'Legally Blind, Blonde and Albino'

Education faculty member shares life story of overcoming adversity as part of the Penn State Human Library

Seria Chatters, assistant professor of education (counselor education), shared her personal story of overcoming adversity as part of the Penn State Human Library held April 20 at Patee Library. Credit: Jessica Buterbaugh / Penn StateCreative Commons

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — It's not easy being the new kid in school. It is especially difficult when you have a disability. But being the new kid — and the new kid with a disability — is something Seria Chatters experienced more than a dozen times throughout her childhood and adolescence.

The eldest child of an active military service member, Chatters was accustomed to moving from place to place. But because she looked different than others, including her parents and siblings, she was the target of constant bullying.

"The bullying I experienced was horrible," said Chatters, assistant professor of education (counselor education) in Penn State's College of Education. "I remember one school that I went to, my entire class participated in the bullying of me. It was bullying of all types — name calling, pushing, threatening to fight me, everything. And being legally blind and not being able to see very well, it was even more terrifying because I couldn't really understand a lot of the dynamics or even see when people were doing things to me."

Chatters' visual impairment is the result of albinism, a rare genetic disorder that effects the pigment of the skin, hair and eyes. Although her parents are dark-skinned African-Americans, her skin tone is much lighter and her hair is blonde. Because prenatal genetic testing was not available when her mother was pregnant, Chatters said she was a "big surprise" to her parents and jokes that her father probably wondered if she was truly his child.

"It was explained to my parents that I was albino and that meant that I had a lack of pigment," she said. "But what wasn't explained to them is that pigment is more important in our bodies than what we think."

Many albinos, including Chatters, suffer from visual impairments because the lack of pigment in the retinas causes them to have issues with light. Albinism also impacts the brain, causing fibers to cross. As a result, corrective vision surgery is not an option because the root of the visual impairment lies within the brain, not just the physiology of the eye.

Because her doctors did not know how bad her vision would get, Chatters started taking blind classes at a very young age and continued throughout her adolescence and college years. She was trained to read brail and use a mobility cane. This added to the bullying, she said.

"They were training me in school. I would be walking around the school with a blindfold on and using a cane and that just caused kids to target me even more," she said. "If they didn't know I was legally blind, and a lot of times they didn't, they knew then. I couldn't even try to fly under the radar. I would always beg to be trained outside of the school but they always said no."

When she wasn't dodging the constant harassment of her peers, Chatters was struggling with her academics. But not because she lacked the intelligence — she enrolled in kindergarten at the age of 3 and graduated high school at 17 — but because she could not receive the academic accommodations she needed.

Because of her visual impairment, Chatters had issues reading textbooks and copying notes from the blackboard. She had to work harder to read the material and stay on track with her studies. The accommodations she did receive varied from school to school but it wasn’t until she moved to Germany that she finally received all of the accommodations she needed.  Those accommodations helped her with her studies and exposed talents she never knew she had.

"I really got into art when I was [in Germany] because my art teacher facilitated a ton of accommodations for me to be able to participate in the art class," Chatters said, adding that during her sophomore year, she was a silver medal finalist for an international art competition that spanned the European Union. "After that, I decided that I really wanted to go into fashion design and go to Parson's School of Design. I was on track to go there and I was really excited about it."

But then Chatters and her family moved again. This time to a small town in Nebraska where, for the first time, she said she struggled with art.

"In Germany, I was flourishing but in Nebraska it was the opposite. My art teacher refused to give me any accommodations and said she felt that accommodations would be like me cheating, making art too easy for me."

Her mother advocated for her, but although accessibility was a legal requirement, the school's administration did not enforce accommodations, Chatters said. They only told the teacher that she could not fail Chatters. As a result, she dropped her art elective because she wasn't able to participate and, she said, it was obvious that the teacher did not want her in the class.

"I cried a lot because I was really very excited about fashion design and now that dream was over," she said.

When she headed to college, things didn't change. Chatters wanted to attend a large university but because she received a full academic scholarship to a small, private liberal arts college in Nebraska — and because she had just turned 17— her mother insisted that she attend a school that would not cause a financial burden. She enrolled in college as a pre-med major, with plans on attending medical school. But once again, a lack of accommodations halted her plans.

"During my second year of college, my grades suffered. My chemistry teacher refused to provide accommodations and there was a lot that I couldn't do because I simply couldn't see," Chatters said, explaining that she couldn't see many of the models used in class. She asked that the professor enlarge the models for her to better see them but her requests were denied. Additionally, the individual working in disability services was not knowledgeable of the accommodations she needed.

"I talked to my teacher and he said 'I don't really see where as a person with a visual impairment, you could be a doctor. I think you need to figure out something else you can do,'" she said. "That conversation just hit me and I was like, 'I guess I can't be a doctor.' So, I changed my major to business because I thought 'what else can I do?'"

Although Chatters felt forced to change her major, she never stopped pursuing her dream of helping people. After graduating from college, she moved to Florida where she worked for a lending company, providing financial counseling for clients during the mortgage crisis. She realized how much she enjoyed that aspect of her work and decided to go back to school to get a master's and a doctorate in counselor education. During this time, she also fell in love, got married and gave birth to two children. It also was during her doctoral studies that her father was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer's disease. For the next 11 years, she and her mother provided care for him until he died in December 2017.

After earning her advanced degrees, Chatters worked as an assistant professor at Zayed University in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. In 2013, she joined the College of Education and shortly after completing her first year at Penn State, she and her husband welcomed their third child.

"I say all of this because, well, life has been full of barriers for me," Chatters said, adding that she has experienced many barriers, some of which she still does not like to talk about because they are so personal. "And everyone has their own battles that they're waging on their own and no battle is more difficult or more harrowing than the other. And I know I am a huge minority being a woman of color who has a disability, a genetic disorder and who is a professor. I just hope that my story will help others and show them that they can achieve success, regardless of their disability or what they've experienced."

According the National Federation of the Blind, as of 2015, only 14.9 percent of individuals with a visual impairment attained an undergraduate degree or higher and 29 percent live below the poverty line. These statistics, Chatters said, are influenced by social and academic barriers. "I have a lot of friends who are legally blind or blind and didn't make it through their bachelor's degree because of these barriers," she said.

Many also do not have a strong family support system like she had. Her mother has been a life-long advocate for Chatters and her brother, who also was born albino and is legally blind. But, she said, her mother would not let them use their disabilities as an excuse for not doing something.

"My parents always said to me, 'Go and try it. And if you're finding that you're not able to do it, then we will come and help you. But go and try it. And then if after we help you and you're still not able to do it, then we're just going to figure out something else that you can do, but not until you try it,'" she said.

Chatters used those words as encouragement as she overcame the many barriers she's faced throug