Teacher honored as Distinguished Educator of Blind Students

Graciela Olivo has been a teacher of blind students in the Rio Grande Valley for over 35 years. This month, the National Federation of the Blind honored Olivo, a longtime Brownsville resident, by declaring her the recipient of this year’s Distinguished Educator of Blind Students Award.

Olivo began her career as a home economics teacher at BISD, teaching commercial cooking and sewing to students at Faulk Middle School. Her entire path changed one week when the teacher of a blind student asked whether Olivo would consider taking the student into her class.

She was resistant. “I said, this is an impossibility. There’s no way he can be in my class. I told my principal I cannot have a blind student in my class, you don’t realize the dangers. I’m not going to lose my certification because of a blind student,” said Olivo.

The principal pushed to allow the student into the class. The next day when Olivo arrived at school, there was a flyer posted on the bulletin board advertising classes offered in Edinburg for anyone wanting to get a teaching certification in the area of visual impairment.

“I tore that thing off the wall, took it straight to the principal, and put it on his desk,” said Olivo. She thought her principal had put the flyer up on purpose in order to pressure her. They both learned that the secretary had placed it on the board by chance.

“Little did I know, this is what I needed to be doing,” Olivo reflected. “It’s a very small, one percent of the population, that is blind or visually impaired. Visual impairment comes in many forms. Of course, here in the Valley we have a lot of adults who are visually impaired because of all the diabetes. A lot of children are born with retinopathy prematurity. Others have glaucoma,” she said.

Despite her initial resistance, she attended the training. Eventually, the program covered all of Olivo’s travel and equipment expenses. She learned Braille and Nemeth Code and was given training in new techniques. Upon her graduation two years later, the Brownsville Independent School District approached her requesting services.

Now, Olivo is the owner of St. Lucio Eyesessible Services. She contracts with local school districts and assists babies, children, adolescents, and adults learn how navigate their conditions. The works is challenging but rewarding.

Olivo describes working with new mothers, teaching babies how to reach, search and look, using empty half-cartons of eggs filled with six ping pong balls to begin learning the Braille alphabet.

She’s involved in the National Federation of the Blind’s summertime BELL Academy, held remotely this year, where blind students across the Valley learn to use assistive technology, read Braille, feel, touch, and to use their cane.

Blind students will eventually graduate the school system, pursue higher education, and seek employment like everyone else. Olivo emphasizes teaching independence. “They are not defined by their blindness. They need to compete with other kids, with other people.”

She recalled assisting an asylum seeker from Honduras at Good Neighbor Settlement House. The woman left three children in Honduras with her husband in order to seek help for their blind daughter. Upon learning that the school district in Dallas would offer services if she called, the woman burst into tears of relief.

Another student lost his vision in an ATV accident. Olivo first met the young man when he was in the fifth grade.  She got a call from Driscoll Children’s Hospital and quickly learned that he spoke no English and could not count to 100 despite attending school all those years. She started from the ground up, first improving his English, then teaching him Braille. He is now getting his master’s degree.

The federation wrote of Olivo, “She is an outstanding advocate for Braille literacy, early travel with the long white cane, and other skills of blindness, focusing on the individual needs of her students rather than on their visual activity.”