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"I'm like the TV show The Pretender," said Judi Magalhaes Garcia '63. True, but unlike the pretender, who helps others as a lawyer one week and a medical examiner or test pilot or virologist the next, Garcia has aided real people in real need.
And all because of a disability, undiagnosed for years, that turned out to be a blessing.
Words moved up and down on the page or looked jumbled to her during her days at Colby. She majored in Spanish, she says, because "everyone learning a foreign language had the same learning problem I had, in the sense that you have to concentrate on every single detail." She studied in Madrid and after graduation went back to Spain to teach English for two and a half years.
After 10 years with the American Field Service placing American students with international host families and training volunteers in both the U.S. and abroad, she spent more than a year in Mexico as a volunteer teaching Spanish to foreigners and English to Mexicans. In Miami in the 1980s she moderated focus groups, ending up as a vice president of the company that conducted the groups, primarily with Mariel refugees, from Cuba. .
"It was because of my education at Colby, because I was bilingual, that I could do any of these jobs," she said. "You're taught to fly by the seat of your pants."
She headed the personnel department at a temporary nursing service in Miami, served as a hospice volunteer, then became a social worker in youth services in Texas. At a middle school she worked in a program called Red Flags of Learning Disability.
"Not until I was fifty-four did I know I had a problem," Garcia said. The problem, first identified by educational psychologist Helen Irlen in the early 1980s, is scotopic sensitivity syndrome or Irlen syndrome, a sensitivity to light that causes words to move up and down or appear as black or white spots on a printed page. Doctor-prescribed tinted eyeglasses offer a remedy.
Garcia trained to be an Irlen screener, an operation that involves laying plastic letter-size transparencies of differing shadesgreen, blue, yellowover printed material to alter the contrast between the words and the page and determine which combination of colors gives the best view of the world. The results are startling. One little boy exclaimed, 'I can weed!'" she said. The tinted lenses that worked for her, she says, may help dyslexics and even autistic children.
"I made it my job to find out if the kids I worked with were learning disabled," Garcia said. She voluntarily visited students' homes, only to discover mothers suffering multiple sclerosis or lupus or chronic fatigue syndrome.
"All these little thingsyou couldn't help but connect the dots," she said. "Scotopic sensitivity is hereditary. The children were all children of chronic immune system problems. Then I was diagnosed with lupus, which was another piece of the puzzle."
Garcia says she "dabbles" in research on the connections between immune deficiency, scotopic disease and learning disabilities, even offering herself as a research guinea pig. Although a stroke in 1997 forced her to retire from social work, she still volunteers as an Irlen screener.
An Irlen apostle, Garcia says she spots people struggling to read labels in a grocery store or kids on the street whose getups declare them "goths" and offers names and addresses they can refer to for help. In the long run, her scotopic disability has been a boon, she says: "If I hadn't had the problem, I wouldn't be able to identify it and recommend a remedy."
Garcia volunteered to manage her townhouse complex after she retired and volunteers today with 60 Plus, a Houston coalition of churches and programs such as English as a Second Language. She also cares for her 86-year-old mother.
Volunteerism is sweeping the country since the September attacks, Garcia says. "Everyone is focusing on what they can do for someone else. That's why I can walk up to people and say, 'You've got scotopic.' Now you see what I mean," she said, "about the liberal arts."
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