When most of us see a “boot” on our car, we see only bad news. A boot, also known as a wheel clamp, is a device designed to make sure vehicles stay where they are.
More than 10 years ago, Luis Pérez was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa, a group of genetic disorders that affect the retina’s ability to respond to light. This disease progresses slowly, beginning with decreased night vision and then loss of peripheral vision. Eventually, blindness results, and there is no cure.
The day he received his diagnosis, he left the doctor’s office and immediately faced another problem. His 3-year-old daughter informed him that, “Daddy, daddy, we got the boot.” They parked in the wrong spot, but this wasn’t going to stop Pérez from moving forward, either that day or in the future.
“I was confronted right away with the challenges that my diagnosis will bring,” said Pérez. “My daughter and I needed to find a way home – taxi, bus, train – and it wasn’t easy. It was across town. I then realized that my disability wasn’t the issue. It is the design of the environment.”
Luis Pérez may be losing his sight, but his vision is extraordinary. He’s now an inclusive learning consultant based in St. Petersburg, Florida. He has more than a decade of experience working with preservice and inservice educators to help them integrate technology in ways that empower all learners via universal design principles – designing products and spaces so that more people can use them. Universal design makes an assortment of tasks, jobs and activities safer, easier and more convenient.
“I consider myself an inclusive learning evangelist,” Pérez said. “I want to help educators help all students – and I emphasize all – and technology plays a big role. There are great features on mainstream devices that educators don’t know about… Siri, for instance, is based on technology that people with disabilities have used for years.”
Before he set out to improve the environment for learning, he first needed to educate himself. The diagnosis threw him for a loop, and Pérez knew he had to figure out how he was going to make a living. Already tech savvy, Pérez turned his attention to the other it – instructional tech, not information tech – and went back to school to reevaluate his life.
For Pérez, what happened next permanently fused the connection between universal design and technology.
“I walked into a computer lab and heard a Mac speak for the first time, and it blew me away,” he said.“The quality was impressive, but the message was even more powerful. Hope is the first thing you need. Now I had hope. This spoke to my soul, not just my ears. It turned my life around. It was a magical moment.”
He went on to earn a master’s degree in instructional technology from the University of South Florida and a doctorate in special education. But his transformation transcends degrees. In recognition of his work in educational technology, Pérez was named an Apple Distinguished Educator in 2009, one of only 52 educators in the u.s. selected to join this class, and he served on the advisory board for this program in the u.s. Pérez is also a Google for Education Certified Innovator and the author of Mobile Learning for All: Supporting Accessibility with the iPad.
Lastly, and fittingly, he is the professional learning chair of the ISTE Inclusive Learning Network. Pérez brings one other skill to his work as an inclusive learning evangelist: He’s is an avid photographer, primarily as a hobby, although he also uses it in his field because “photography is engaging to learners. Pictures are powerful.” His camera is an iPhone because of the accessibility features, and he is quick to note that he has a unique approach to his hobby.
“I don’t take photographs, I make photographs,” he explains. “I can’t really see them when I’m shooting, but I review and edit them later.”
Apparently, he “makes” good pictures. His work has appeared in The New York Times Bits Blog, the SydneyMorning Herald and Better Photography magazine. Beyond the fulfillment that photography provides, an added benefit is bending peoples’ views.
“I use a white cane, but when I take out my iPhone, I can see some people are forced to confront their misperceptions about what it means to be visually impaired,” Pérez said. “A little over a year ago, I was in Australia, near the Sydney Opera House, which is near the water.
Yes, I started navigating close to the water, and the reactions of some of the people…you knew what they were thinking. But I know what I’m doing.”
He also knows where he’s going. That’s easy to see.