In this installment of Our Stories, we explore Sashana Russel’s journey to success. For many people, Jamaica is pictured as an island paradise – white sandy beaches, a beautiful and vivacious culture, rich and wholesome food, and attractive people. And while that image is not far from the truth, if the lens is focused on the inspirational stories of ordinary Jamaicans, you’d find a sharper, richer and truer image of the Jamaican experience…this is Our Stories!

Meet Sashana Russell – Primary School Teacher

Image contributed by Sashana Russel

She defied the odds and kept sight on her goals after going legally blind at a pretty young age. At seven years old, she contracted Conjunctivitis or as Jamaicans call it, “Pink Eye”. While getting treated for Pink Eye, she began to lose her vision. And after numerous visits to numerous doctors, her family was informed that she would be permanently blind. However, Sashana did not let this curveball throw her off the scent of her dreams. She was she still motivated to complete her education and become a teacher. Soon after being diagnosed as legally blind, she was transferred to the Salvation Army’s School For The Blind as the school she previously attended did not have the proper accommodation for her disability. This move would place her formal education on pause for a few years as she was not able to get enrolled in her new school immediately. Once she was enrolled, she was able to smoothly transition into high school. Sashana later moved on to the Mico University College where she completed her Bachelor’s degree in secondary education. And now, at the age of 24, she teaches music at St. Patrick’s Primary School. 

  • Sashana, could you talk to me about when you contracted Pink Eye?

Okay. I was seven years old. It was summer. I was on holiday break. And I got Pink Eye because Pink Eye was going around. It was that first outbreak. So I was in the country. They took me to the clinic for the district and they gave me eye drops and antibiotics. But the antibiotics that they gave me needed to be refrigerated. And where I was staying they didn’t have a refrigerator. So my cousins next door would keep it. After the pink eye cleared up, I just started to get really sick. Fever and everything. And you know country people, bush is the remedy for everything. But it was only getting worse. I became unresponsive and so on. So they brought me to the Children’s Hospital when my mother got back from work. I don’t remember that part because I was unresponsive. I just remember being home and then being in the hospital. We had to wait for a while at the hospital. But when the doctors came out and saw me they were like, ‘Oh, my goodness’, and all of that. And I went on drip instantly. But nothing was wrong with my eyes up to that point.

  • So at that point, you still had your sight. So how did the actual blindness take place, then?

I was there and they were administering a lot of medication and trying to figure out what was wrong. Then I guess based on their findings they came up with something that I had. I still don’t know what they came up with. But that is when they started to administer eye drops. But the eye drops were burning my eyes. I can remember that it was burning my eyes. And I told them and told them that I don’t want to use it. But they just told my mother to tell me that I had to use it and that it was good for me. And then that is how they came up with it that I had Stevens-Johnson syndrome. It’s rare. It has something to do with the cornea and the tear glands in the eye. And it makes your eyelid come down as if it’s growing onto the eyeball itself. So my corneas are totally burnt out because of the constant use of those eye drops. At that point, they also said that I needed to have surgery done on my right eye to replace my cornea with another human cornea. I did the surgery and it was unsuccessful. Since then I think my sight has decreased a little. It degraded over time, though. But they are saying that the surgery on my eye would not have been successful. Because the procedure to do that surgery was not yet officially approved. And they said that if they were thinking they wouldn’t have done it. 

Image contributed by Sashana Russel
  • Wow! That is a lot to endure. So did you get compensated for the damage from that surgery?

No. Every time I talk to someone about it that’s what they ask me too. But I was little. And I guess my mother was just caught up in everything that was going on.

  • Okay. Understood. So how was your life after that? You were in Primary school at that time, right?

So I was out of school from 2001 until 2005 because my school was not taking me back. So my mother had to just go back for a reference. I was supposed to move on to grade three but I had missed so many years. So they gave her the reference. She needed the reference because I got introduced to the Salvation Army school. My mother had tried to get me into the Salvation Army school in 2004 but I did not get through. So that’s how she got to go for the reference and I got admitted in 2005. They didn’t really want to take me. But my mother insisted because I had been out of school for a while. So they finally accepted me but I was placed back in grade two.

Image contributed by Sashana Russel
  • You missed quite a few years. How old were you at that point? 

I was 10. But even when I was out of school I would still try to read. My mother used to buy me books. That’s why I say that I could see a little better…. than I can now. The print in the books were not fine though. They were big-ish but a friend from next door would also come over and read with me. But being back in grade two was strange. I was used to a big class but at the new school there was about eight students in the class. And not everybody in the class had vision problems. I was just anticipating anything. And it was a good experience.

  • That sounds good. So after the Salvation Army school, what was the next step in your education?

I progressed to the high school section. And then after that, I went straight to Mico. I was 19 when I finished high school.

  • Great. So how was your experience at Mico as a student with a visual impairment?

