Special to GradImpact: Student stories from our Master’s Degrees at Work campaign.

Mirranda Williams went to bed on December 24, 1999, being able to see, and woke up on Christmas morning completely blind. In August of that year, a nail had been shoved into her eye during a domestic violence incident, which is what led to her eventual complete loss of sight at just 15 years old.

But Williams says that losing her sight changed her life trajectory for the better. She had been born with low vision into an immediate family that were all either low vision or blind, impoverished and getting by on social security. She saw herself heading down a path that was not conducive to her living for very long, following her brother who had gotten involved with a gang.

It was losing her sight that led her to a school for blind students where a teacher told her for the first time that she can be anything she wanted to be.

“Just having her be that voice of encouragement, when I wasn’t getting it from my family or anybody else around me, meant the world to me,” Williams said. “Because she gave me that confidence, I’ve been striving to live up to her words ever since.”

Williams is doing that by following her passion to help others with disabilities. She recently graduated from Morgan State University (MSU) with her master’s degree in social work with an advanced specialization practice in gerontology, which focuses on the social, cultural, psychological, cognitive, and biological aspects of aging. She also received her bachelor’s degree in social work from MSU, graduating summa cum laude.

She currently works for the Department of Rehabilitation Services (DRS) of Maryland, which is on the MSU campus. She has also started her own consulting business, InspEYEre Consulting, to provide resources and create support groups for mental health issues for seniors with blindness. She does similar work for DRS, providing support groups to address mental health issues for blind people for all age groups, while also showing people the minor adjustments they can make so they can continue to live in their homes and stay in their communities.

Williams is using her own story to change how people treat others with disabilities. She wants to educate people on overlooked issues blind people face- mental health issues from the stigma and negative attitudes from people without disabilities.

“The stigma and oppression that are put on people with disabilities can have a detrimental effect,” Williams said. “People don’t listen to us because they think that they know better because they have sight. We’re seen as less than.”

Williams said it’s easy for blind people to become codependent and depressed when they lose their independence and are led to believe that they can’t live independently. She says the same mental health issues can affect senior citizens who lose their sight or have disabilities.

“The primary thing that they get wrong is that blind people and seniors are helpless. That they need a lot of assistance and to be handled with kid gloves,” Williams said. “That’s very demeaning and debilitating in a lot of ways.”

Williams said that seniors experiencing blindness or low vision are often removed from their homes and communities that they have grown attached to, and this contributes to their mental and physical decline. Williams’s job is to physically go to her clients’ homes and show them how to use tactile labels to label things, use their microwave, sort laundry and other daily living skills so they can continue to live independently. Many of her clients are often surprised when Williams arrives to help them.

“I intentionally do not tell my clients that I’m blind for that immediate impact because they are already thinking that if you’re blind you can’t do this,” Williams said. “They go from, ‘I’m blind I can’t do anything,’ to cooking, chopping and frying stuff. They realize that if I can do it, they can do it.”

Williams says that even though she had the lived experience of having a disability, she wanted the formal training from her master’s degree to help her better teach others with disabilities. She said that she’s using her knowledge from her master’s degree to create peer support groups for older adults to address their mental health issues and teach them skills to help them adapt to their new physical needs.

“There’s a difference between having the life experience and having the learned knowledge from a book and being able to connect to it,” Williams said. “I learned a lot about different practices and cultures and how to communicate with different clients. It was very thorough.”

Williams said she is revamping her consulting company to be able to create more training to address these mental health issues not just for individuals, but for staff in nursing homes and agencies. She said she uses role playing so people can experience real reactions to situations in real time and then discuss feelings or how to prevent certain situations. Williams considers it professional development training.

“Most people want to call it sensitivity training but I’m not asking people to have sensitivity towards blind individuals. We need empathy,” Williams said. “Try to put yourself in our shoes. If this situation happened to you, how would you feel?”

Williams wants more people to be aware that the most detrimental thing you can do to another person is make them feel less than. She said she was often told by people in positions of authority that she won’t amount to anything or can’t work because she is blind.

Williams said the key to overcoming these negative and incorrect beliefs was mentorship from other blind professionals. She said it was while she was working in a factory that hired blind workers that she found out about the National Federation for the Blind and finally got the daily skills training she teaches now.

She also met blind lawyers, doctors and other professionals who told her she was more than the factory where she was working. That’s when she realized that if they could achieve their goals, so could she.

Despite all that she has accomplished and the work she is doing in her community, she still faces stigma for her blindness. That is another one of the reasons she wanted to start her own consulting business.

“I have three degrees. I’m very competent in everything that I do, but because I’m blind, I was rejected from a lot of jobs because they just couldn’t get past how I would be able to do my work,” Williams said. “It was making assumptions before I can tell or show them how I would circumvent something in the workplace.”

Unfortunately, Williams hasn’t been able to get her social worker license because the state of Maryland doesn’t have a test for blind applicants. Williams is also hearing impaired so she can’t have anyone read the test to her if they don’t have a pitch or tone she can understand.

“We have to go through different organizations who can print out the material in Braille or we have to get special permission to use our screen reading,” Williams said. “I have to literally jump through a ring of fire in order to take the exam.”

Williams is frustrated that people with disabilities aren’t included when it comes to policies and design choices and points out that it can be costly to make things accessible after the fact.

“If you don’t include someone on your team who has a disability, you’re not going to get it right and you’re going to keep losing out financially because you’re going to have to continue to be retroactive instead of being proactive,” Williams said. “Blind people are always being thought of last. You’re missing out on a whole community.”

None of these things is stopping Williams from her passion of helping others like herself. She thrives at helping people in her community and she wants to make communities better for everyone who lives in them.

“I’m striving for my community to have a safe space for people with disabilities to go to for encouragement or for resources to help them reach their goals,” Williams said. “I’m trying to get everyone to realize that our disabilities don’t define us.”

“I am living proof that my blindness may happen physically, but my vision is clearer than most.”