At 23 years of age, Santiago Velasquez has walked the Kokoda trail, cycled 90km for charity, founded a tech company, given a TedxQUT talk, and spoken at the UN, all while not being able to see.
Mr Velasquez was born in Armenia, Colombia, with only two per cent of his vision.
In 2009, when he was 13 years old, he moved with his family to Australia in pursuit of a better quality of life, more accessibility and the opportunity for him to become more independent.
Mr Velasquez said his parents had always instilled in him the belief that he could do whatever he set his mind to, and this belief was evident in his high school achievements.
“I said to [my teachers], these are the subjects I want to do, but the teachers weren’t 100 per cent on board with it,” he said.
“My dad said, ‘what, why not?’ And I said, ‘oh, it’s because it’s going to be hard’, and my dad said, ‘that’s not an excuse’,” Mr Velasquez said.
“That’s basically what [my parents] have bestowed on me ever since I can remember.”
Santiago Velasquez successfully completed Maths B, Maths C, physics, philosophy, Spanish and English in his final years of high school.
He is currently studying electrical engineering at QUT in Brisbane, and he is the first vision-impaired person in Australia to study the degree.
Mr Velasquez said while the degree was challenging, the university had been incredibly helpful in making the content accessible.
“Every semester is a challenge, every semester something new comes up or some other assignment that we didn’t think about, but the university has been insanely helpful,” he said.
“One of the advantages that we currently have is because I’m studying engineering, to the lecturers and tutors it’s an engineering challenge and they commit themselves.”
Mark McDougall is a QUT participation assistant with a Masters in engineering who has been working with Mr Velasquez to make visual content in engineering degrees accessible for the vision impaired.
Mr McDougall said engineers have always loved a challenge and said converting content and designing new teaching approaches to cater to visually impaired students was a challenge that he found very motivating.
“That was the reason I was doing it; they came to me with a problem and I thought ‘well, damn, I don’t know if that is possible, but I guess we will find out’,” Mr McDougall said.
“[The] first step every semester is to sit down and figure out what units are being done and what the requirements of accessibility are going to be [to] see if anything jumps out as being visually complex,” he said.
Mr McDougall said Mr Velasquez’s tech start-up company, EyeSyght, would make some of the challenges in converting content a lot easier.
EyeSyght is in the process of developing a tactile display so people with vision impairments can feel graphical content immediately without delay.
Sanitago Velasquez said the idea for the tactile display started to take formation in high school but became clear in university when he was trying to navigate learning from visual content.
“I thought maybe we can use that for education and then I can do graphs, I can do maps, I can feel pictures, I can feel buttons, and I can read Braille in a bigger screen,” he said.
Mr McDougall said the tactile display would make teaching engineering content easier for the visually impaired.
“His idea and development begin to solve quite a few of the issues that we automatically run into,” Mr McDougall said.
“Engineering as a whole has always been taught from a very visual basis, which makes it a challenge to treat someone who is visually impaired,” he said.
Mr Velasquez’s combined experience studying electrical engineering and developing EyeSyght led to him being nominated by Vision Australia’s CEO to attend a United Nations conference on human rights and technology for people with disabilities.
Mr Velasquez said he “was honoured to be selected” to attend the conference.
“I thought, ‘wow, I must be doing something right’,” he said.
The manager of government relations and advocacy for Vision Australia, Chris Edwards, said Mr Velasquez was the perfect choice to represent Australia at the UN, given the conference’s focus on disability and technology.
“There was a particular focus [at] this meeting about how technology can improve the human rights for people with a disability, something Santi has a great deal of experience with,” Mr Edwards said.
“We were also confident that Santi could effectively contribute to discussions and well represent Vision Australia on a world stage,” he said.
Two months after being selected, Mr Velasquez was on a plane to New York with his cousin, Camila Henao, and his guide dog, Lockie, who both assisted him during the trip.
Mr Velasquez said after arriving they all took a moment to look at the UN from afar and take it in.
“I was with my cousin, and she was describing ‘all of the flags of the countries are waving in the wind, it’s very pretty’ and I thought, ‘wow, that’s fantastic, I can’t believe I’m here’,” he said.
Mr Velasquez said he was impressed with the range of content the UN conference covered and found the experience to have teachable takeaways.
“We talked about early childhood education, we talked about higher education, we talked about women’s rights with disabilities, [and] we talked about third world countries and how they can improve how they can assist people with disabilities,” he said.
“I think the one of the biggest takeaways from that whole event is to ask for help.”
“I admire the countries that said, ‘this is what we’re doing, but we need assistance, we want to improve, we want to continue moving forward’.”
Mr Velasquez said after returning to Australia he was inspired to start making movements to encourage other people with disabilities to follow their dreams, whatever they may be, and to encourage STEM degrees for people with disabilities.
“Not just our big conferences where people get to talk about oh, you know, how we should encourage people with disabilities to do things,” he said.
“No, no, the events that I’m referring to are meeting people who have disabilities, talking to them and asking them, ‘what would you like to do and what is stopping you from doing that?’”
Chris Edwards said Mr Velasquez’s experience had and would continue to make him an asset to the engineering sector.
“Santi is definitely a great role model to demonstrate what can be achieved in STEM for young people who are blind and [have] low vision,” Mr Edwards said.
“It will also be great for the engineering sector to gain the experience and insights within the sector of a person with lived experience of disability,” he said.
Looking back on his own life experience, Mr Velasquez said he hoped that as a society everyone could learn how resilient and strong people with disabilities are.
“People with disabilities live in a world that has not been designed to be accessible, so when people who don’t have disabilities question our abilities to solve problems, well, we solve problems every day,” he said.
“For us to go from waking up, to going to work, to moving around, it’s a challenge, but because of that, our drive and our ability to solve problems, and our ability to be resilient is through the roof.”
“You might be different, but it doesn’t matter what differences, what disabilities or conditions you have, if you want to do it, just do it, and if you fail, well, learn from that experience and get up again and try something else, or rinse and repeat.”