With the aid of a cane, Hannah Harriman will walk across the stage at Roy Wilkins Auditorium on her own to accept her diploma from Stillwater Area High School June 7. A guide will help her through the rest of the ceremony.
Harriman, a Stillwater resident, was born blind in her right eye and lost vision in her left by age 2. She is hearing impaired in one ear.
Despite her disabilities, Harriman isn’t one to whine.
“Sitting around wasting life complaining is not going to do me any good,” she said.
With training and technology, she has learned to do many things independently. “I actually have a money identification app,” she said.
“And a color identification app that’s accurate — most of the time.”
“You’re wearing two white socks today, so you’re good,” Colleen Feldman said with a laugh. Feldman is Harriman’s case worker from the school district.
“Hannah has done a remarkable job of growing,” Feldman said. “She’s a very remarkable, very articulate young lady, who’s more than ready to move on to the next step.”
Nevertheless, getting through high school presented Harriman with unique challenges — like getting around the school, for starters.
The year before she attended the high school, she began learning how to navigate the halls.
“There’s a pattern, and you have to memorize that pattern,” she said. “But it’s one of those things that even after three years, I have to consciously be thinking about it. … Navigating the halls is especially difficult during passing time.”
Most of the time she managed to find her way from one room to another without leaving class early. Difficulties didn’t end at the classroom door. During class, it was sometimes difficult to participate in the learning activities in a meaningful way, especially in science courses. And while many teachers were willing to do anything they could to accommodate her and provide assignments in accessible formats, others weren’t as easy to work with or simply didn’t understand her needs.
“It’s a constant growing opportunity to advocate for yourself,” Harriman said.
That didn’t always come easily, and sometimes required being forceful.
“I will be the first to admit I am not a forceful person,” she said.
Despite the challenges of going to a typical public school instead of a school for the blind, Harriman wouldn’t trade the experience.
She especially enjoyed participating in choir, calling that a highlight of her high school career.
“My experience in the Stillwater Concert Choir has really changed my life,” she said. “Not only have I grown musically, but I have developed friendships and have been able to get to know people beyond just being in class with them. And they’ve been able to get to know me more than just the blind person who sings in the first soprano section.”
As part of letting people get to know her, Harriman is open to questions from friends about her disabilities.
“If people have a question they should ask,” she said. “Assuming things isn’t going to help anything.”
Sometimes friends ask what it’s like to be blind and what difficulties she has to overcome. Last year, someone asked, “If you could get your vision back, would you?”
Harriman found the answer wasn’t as easy as you might think. She said it depended on the treatment and surgical procedures, but if were God’s plan for her, then fine. But she’s not going to waste her life wishing for one she doesn’t have.
“I was born this way for a reason,” she said. “I have a specific calling.”
She thinks that calling may one day lead her to become a lawyer or an advocate for people with disabilities.
She recognized that passion when she went on a trip in April 2010 with the National Academy for the Blind. With 24 other students, each from a different state, Harriman went to Washington D.C. to lobby for bills that had an impact on the blind.
The students visited representatives from each of their states to talk about the bills. “I learned a lot about lobbying and advocating,” Harriman said. “That was really what set me on the path of what I want to do.”
After graduation, Harriman plans to go to a transition program through Minnesota School for the Blind in Faribault, where she’ll learn more independent living skills. She won’t be able to do everything, but she’ll be able to do a lot on her own.
“There are things that I probably won’t be able to do by myself, like crossing streets,” she said. “But just because you can’t cross a street doesn’t mean you are limited.”
Harriman will continue to learn what she can do on her own and when to ask for help. She sometimes struggles with asking for help, because it feels like a sign of weakness. But she’s overcoming that.
“I’m realizing independence isn’t just about doing everything on your own,” she said. “It’s also about asking for help when you need it, and knowing when it’s needed.”
As she prepares to move on, she leaves inspiration in her wake, according to her school guidance counselor, Becky Hopper.
“I just feel really lucky to have gotten to know her during high school,” Hopper said. “She has a great deal of potential. … I don’t think she always knows how inspirational she is.”
To Harriman, that’s not the point.
“I’m going to live my life the way I’m supposed to, and if people are inspired by that, that’s great,” Harriman said. “But that’s not my motivation.”
Contact Jonathan Young at [email protected]