BRADENTON, Fla. » Michael Griffin knew he could no longer pretend his eyes were fine after he failed the vision test required to renew his driver’s license.
He was 24, and doctors had told him 10 years earlier he had juvenile macular degeneration, a condition that can progress over years until causing partial or complete blindness.
He did not tell anyone about the diagnosis — not even his family.
"I was embarrassed to say I couldn’t see," said Griffin, 37. "Looking back I wish I would have said something. I probably would have started college a lot earlier if I had the help I needed."
Now, about 13 years after he was denied his license, Griffin is working toward an associate’s degree in computer programming at the State College of Florida, with the hope of attending a four-year university and creating applications to help others with visual impairment.
Earlier this summer, he was awarded a $2,500 scholarship from the American Council of the Blind and $500 from the council’s Sarasota chapter.
Griffin does not use a cane or a guide dog. He can see, but his vision is blurred. He can see outlines of people walking down hallways and blurred images of letters marking buildings.
He zooms in so close on computer screens that he sees one word at a time. When he scrolls through his iPhone, his face hovers centimeters over the extra-large letters on the screen.
Elizabeth Dowdy, a Spanish professor at SCF who retired in February, said she was on the lookout for a cane and sunglasses when she learned she would have a visually impaired student. It wasn’t until Griffin introduced himself that she realized it was him.
When he began to bring a large laptop with him to class, Dowdy saw how he struggled to fit one word on the screen at a time.
"I’m thinking as a teacher he can’t even see the whole word, how will he read sentences?" Dowdy said. "But he did it; he even developed his own software to keep up."
It was a struggle for Dowdy and Griffin, but Griffin’s pleasant determination won Dowdy over. He’s the only student who has her personal cell phone number.
Although reading his work quickly is difficult, Griffin has learned C++, Visual Basic and Python coding languages in his computer science courses. He’s teaching himself how to code C-Sharp, a language used for computer and phone applications.
Griffin’s uncle, Rev. Charles Williams, who preaches at the King of Kings Baptist Church in Palmetto, said his family was shocked when Griffin said he wanted to go back to school for computer programming. But he and other family members are proud of Griffin’s resolve.
"It was huge for us," said Williams. "It’s a testament for other people to see no matter your ability, you can be what you choose to be, and you have people who will help you."