let go. On the other hand, her father adjusted to the idea right away. When he went to San Francisco with her and couldn't find parking, he told her, "I'm going to leave you like six blocks away. Can you find your way?" Conchita thought, "he believes in me," and nervously answered yes, and, as well as she has done with her life, she went and found her way.
Conchita loves to read and learn and to eat chilaquiles. Her favorite thing to do is dance. She likes it so much that she created a methodology to teach blind people how to dance salsa using the braille cell.