Jenny Albarracín Hoffman, at the school with head teacher, Virginia Rodríguez. / ÑITO SALAS

Jenny, a teacher like any other

Three languages. Blind from birth, Jenny studied Translation and Interpreting at Malaga university and works as a conversation assistant in a school French department

FRANCISCO GUTIÉRREZ

Jenny has never seen daylight. She lives in permanent darkness. Her "handicap", as she describes it, is that she has been blind from birth. However, this has not stopped her attending school and studying Translation and Interpreting at Malaga University. Now, at the age of 23, she is working as a conversation assistant at the Concha Méndez Cuesta secondary school in Torremolinos, in a pioneering education volunteer programme set up by its French department. The idea is for a French speaker to converse with pupils so they develop their verbal skills in the language.

Jenny is very enthusiastic about her work, and has forged a close relationship with her students and teaching staff. "We all love Jenny. She is an essential part of the school," said head teacher Virginia Rodríguez.

Jenny can make her way through the corridors at the school with no problem. She learned how to use a stick at the ONCE association for the blind, but there is always a helping hand available if she needs one, from another member of staff. The children make way for her, greeting her as she passes.

Jenny's job is to converse with the pupils: "That's how you learn a language, by speaking it," says the French teacher, Amanda

In the second-year class she works with Amanda, the French teacher, who is delighted with the help she provides by conversing with the pupils in clear and well-pronounced French which the children try to imitate. "That's how you learn a language, by speaking it," said Amanda.

Normal schooling

Jenny Albarracín Hoffman is 23 and was born in Malaga. Her father is Spanish and mother Belgian. She was a premature baby, and a detached retina left her blind, but her parents and twin sister Robin helped her to overcome the disability. She went to a normal school with all the other children instead of a specialist centre, and says she is grateful to her parents for that.

Her determination and the decision to be just like any other pupil in class was sometimes met by incomprehension.

"Some teachers thought I wouldn't be able to do things, or exams couldn't be adapted for me, but they were the exception. Generally, I received a lot of help and understanding. I had the same education as any other girl or boy" she said, proudly.

A support teacher would help her with specific tasks, such as printing out papers and exams, and her twin sister provided essential assistance during that period.

Three languages

In her university entrance exams she was upset to "only get a 6.1" but it was enough to enable her to study Translation and Interpreting via the quota reserved for people with some type of handicap, she explains. She always liked languages and as well as English she studied French and Dutch, which she had learned from her mother and practised with her grandmother. She also had career prospects in mind when choosing what to study.

Jenny still remembers how nervous she felt in the first year of her degree course. Fear of the unknown, of having to make new friends. But then she met Silvia, a girl from Granada, who became a firm friend and helped her a great deal during their years at university.

Work opportunities

Isabel Sarmiento, who teaches Spanish language and literature at the Concha Méndez Cuesta school, also lives in Alhaurín de la Torre and her daughter is one of Jenny's friends.

She had helped Jenny at secondary school, and once she had graduated from university, Isabel wondered about the possibility of her working at the school.

"More than 99 per cent of pupils with visual impairment go to ordinary schools and follow the usual curriculum, but could someone with that type of disability be a teacher?" she said she asked herself at the time.

The answer was yes, through an educational volunteer programme set up by the French department at the school, an initiative to include a conversation assistant in the teaching staff to help pupils to perfect their oral skills. In this case, the assistant just happens to be blind.

Going to the school twice a week has boosted Jenny, who was feeling a little disheartened after finishing her degree with few possibilities for a professional future ahead.

Now, she is qualified to teach English and French to blind people at ONCE, which is also a pioneering initiative. And she can do translations. She sets herself no limits and her only aim is to feel useful. Just like anyone else. With no "handicapped" label.