ATRIEV is Where I Belong

Image of Edrian Delos Reyes smiling and text.

by Edrian delos Reyes

“You are blind now! Accept it and go on with your life!”

I said that line to myself numerous times, but it wasn’t that easy. It was hard for me to accept that I’m a visually impaired now. My life changed and I just couldn’t keep up with the changes.

Even though I was in an online school, I didn’t feel like I was moving forward. I took the recommended subjects for my first term, but I eventually dropped one subject. It was really hard for me because I depended on no one but myself. I was doing my best, but I knew something was wrong.

I wanted to enter a regular college, but I didn’t think that I can cope with the studies because of my poor vision. So guess what? I didn’t even try going to a regular college! No matter how hard my friends pushed me to not worry and just trust myself, I just couldn’t find the courage to even try enrolling. Maybe if I know a blind person who achieved something despite this disability, I would find the courage I needed. Unfortunately, it wasn’t the case.

I hated feeling this way—of being left behind—so I knew I had to do something. My friends are about to finish their studies, and one of them is now working despite dropping out of school. As for me, life stayed the same.

That’s when I reached out to an organization that gives different kinds of assistance to blind people. I had conversations with people who also have a visual impairment. I listened to their stories about how they travel and how college was like for them. The more I asked about them studying despite their condition, the more I became eager to enter mainstream education. And that’s when I learned about an IT school for the blind. They told me that it would be a huge help if I were to be trained there. I immediately went to ATRIEV.

I thought that ATRIEV was just an IT center for the blind, but it was more than that. Developing the trainees’ personalities and platform skills is also a part of their training. All the lessons I needed to learn, I got them with the help of ATRIEV. I became independent and can now travel alone. I also experienced being in a blind community because we, the trainees and even the trainers, are visually-impaired persons.

Most importantly, I discovered that my life can still be meaningful. I was able to help others, and I look forward to helping more people, just like how ATRIEV helped me to accept who I am now. With all honesty, I want to be a part of this community for the rest of my life because here, my heart is in the right place.

Turning Point of Being Blind

Photo of Yvette smiling and text.

by Yvette Amistad, ATRIEV Trainer since 2015

“Lord, Help me. This is not the life I’ve wanted and dreamt of.” I felt stuck and fed up of the heavy responsibilities of looking after my cousins. I cried so hard and prayed on bended knees. I hoped to be more productive and not just to stay inside the house. I wanted to be free and do things on my own.

And God answered my prayers.

I was called to attend a vocational training. I arrived with all my required documents but I got rejected because they learned that I have diabetes.

It felt terrible until one of the social workers said, ”there are other oppurtunities for you. Do you know that blind can use computers? You can go and be trained in ATRIEV.”

It was April of 2013 when I first step in ATRIEV. I felt excited, curious, yet scared because that was my first time to be in a blind community. Through the use of assistive technology, with the use of talking application, I learned how to operate my computer. Through platforms skills and personality development workshop, I gained my confidence. I was able to share my sentiments and emotions about my blindness. I met and mingled with other blind people and gained new friends. I experienced falling and walking in line by the sidewalk. I sat and sang with them while they were alternately playing musical instruments even if I’m not a singer. I joined class activities while sitting and eating happily with them.

Through ATRIEV, I learned many things, not just about technology but also about life. I’m now one with them as a part-time trainer and we go to communities to teach and inspire more blind people on how to use computers and android phones. I also became a general transcriptionist, converting audio files into written documents.

Now I’m more productive. This is what I wanted for my life. Because of ATRIEV, my dreams are closer to reality. I may not know where I am headed to but I know that, as long as I spread my wings, the winds will carry me to where I should be. And that is in ATRIEV.

ATRIEV Opened My Eyes to Possibilities

Photo of Beverly Bravo, a member of ATRIEV

by Beverly Bravo, ATRIEV Trainer since 2015

A long time ago, people thought that the world was flat. That when you reach the end of the world, you’ll fall.

