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The University of Texas at San Antonio Online Magazine

Changing Lives

Marti Hathorn, B.B.A. ’03, M.S. ’08

Marti Hatorn

Some people hate their jobs. Others merely tolerate them. But when Marti Hathorn discusses the life-changing work she does at the San Antonio Lighthouse for the Blind as assistive technologies supervisor, the joy in her voice is unmistakable.

Hathorn and her team help people who are blind or visually impaired learn how to use technology to reach their goals in school, work and life. Some of the technology is handheld and magnifies small print. Then there are computers that speak words the user types as well as every typed command. Other technologies include a camera that captures print that is then spoken out loud, so users can hear what they cannot see.

Learning how to use the equipment means being able to read labels at the grocery store, to read or hear textbooks or to perform various job tasks.

"The technology itself is blow-your- mind amazing, but what is especially amazing is seeing how people use it and how it changes their lives," she said.

If the 39-year-old seems especially familiar with the many uses of these assistive technologies, it is because she has been using them since learning as a college student that she was legally blind.

It was 20 years ago that Hathorn was diagnosed with cone-rod dystrophy, an inherited progressive retinal degenerative disease. She had planned on studying physical therapy and sports medicine and attending medical school.

But as Hathorn considered her prospects as a doctor whose vision loss would likely progress—and in fact, did to the point that today Hathorn has peripheral vision but no central vision—another path presented itself. In an effort to broaden her own skills, she signed up for a keyboarding class at the Lighthouse. She mastered touch-typing 30 words a minute in three weeks.

That led to a computer class where, while learning how to use a computer herself, Hathorn began helping other visually impaired classmates. That led to her first job as an assistive technology specialist and to a passion for computer programming.

Eventually, Hathorn enrolled at San Antonio College and then transferred to UTSA in the 2 Plus 2 program.

At SAC, Hathorn used her vision to read magnified text. But the larger workload at UTSA tired her eyes much faster, and so she transitioned to screen readers to get through her reading assignments and to take notes during class.

"Let’s work together because I don’t want shortcuts, I want equal education," she recalled telling her instructors at the start of each semester.

Hathorn received her B.B.A. with a concentration in information systems in 2003. After graduation, she took a job at the San Antonio Lighthouse for the Blind as an assistive technologies specialist and has worked there ever since.

She went back to graduate school at UTSA and earned her master’s with a concentration in information systems in 2008.

It is increasingly common to find students with visual impairments on campus, said Dianne Hengst, director of Student Disability Services. But when Hathorn attended, assistive technologies and related resources were harder to come by.

"It is incredible what they have learned to do and how they learned to do it," Hengst said of Hathorn and others who were user- pioneers of assistive technology. "They were figuring out things as they were coming."

Today, Hengst’s department refers students to the Lighthouse to figure out which technologies will help them. Hathorn has spoken on campus about diversity in the workplace and how that includes those with disabilities.

What makes Hathorn love her job is experiencing the joy of helping someone in a profound way, like the woman who bear-hugged her after Hathorn showed her how to use equipment to magnify small type in a phone book.

"She said, ‘Are you kidding me? I can read that!’" Hathorn recalled. "It’s those experiences, those moments, that make my job so gratifying and so awesome. From that moment, it changes your life."

–Kate Hunger

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