A UCL grad shows the world that disabilities don’t have to hold you back

Naqi Rizvi turned completely blind at age 7 and he’s graduated with a Masters degree in Engineering

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Reading, taking notes, building models – how do you study without eyesight? I met Naqi Rizvi in 2015 at UCL, a young man who turned completely blind at just seven.

Naqi is among more than 2,300 UCL students who have a physical or mental disability; 61 are blind or partially sighted. As we lived in the same halls, I was able to witness his daily routines and I saw what an inspiration he can be for many, not only those who suffer from disabilities.

This spring I asked Naqi whether he would agree to an interview. This is his story:

A tall young man with short dark hair and sunglasses walks by the UCL campus. The Engineering Master’s graduate, who is half Indian and half Pakistani, has been fighting a challenge since his schooldays, when no local school was willing to accept him due to his bad eyesight. “My mom was determined that I would go to a normal school”, Naqi Rizvi says. She wanted to give him the opportunity to go to university.

This Braille-keyboard enables visually impaired to work with computers.

As at first no one was able to determine the extent of his impaired vision or knew how to teach him, schools were hesitant to admit him. Then, one headmaster agreed to admit him on the condition that his mother, who has an MBA, would become a teacher for the school. For the sake of her son’s education, she agreed.

While his mother took care of his education, his father took care of leisure time. “My dad has had a great role in my upbringing”, he says, “He taught me how to ride a bike, how to roller blade, how to drive a motorbike and a car.”

Naqi Rizvi (on the right) wants to learn, but he also wants to have fun. One of his favorite activities is tandem biking.

At school he used markers with thicker tips so he could read his own hand writing. Material was in large print and he read in well-lit environments. But then, at age seven, he turned completely blind. Ten surgeries later there was no change. However, doctors were finally able to tell him that he suffered from Glaucoma, which injures the optic nerve that links the brain and the eyes. If not treated correctly, this can lead to impaired sight or loss of vision.

For Naqi, the diagnosis came too late. His teachers did not react with empathy, but were instead frustrated with his blindness. The principal informed his mother that he would not be able to continue his studies. “But my mom implored them to give me a chance to prove myself”, Naqi says proudly. The gratitude in his voice cannot be overstated.

This is an alphabet in Braille and in letters. Blind and visually impaired can feel Braille to be able to read.

His mother also made sure that he was taught how to read Braille. “A lot of people thought that I wasn’t smart enough because I couldn’t follow my surrounding”, Naqi Rizvi recounts. But with Braille and later computer programs, he was able to prove that he was one of the brightest students in his class.

Despite his numerous challenges, he is determined to stay positive: “I do try to always be positive on the inside. But if I can’t, I try to be positive on the outside, because even that creates a great vibe”, he says. This attitude is obvious, even when he walks down the street.  Naqi smiles, even when he is on his own.

And so far, he has had many opportunities to smile. He was accepted by the University of Riyadh in Saudi Arabia. “Engineering was so much harder than A levels”, he says. “But my professors accepted the challenge and supported me with 3D models for learning by feeling”. In the end, he graduated as Valedictorian. “Even though I was the only one in my class with a visual disability, I still managed to be the best of my batch”. When his classmates heard of his grades, he noticed that their attitude changed. “It became clear that disability does not mean inability”.

With this 3D model, visually impaired students can feel the structure that other students would see on paper.

After two years of work, he decided to apply for a Masters degree in Engineering at UCL, where he was accepted with funding. Despite missing the beginning of his course due to Visa issues, he remained positive, worked hard to catch up, and graduated with a job offer from Barclays.

Naqi is supposed to start working in the summer. Once again, he faces a challenge: he still does not know whether he will get his Visa in time or at all. For once, it is not his disability causing him difficulties.

Naqi made it from his first battle against an excluding school system in Pakistan to a Master’s degree from UCL. His parents, teachers, and professors went out of their ways to support his education while he never gave up. He lost sight, but never his vision.