In my world, that’s also what I thought before I met  ATRIEV. I thought the world was just from our house to the wide playground of our school. My mother enrolled me in a school where there was a Special Education class, and I thought it would be fun. I always envied my cousins for going to school every day so I asked my mother if I could also go to school. At first, she was hesitant but a friend told her about a school that accepts visually impaired people like me. The next thing I knew, my teachers recommended me to go to the mainstream class. They believed I had the potential to study in a class full of students with normal vision. It was hard to cope in the beginning but eventually, I was able to perform better.

One morning, my SpEd teachers received a mail through a fax machine. It was from an organization that helps visually impaired in terms of assistive tools. The mail was an invitation for a computer training for kids organized by a non-government organization that advocates computer literacy training for the visually impaired. They told me about it, and the idea of me using a computer made me ecstatic. I had imagined a bunch of scenarios in my head: me as speed typist, me playing games while eating potato chips, and me reading an article on the screen wearing glasses. I never heard a blind using a computer so the idea really amazed me. 

The training went on and it was overwhelming and, at the same time, thrilling. I met a lot of other visually impaired people, but unlike me, they were exposed to the blind community. I was already in fourth grade but I only know two visually impaired people, both my classmate in preparatory class. I have no idea how the blind use a computer and even a cellphone.  ATRIEV opened my eyes to numerous possibilities.

I graduated from that training. I learned how to type in Microsoft Word and present using Microsoft PowerPoint. I was exposed to public speaking at a very young age. I was given the opportunity to present in different places on how visually impaired uses a computer.

My journey did not stop there. Three years ago I became part of the organization’s training team. It was one of the best gifts I have ever received. I was able to teach other visually impaired how to use a computer and also inspired them to dream. I was able to go to different places and even ride on an airplane. That’s when I realized that the world is bigger than I thought, that there is life beyond our house and our school. That there’s so much to explore. ATRIEV taught me to look beyond what my eyes could see, to look beyond the horizon.

Seeing Through Technology

Image of Carol Catacutan smiling and text.

by Carol Catacutan, ATRIEV’s Chief of Operations and founding member

It’s happening…the blind can be call center agents, virtual assistants, transcriptionists and blog writers because of technology. Nowadays, computers easily translate every keystroke and screen change into speech. ATRIEV, the IT Center for the blind, started it all in the Philippines in 1999.

Unwittingly, I am one of the founders that made ATRIEV a reality. Before we started, I was skeptical about how technology can significantly make the blind independent. I studied in a mainstream high school and college and this meant my dependence on my mom to read the books to me, on my classmates to read the notes on the board to me, and on my typewriter to write down my answers to my exams. Yes, I survived but with a lot of help.

So, when my blind friends introduced to me a computer that allowed me to listen to my keystroke as I type and read back what I have written, I knew that this time, I can pursue my dream of being a journalist.

Burning with the desire to learn the technology, I joined ATRIEV’s experimental computer training for its four blind founding members in 1996. We brought our desktop computers to UST Pediatrics Foundation where the training first was held. We used a hardware sound card inserted in the CPU and an external speaker to use a program that will translate text to speech. We learned to use a word processing software, a computing software and a database software. I was truly amazed. With a computer, I can easily write and edit my work. In no time, I finished my first book, a romance novel entitled “My Special Friend,” taken after my first love, and then wrote my life story in a teleplay for “Maalaala Mo Kaya” entitled “Liwanag” where Claudine Baretto played my part. I even brought my talking computer to the television shoot so that I can edit my script on the spot!

In 1999, my magazine article brought ATRIEV to life. I wrote a feature article about the life story of Tony Llanes, the blind person who had a vision about ATRIEV, the very first blind person who believed that the blind can use computers. Tony’s life story landed as the cover story of Sunday Inquirer Magazine. Because of its wide circulation, ATRIEV was introduced to STI, one of the leading IT school in the Philippines. Together, ATRIEV and STI launched the very first computer training for 10 blind persons. To this day, ATRIEV continues to provide training to hundreds of blind persons all over the Philippines. We have produced the first blind software analyst, the first blind programmer and the first blind college instructor.

Technology helped me reach my dream as a journalist, a romance novelist and a television scriptwriter. Now, let ATRIEV help you achieve your dreams, too. Who knows, you can be the first blind app developer of our country.