It was scary. I did not know what to expect. It was a big thing for me. But I wanted the experience badly. And I wanted to come out as a success and earn myself a job. So I spoke to my uncle and he encouraged me. But luckily enough, two of my friends from the Salvation Army school was starting Mico too that same year. And then I made other friends too because I’m jovial and thing. I don’t let anything bother me. The lecturers were very, very nice as well. Plus I don’t like to wait on people or be dependent on people. So getting the notes done and having to read the material was a struggle. Because the information was in books I had to get someone to read that for me. I get really agitated and miserable about those things. There were some students who would say things like,

‘But she can’t see. She can’t do the test‘.

But I don’t listen to them. My friends would defend me. I had another visually impaired friend who could see better than me. But he was tech-savvy and he would always find new apps to help me out. Or get the books in PDF so that I could read it from my computer with a screen reader. So if it was something that I could access from my computer then I would be able to read it myself.

  • That sounds cool. I think I’ll try to use one of those screen readers sometime. They sound really cool! So how did it feel when you were finally part of that graduation class in the end?

Oh, my God. It’s finally here. But then I started to fret about whether or not I would be able to get a job. And then a lot of people were telling me that no one really wants to hire a visually impaired person. So they were saying I would have to hope and pray to get a job and all that. But I had a lot of offers because I did music. Most of the offers were very far away. But I was not ready to leave the area that I knew. So I waited to get a job in Kingston. And that is how I ended up at St. Patrick’s Primary school.

Image contributed by Sashana Russel
  • Okay. What is it like being a visually impaired teacher to kids that can see, primary school kids that can see?

They are always like,

‘Miss, you can see? You can see me?’ They would ask those questions.

So sometimes I’m just thinking,

‘Lord, again? You asked me that yesterday?’

So I just say,

‘No. Can you see me?’

And they’re like, ‘Yes, Miss.’

And then you would have the clingy ones. They don’t care. They are just all over you. And asking your age and all that. When they don’t care they really don’t care. And when they care they care. Just like with a regular teacher. But they are very helpful and understanding. I don’t know if it’s because they were warned before. But it’s new for them. They have never had a visually impaired teacher before. Majority of them have never even seen a visually impaired person before. The school is in the community of Waterhouse. 

  • So what keeps you motivated, though? I see many blind people not doing what you’re doing. So what keeps you going?

Just the sense of wanting to be what you’re supposed to be because you know that you can do it. And then you have some people looking like, ‘Lawd, mi can’t see.’ But you have to believe in yourself. Although sometimes people are not nice. One day, there was a totally blind person trying to get onto a bus that I was getting on. And other people were saying that he should be staying home instead of helping him to get on the bus. But this man was coming from work and those people were not. You just have to understand that people will underestimate you. We are functioning. And we don’t have a mental illness. So why can’t we have our lives too? But I don’t listen to people. I even know someone who has a visual impairment who discriminate and say that she wouldn’t date anyone who is blind or has a visual impairment.

  • Really? So how do you feel about that? Have you experienced that rejection?

What? If I ever look at someone and don’t want them because they are blind or vice versa? For me, it’s not about that. I have had people who can see who want to date me say that they don’t care that I am blind. But it’s not about what you tell me. It’s about how you behave. You just have to get to know people.

  • That’s some sound reasoning right there. Do you have any advice for anyone who may be living without sight and unsure of how to navigate society?

Well, I would just tell them to keep believing in themselves and never give up. Just get a sense of your career goals and understand your new capabilities. Like we may not be able to be doctors or tilers. But there are things we can do. But I would also have to speak to the people who will be taking care of them. Because not everyone is intrinsically motivated like me. Some people get motivated by what is around them. Because a lot of times the guardians take it harder than us who is affected. And because of that, they treat us as if something is wrong with us and not let us explore. Like my mother, I don’t think she is over it. I don’t think that she has come to the reality fully in the way that I have. Although she is proud of me. So instead of becoming overprotective and holding them back they should just be supportive and keep them in school. That helps a lot. Just get to understand them better and don’t hold them back. That can actually get annoying to the person because you keep holding them back when they know in themselves that they can do it. Don’t let them get lazy. Let them do things on their own.

Image contributed by Sashana Russel
  • Great. Very inspiring words. So what’s in store for Sashana for the future?

So I’m 24. And I hope to be able to move out soon. I live with my mother now. I’m an only child. But moving out is one of my goals. I want to be able to move out and fully be on my own. Plus, I just finished Miss Kingston and St. Andrew Festival Queen. I have always wanted to do that since I was small. I was scared to do it because you had to do the catwalk and I can’t see. But I do singing so I am often at these events like JCDC with my director who is also blind. So the person in charge of the pageant was at one of these events. And I said it to her and she said, ‘Of Course’. So I entered. So I look forward to overcoming many more hurdles. Like I want to get my Masters in music next. I will have to go overseas for that. And I am scared but I want it. I also want to see what it’s like to teach at the secondary level because my degree is in secondary education. I would like to get a feel of what that is like.

Awesome! Good luck in all of your future endeavors, Sashana. It was a pleasure speaking with you. And thank you very much for sharing your story with us.

Follow Sashana on Facebook at Sashana Russell and on Instagram at Soteria_1