Heroes: Love is the Light in Josefa Almanza’s Eyes < Return to News

Josefa Almanza has been a speech therapist at Upward for Children and Families for the past eight years. We spoke to her about the unique challenges she has faced on a personal level, and how love and resolve helped make her into the woman, wife, mother and successful professional she is today.

This is her story and these are her words.

“There is no treatment, no cure, and no prognosis”

I was in college in Tucson, Arizona — a four hour drive from my hometown of Yuma, Arizona —when I went to see a retina specialist. He told me he needed to talk to my parents. The diagnosis was a disease we had never heard of - retinitis pigmentosa (RP). He told us that there was no treatment, no cure, and no prognosis. I heard the doctor explain that I would eventually become blind, and I don’t remember anything else about that visit. I went back to my room at college, and didn’t come back out again for two weeks. My roommate called my parents and told them that they needed to come and get me. I had sunk into a severe depression. I was 21 years old.

My parents did what parents in a Hispanic culture do. They took me home and told me they would take care of me for the rest of my life. My diagnosis was in November, and one day in December my family had a cookout in the backyard. My father was making his specialty, carne asada, one of my favorite meals. I looked out the window and wondered why I was in my room missing all of this. I got up, I got dressed, and I went outside. On that day, I decided I was ready to get on with my life. I went back to college in January, and graduated within a year from the University of Arizona with a bachelor’s in Spanish Linguistics.

I have always liked and studied different languages. After high school, I became a foreign exchange student in Gallivare, Sweden. I was speaking fluent Swedish within three months, I travelled throughout Scandinavia and celebrated New Year’s 1990 in Leningrad, Russia. When I returned home, I knew when I went to college that I wanted to do something with languages and travel. In my communication disorders class I had to shadow a speech therapist. I couldn’t understand why anyone would have a problem learning one language when I was learning multiple languages! I didn’t realize that speech disorders occur everywhere. I saw the therapist doing an evaluation and treatment of a high school student and I was in shock. I started a master’s program in communication disorders in 1996 at Arizona State University and graduated in 1998. This past May I celebrated 20 years of practicing speech and language pathology — twelve of those years I worked in public schools throughout the state of Arizona. I’ve been here at Upward for the past eight years.

Because of the support I received from my immediate family, I now counsel the families I work with. I know that with their support and their participation with their own children is what is going to make the biggest difference in their lives. I’ve experienced that first hand. I don’t know where I would be if it hadn’t been for my family.

“When a man knows what he wants, he gets it”

In 2001, my school age girlfriends invited me to go out dancing on a Friday night. I didn’t want to go, but my friends insisted. That night I met my husband, Tomás. He asked me to dance and I recalled my grandmother telling me that if a man has the courage to ask you to dance, you dance with him at least once. After that you can say, “thank you, but no more.” So we danced, and we talked, and the rest is history.

I still had some sight at that point, but I told Tomás to educate himself on RP. He called the next day to ask whether if it was my mom or my dad who had RP. I told him it was me, and without a doubt or concern he simply said, “Okay.” I asked if he was concerned about my impending blindness, and he replied that he wasn’t. He said that when a man knows what he wants, he will get it. A year later we were married.

We decided that we should start a family right away since I was still sighted. Our son James was born in 2003. At difficult moments in my life, I remind myself that I want to see my son grow older and be a gentleman. James is 15 now, and I am so proud of him and often remind him that, “he is the light in my eyes.”

“There is nothing in my life that is lacking”

One of my stress relievers is baking. I have all my kitchen stuff labeled in braille. My specialty is banana nut bread and my nephews claim I make a great apple cobbler. But my personal favorite is carrot cake (with cream cheese icing, of course). I make it every Thanksgiving – though neither Tomás nor James like it so I indulge myself once a year!

In the last few years I jog regularly to stay fit. I am trained to jog with my neighbor, my husband or son. I am trained to be in front of my jogging partner. I tap the curb with my cane, and they are right behind me, giving me verbal clues on what is ahead. For the last five years I’ve done a 10K in Somerton, Arizona. I run side-by-side with my husband and hold onto his elbow because there is no curb on the highway. I still need to use my cane on my right hand, and we run approximately 6.7 miles. I still can’t believe I finish that 10K each year, but the secret is the energy I received from words of motivation and encouragement from fellow runners throughout the race.

I also love to travel and yet have many places to see. I want to go and see Mount Rushmore. I want to climb the Eiffel Tower in Paris. I want to see the Niagara Falls. I won’t actually see any of these places, but I’ll hear them. I’ll feel them. I’ll sense them. For me, the simple fact of being there IS just like seeing it. I often catch myself throughout conversations saying, “I saw” — but as a blind person I do not see things with my eyes, but I see them with my heart.

Being blind is not easy, but it is not impossible. I still have my bad days. I fall down, I cry, I get mad at the world and angry at everyone…and then I get back up again. I remember that I have a full life. There is nothing in my life that is lacking. I have my profession, I have my husband, my extended family, I became a mother - all the things I thought I would never do in life, and I’m doing them. And I know that there are still many more things I need to do, perhaps transport myself in a self-driving car in the near future!