Carol Catacutan: Shining Light in the World of Darkness

Photo of Carol Catacutan giving a speech

Being a single mother is Carol’s life goal and priority. Acting as the organization’s Chief of Operations, Carol’s shoulders carry the day-to-day operations of the organization from fund sourcing to budget scrutiny to overall supervision of all aspects of the organizational operations. She dedicates the majority of her waking hours to ATRIEV in an effort to run the operations smoothly despite meager funds and limited personnel. It’s only dedication and passion that keeps Carol in her present job. Despite the heartaches and heartbreaks, she continues to strive harder for the organization because she knows that ATRIEV has a purpose and a mission to fulfill.

Watch Carol’s talk about inclusive education during the launch of the Knowledge for Development Center at the Central Philippine University in Iloilo held on May 7, 2009.

Read Carol’s story in the Philippine Daily Inquirer, Carolina Catacutan: Shining light in world of darkness

Tony Llanes: But Now I See

Photo of Tony Llanes with camera

Photo of Tony Llanes with camera“Call me blind,” he says, grinning broadly. “I don’t mind. I’ve been totally blind since I was 32.”

Pastor Tony, born half-seeing or with a low vision 51 one years ago, pulls no punches. Here is a man who experienced the worst of life’s ills—none of them in the same league as simply being called blind.

Before he totally lost his sight, he could see shapes and colors, and could read newspaper headlines. To read the news stories in smaller fonts, all he had to do was bring the surface of the paper to his face. “I was as functional as the next guy. I could do anything and everything on my own, including traveling in public conveyances,” he says proudly.

Blindness is a genetic issue in Pastor Tony’s family. They are five siblings and four of them had low vision at birth.

As a child, Pastor Tony’s vision was as weak as his ambition was wild. “The wonders of science and technology captivated me. One of my dreams was—I’ll design the world’s most powerful computer that could be accessed by mental thought projection.”

At age five, Pastor Tony fabricated his own DC-powered electric motor. He pictured himself as a quantum physicist, or an electronics and communication engineer, or even an astronaut. “My curiosity for elementary particles and their properties was exceedingly rapt,” he adds.

“Growing up and going to school were a series of frustrations,” Pastor Tony relates. “My classmates were indifferent, my teachers were impatient, and my grades were insignificant. I experimented with many isms and esoteric philosophies—occult, yoga, The Talmud, you name it. I moved from school to school and my bitterness worsened with every change.”

His sight and his future grew dimmer as well. His older sister encouraged him to enroll at the Philippine Christian University—the only school which took him in. It was here where Pastor Tony’s life began to change.

He enrolled in AB Psychology because he wanted to understand himself better. To ease his loneliness, he joined the Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship. He would hear them singing gospel songs and they sounded like people of hope. Aside from being happy with their lives, the members welcomed this partially-blind hope-seeker with open arms.

“In this setting and with this group, I discovered hope. Jesus found me. I received Him as my personal Lord and Savior. It was incredible—the changes that happened in my heart!”

He resolved to enroll in biblical and church-related courses—21 units in all. And shortly after that, to everyone’s disapproval and disgust, he moved to the Union Theological Seminary to take up a four-year course in Bachelor of Theology. For him, it was the only way to go, although an extremely difficult one. Because of his impairment, which was perceived as impediment to serving God well, full time, he was denied a scholarship.

On his own, he slogged along. “Only the Lord knows how I survived that first year,” he says when pressed how he managed. On his second year, he was given a scholarship by the Women’s Circle of the Cosmopolitan Church where he was working as a student Pastor.

Finally, it was time for internship. Again because of his handicap, every church he ever applied to either ignored or rejected him. “But as sure as God’s promises, one said, yes!” It was a small church in a remote rural area.”

It was during Pastor Tony’s internship in this church that he graduated and was ordained as a Minister. “I never thought that one day I would offer my life to the Lord in full-time service,” he said with effusive joy.

It was also in that teeny church where two of the most important things in his life happened.

One, he lost totally lost his sight.

