Dora Utchel – From Palau to Reno

Dora Utchel – From Palau to Reno

Writing, Video Production and Photography By Abbie Walker and Joan Grover

Dora Utchel is just like any other mom and student. She is witty, humorous, sarcastic, works hard for her children and loves them unconditionally. She moved to America for a better education and a more promising future, as most immigrants, but with one distinction. She was born with Retinitis Pigmentosa, a disease in which the retinas, no longer receiving a rich flow of blood, become white and lose visual acuity.

“I wasn’t born blind. I was born legally blind. I used to wear really thick eyeglasses, but even with those I can’t see. I could sort of see, but not really clearly. So now I have now been blind for the last 15 years,” Dora says.

Dora moved from Palau four years ago to seek a better life for herself and her family. She wanted a better education for her children, and for herself was eager to live in a place with more legally-mandated accommodations for the disabled.

Growing up in Palau, Dora was always accepted, but looked at differently. She never had the tools she needed to advance in life.

“Everybody knew everybody,” she says. “Palau is nice. People are nice because they know who I am. ‘Oh that’s Dora. Oh that’s Uell’s daughter. Let’s help her. But when it came to school, they could not help me.’”

Previously married, Dora is a single, independent mom with five children: twin 18-year-old girls, a 15-year-old boy, a 10-year-old boy and a 5-year-old daughter.

Dora with her family at graduation/Photo provided by Dora Utchel

Dora with her family at her twins graduation/Photo provided by Dora Utchel

Ten years ago, before Dora came to the U.S. she met Dr. Shirley Cole in Palau. Dr. Cole was her first introduction to assistive tools and technology. She also helped Dora move to the U.S., securing passports for her and her family.

“Shirley wired me money to pay for a ticket to come here,” Dora says. “She helped set me up in Reno. She sent us warm clothes. She got me my first real cane.”

Dora chose Reno, Nevada because she had cousins here. She likes the city because of all the amenities it offers, such as public transportation, and the access to round-the-clock activities. Palau, in contrast, is an island where everything closes at midnight or earlier. But she misses the close-knit community she had in Palau.

When she came to the U.S., the twins were 13 years old. They had one foot in Palau’s culture with their customs and traditions, and the other in the individualistic society of the United States.

Dora is currently trying to become a U.S. citizen. She must have a clean record for five years to be eligible to take the citizenship test, which is coming up in 2013.

“It is hard because I can’t vote and I really want to,” says Dora. “I supported our president and wore a patch on my backpack, but I wish I could have gone and voted.”

Dora knows that Reno offers a lot of opportunities for her life and family’s education.

Dora navigates on her own to classes and work/Photo by Abbie Walker

Dora navigates on her own to classes and work/Photo by Abbie Walker

The American with Disability Act (ADA), section 504, gives disabled individuals who want to go to school certain accommodations. The ADA allows Dora to follow her dream of majoring in social work where she can help others in her situation either here or back in Palau. Dora is in her junior year at the University of Nevada, Reno (UNR).

“I love that I am able to get on the computer on the campus and have access like for JAWS (Job Access With Speech), which is a screen reader program,” says Dora. “I use that to check my email and course research and web pages.”

Even with the odds stacked against her, Dora maintains a good sense of humor.

Dora with daughter Shirley prepares the family dinner/Photo by Joan Grover

Dora with daughter Shirley prepares the family dinner/Photo by Joan Grover

Outside of school, her home life is a challenge, but she has a great support system with help from her children. Shirley, Dora’s youngest daughter, is a big help in her daily life. Shirley helps pick out Dora’s clothes, helps sort laundry, tells Dora what certain objects are, and gets objects for her. While Dora relies on Shirley, she always seeks reassurance from her older children to make sure what she is wearing is appropriate, or whatever she is doing is correct.

“I don’t use Braille or label anything at home because I have my daughter Shirley and my son Peter to help me,” Dora says. “I think I am happy and grateful my daughter picks my clothes out for me. Although I can’t see what I am wearing.”

Dora can do almost all the chores, but does require assistance in certain areas. She cooks, cleans, does grocery shopping, helps with homework and oversees the children. She attempts doing the laundry even though to her children’s chagrin, she sometimes dyes the clothing pink because of throwing dark and light colored clothes in the wash.

“I have to be firm in telling them their chores, which they do on a good day,” Dora says. “My whole family helps with dinner and everyone does their own dishes.”

Outside the home and school, she must use the assistance of both her cane and her children’s eyes to help her find her way. Unknown or unfamiliar areas do not come easy.

“When we go to the park, I listen for the children to make sure that they don’t go too far away from me.” Dora says. “I need help. If there is poop on the grass the kids tell me or warn me about it.”

Dora is active in a Christian church, which has become a huge support system. Since she cannot drive and emergencies can happen, friends from church step up to help. There have been instances where her little ones have become sick at school, and Dora is stuck with no transportation at UNR. So she must rely on her friends to pick up her kids.

Even with the need for support from friends and family, Dora does have a few ways of knowing her surroundings.

“One funny story last week happened when I came to work study with Scott Youngs,” Dora says. “I was walking in through the office I am situated in, and he came in behind me and I said “Hi Scott.’ He goes ‘how did you know it was me without me saying hi?’ And I said ‘Because I can smell you.’ He goes ‘What do I smell like?’ And I said ‘Downy fabric softener . . . I can smell people.’ I know people’s scents I am familiar with.”

Dora listens as son Ben reads his math homework aloud/Photo by Joan Grover

Dora listens as son Ben reads his math homework aloud/Photo by Joan Grover

Although completely blind, Dora is independent. She stays healthy and runs her household like any other single mom.

“I go to the gym every morning by myself at 4:00 a.m.,” she says. “I take a taxi because the buses do not run that early. I wake up the kids. Usually I am making breakfast like eggs, waffles or cereal. I get all my kids out the door for school and then catch the bus to head to UNR. I then attend class and go to work. I wait for one of my twin daughters to meet me at night and we head home, where I get dinner together, work on homework with my kids and get everyone ready for bed.”

Dora is a self-motivator. She pushes herself to do her homework, raise a healthy family, be the best mother and learn new technologies to give her and her family a better life.