Cristina Pawel lost her vision in her right eye at five years old following an unfortunate accident. Despite the possible challenges of having a visual impairment, Cristina grew up to become a passionate educator with a decades-long career and is now based here in Qatar. She has a background in arts and science and coordinates programmes encouraging students to develop research skills and sustainability practices that serve the needs of their communities.
Cristina also worked on many outreach projects in India, Brazil, Cambodia, and the UK, supporting student-led activities and promoting experiential learning. Claudia Cojocea talks to Cristina to learn more about growing up with special needs, how society perceives people with differences, and what she’s doing to make a difference.
CC: When we think of people with special needs, we often think of people in wheelchairs or who lost a limb because of a disease or accident. However, this perception seems overly simplified. What would you say is a proper way to understand the concept of special needs?
CP: Commonly, those with special needs are identified by what they can’t do. These obstacles can be very difficult on families and may give the impression that having special needs is a negative label. Some parents may mourn the potential they felt their child had, and some
situations worsen over time. Despite being a widely used phrase, “special needs” has no one definition. At the moment, many specialists are actively debating its meaning. But, to answer your question, individuals with special needs are those who may require assistance with their movement, communication, or other skills.
Having said that, a person with special needs—in my opinion—is anyone who is not able to access the service provided by an institute. For instance, if a classroom is very noisy, it may stop someone with a mild hearing impairment from understanding the teacher.
CC: Could you tell us more about your experience losing your eye at five years old?
CP: I was five years old, but I remember it vividly. I was learning how to sew with my grandmother while my parents worked. The bell rang, and my grandmother went to answer, and it was a long way to the gate of the house. While she was speaking to someone at the gate, I picked up a pair of scissors to try to o untie a knot (I was not allowed to use the scissors). Unfortunately, the scissors went into my right eye and cut the retina, making me permanently blind from that eye. I was a child and did not tell anyone what had just happened, afraid of being punished, and went to sleep. When my parents came home, I was sleeping, and the next day when I woke up, they found out what had happened and took
me to the hospital, but the doctors could not save my right eye.
CC: How did this new reality affect you as a five-year-old? Did you notice a change in how society perceived and treated you at the time?
CP: I had to wait another year to join the school and could not watch TV for a long time. I remember my mother reading stories to me—which I loved—and it helped me dream of imaginary worlds. I had a white patch on my eye for about one year, which was uncomfortable, but I did not seem to mind. As a young child, I did not feel there was any problem because I had lots of friends and I was treated the same as everyone else. To be honest, it made me stronger and more daring to try out things and see if I could do them.
CC: It must have been a long and highly emotional struggle to accept this new reality. How did you find it growing up, and when would you say you eventually achieved peace?
CP: As a teenager, I became more aware of the impairment and had to come to terms with learning how to have a normal life, living with such a prominent scar on my eye and dealing with the gazing of other children and adults towards me. The children often asked me what happened and said it looked awful. I would respond to them by saying, “it is just a scar, and I am fine”, although I am half blind. I am sure this accident made me more resilient. It was emotionally challenging and overwhelming at times, but I persevered and had a reasonably happy adolescence.
CC: Returning to the topic of people with special needs, I’d like to touch on the unique emotional needs that people with them have. How much care would you say our society offers them?
CP: This is such a broad question! There are so many variables to the phrase “special needs”—I can only comment on my experience. I learnt how to deal with it mostly by having a positive attitude and being honest and upfront about my shortcomings! Sometimes, it hurts when someone looks at me and says, “oh, poor you”, or something equally ridiculous and offensive, but most of the time, I am the one who feels sorry for their lack of understanding.
CC: What are some of the greatest challenges you had to overcome in your adult life?
CP: The greatest challenge is to keep myself positive and accept that some people have a very narrow mind about the emotional needs of people with disabilities. Children, in general, have a more open mind, but they can also portray the ideas of their parents and start to make funny comments or treat people differently due to their appearance or any special needs that they may have.
CC: How frequently did you feel that you were not treated fairly because of your condition?
CP: I was very lucky in my life and never felt that I did not get a particular job or was stopped from doing something because of my condition. I had enormous support from my family and wonderful friends, and I now have a lovely family of my own, so I always considered myself lucky. However, I feel that it could have had a big impact on my life, career, and family aspirations if I did not have
the support I had or if I had let it affect my emotions and options in life.
CC: You are a teacher who works with many children. Sometimes, they can be pretty straightforward in expressing their surprise or curiosity, especially the small ones. What has been your approach to this?
CP: I love my job as a teacher and an outreach and sustainability coordinator. I feel that one of my roles as an educator is to help demystify the preconceptions and prejudices about the needs of so-called people with special needs. Sometimes, young children come to me to say that they want to know what happened to my eye and if it can be back to “normal”. Their idea of normal is a clear eye without any scar—however, in my view, my eyes are normal, and my life is normal being half blind. Some people are short or tall or below average, while others are very large or very thin. We need to encourage children (especially young students) to accept that people look different. I feel that we need to promote awareness towards the needs of people in general and learn how to live in a community that emphasises empathy with the different
aspects of people rather than trying to make everyone look or behave the same way.
CC: You are a strong and optimistic person, Cristina. What would you tell other people with special needs to help them accept their circumstances and, at times, society’s harsh perceptions?
CP: I would like to say to everyone that we all have special needs—some are emotional, some are physical and more apparent. But we need to stop judging people due to their appearances, language skills, or motor skills and learn to live in a diverse and dynamic community!