Two, he married Eunecy “Necy” Mendoza—also a church worker in another church; and with whom he now shares four beautiful children: Eunice Rosabel , Hezron Elohim, Onycha Shalem, and Zina Shelomi.

“What was it like losing your sight?” I bravely ask. “Was it instant?”

“It must have been like a flickering light suddenly snuffed out,” he explains patiently. “But I didn’t know that then. I could still see images. Yet I was bumping into things—sometimes sharp objects. Many times I had close calls in the highway and even indoors. I couldn’t understand why!”

When he realized he was totally blind, Pastor Tony—together with his family—continued serving God as pastor for another 12 years in different churches and was ordained minister of the Greater Manila Conference (now known as the Lowland Cavite South Manila Conference), United Church of Christ in the Philippines.

In those twelve years, his incapacity to see with his eyes and do a pastor’s job drastically reduced his opportunities to earn enough for a growing family. “But Necy stuck with me,” he beams. “I saw many things through her eyes.”

Pastor Tony also re-discovered the limitless potentials of the passion of his youth—information technology—from Randy Weiser, one of the early leaders of the Resources for the Blind (also producer of Braille Bible for the Blind). From Mr. Weiser, Pastor Tony learned that a blind person can have access to a computer using a voice synthesizer. “I immediately enrolled at the Hadley School for the Blind and took up a correspondence course: Introduction to Micro Computers and Micro Computers and careers. To fend for my family and my schooling expenses, I repaired flat irons, electric fans, television and radio sets, organs, pump boats, vacuum cleaners, etc. etc.”

As an unexpected bonus, his mother bought him a talking computer which facilitated his training. After receiving his certificate of completion, Pastor Tony enrolled at STI so he could have a diploma. That was a cinch for this emerging computer wizard who was now irreversibly drawn to the sector which shared his impairment. Raring to impart his new expertise, he found his way to the Katipunan ng mga Maykapansanan sa Pilipinas, Inc. (KAMPI) where he became an active member.

“I wanted so much to teach my blind friends the computer technology which I now knew by heart. So I started conducting computer training in my own backyard,” he enthuses, vividly painting the teacher-students scenes for me. Soon after his friends imbibed what Tony knew, they pooled their computers together and encouraged more and more blind people to come and train.

“We went into a partnership with TESDA, and soon several organizations such as the STI College, ONET, Overbrook Nippon, Network on Educational Technology, International School Founded by Overbrook School for the Blind, Christopel Blinden Mission (Christian Blind Mission), Wallace Business Forum, came either as working or funding partners,” Pastor Tony recalls.

In 1999, the informal organization composed of a handful of blind friends was turned into an organization to institutionalize it. Its long name—Adaptive Technology for the Rehabilitation, Integration and Empowerment of the Visually Impaired Incorporated (ATRIEV), has been shortened to a nickname by those who are familiar with the organization: School for the Blind.

Over 500 visually handicapped have graduated from ATRIEV. Some went on to pursue higher education; some became transcriptionists, computer instructors, web designers, human resource personnel, researchers; and some chose to be entrepreneurs who create their own marketing and advertising materials based on their computer knowledge.

Like serendipity, I found Pastor Tony’s mission in the ATRIEV website. And I find him in person at the ATRIEV office where he encourages me to look around. I am amazed to watch almost two dozen people either working in the office or having lessons before talking computers. Many of them have their faces one inch away from the monitor, and some listen intently to the audio. They have one thing in common—and it’s not the partial or total absence of sight. It’s the fulfillment of ATRIEV’S vision: to develop and promote information technology to uplift the living conditions of people with visual impairment.

“ATRIEV is now running smoothly with 10 staff members and teachers and with partners providing the needed funding. So what’s next for this organization?”

“You mean this organization for the blind with vision?” he asks facetiously. Then he pauses for what seems like eternity. “I want to train someone to take my place. I want to go back to serving God as a full-time pastor.”

Go back to serving the One who could design the most powerful computer that could be accessed by mental thought projection, I thought, borrowing Pastor Tony’s own words. Excerpt from the book “Flying on Broken Wings” by Ms. Grace Chong, Palanca Awardee