(Photo by Danny Fulgencio)

Just a few weeks ago, Rafael Martinez Salazar was looking forward to the last stretch of senior year. The Innovation, Design and Entrepreneurship Academy that Rafael attends in Old East Dallas had a lineup of senior activities to celebrate the end of a long and stressful academic journey. 

Then the coronavirus hit. 

Dallas ISD schools closed for the year, jeopardizing milestones that have become rights of passage for graduating seniors across the United States. The likelihood that students will get to toss their caps in a commencement ceremony seems to diminish every day.

“I’m like, ‘Are you serious?’ It’s the last part of senior year,” Rafael says. “It’s supposed to be fun. I’m not going to get to do all this stuff. That’s messed up.”

Rafael may feel cheated, but he’s following the rules. He’s staying home and logging in to Google Classroom, where his teachers take attendance and post assignments. He can complete his work in just a few hours. 

“Distance learning is all right, but I liked it better when it was physical,” Rafael says. “After a while, it gets boring. It’s like, ‘What do I do now?’ I take a walk to take my mind off it.”

The next few weeks will be full of uncertainty for seniors as graduation, summer school and financial aid hang in the balance of factors beyond their control. Whatever happens, Rafael knows he can overcome any obstacle. He’s been doing it all his life. 

Rafael has had vision problems for as long as he can remember. As a child, he struggled to read the letters during a vision test at school. He met with an eye specialist, and on his 11th birthday, he was diagnosed with Stargardt disease, a degenerative disorder that causes progressive vision loss. 

There is no cure or treatment, but there are resources. During school, Rafael sits at the front of the class, and his teachers provide him with large-print worksheets. For online assignments, he uses the accessibility options on his phone and computer to enlarge the font.

He manages so well that most people don’t know he has a disability. That doesn’t stop unassuming folks from asking why he holds his phone so close to his face. Sometimes, he just doesn’t feel like explaining. 

“I just say I don’t have my contacts in,” Rafael says.

Rafael has coped with the stigma of being visually impaired since childhood. While other kids tried to tear him down by calling him names, Rafael focused on his strength.

“It didn’t kill me,” he says. “It’s like, ‘You’re trying to knock me down because I’m doing something right.’”

The senior is in the top 10 percent of his class academically, and last fall, he landed the coveted role of drum major at his home school. The position relies heavily on sight, but using the beat, Rafael memorizes the steps and directs the band when to play.

Becoming drum major was a yearslong dream for Rafael, who joined the band in middle school. The first instrument he learned to play was the saxophone. Since then, he’s taught himself to play eight instruments, including the French horn, trumpet, piano and guitar. He sight-reads using oversized sheet music, then memorizes the piece until it becomes second nature.

“Sometimes you have dreams for your kids, and sometimes they can’t always be realized,” says Christian Haley, Rafael’s instructional support specialist. “He could use his disability as an excuse, but he doesn’t. I know he’s going to advocate for himself and get the help that he needs.”

This fall, Rafael plans to attend the historically black university Prairie View A&M on a full-ride scholarship. He wants to play in the “Marching Storm” while majoring in music education and minoring in music production. He’s got his sights set on becoming a band director or a music producer who creates hit radio tracks.

“My disability doesn’t mean I can’t do something just as good, if not better,” Rafael says. “My mom would tell me, ‘You’re not supposed to let this stop you. Things don’t just happen for no reason. You’re going to be great one of these days.’”