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Demystifying Disabilities: Delgadillo embraces love of language

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Sophomore journalism major Des Delgadillo is a LeoFM DJ every Tuesday from 10 a.m. to noon. Delgadillo also runs his own podcast and is copy chief for the Campus Times. He was diagnosed with congenital glaucoma at age 2. / photo by Katie Madden

Sophomore journalism major Des Delgadillo is a LeoFM DJ every Tuesday from 10 a.m. to noon. Delgadillo also runs his own podcast and is copy chief for the Campus Times. He was diagnosed with congenital glaucoma at age 2. / photo by Katie Madden

Mariela Patron
Editor in Chief

It is college night at Flappers Comedy Club in Claremont. For the past half-hour, college students have performed their stand-up routines, hoping to win the audience over move to the final round and perform at Flappers Comedy Club in Burbank. It is now Desmond Delgadillo’s turn. He walks up on stage with the help of a cane and a fellow comedian. Once on stage, he stretches his arms and tries to find the microphone stand. Des’ guide grabs him by the shoulders and turns him so he is facing the audience. Once he secures the mic in one hand, he folds his cane into his pocket and starts.

“I’m a great catch. I will never tell you your butt looks big in them jeans,” he said. “You’ll never find crusty Playboys in my sock drawer.”

It is a small crowd tonight at Flappers, but Des causes laughter from the small audience and comedians on the sideline.

In just seven months of doing stand-up, Des has already performed at the Hollywood Improv and has been a finalist in comedy competitions. He focuses his comedy routines on his disability.

“I sometimes open up with ‘I’m a blind comedian and I’m picturing you naked,’” Des said.

Des was diagnosed with congenital glaucoma around the age of 2.

His mother decided to mainstream him from the beginning of his education after multiple surgeries failed to restore his eyesight.

A 19-year-old sophomore journalism major at the University of La Verne, Des is a man of many trades. In addition to his new career as a comedian, he runs a small podcast empire on ThingsDesSays.net, is a DJ for LeoFM and serves as copy chief for the Campus Times.

Displaying Independence

Des can often be found typing in a long rectangle box he wears around his neck and shoulder that has keys and small white dots on a black strip. At first glance, it looks like a small keyboard instrument, but it is a braille notetaker, the tool Des uses to write and read.

The notetaker can translate PDF and Word documents as well as save anything Des writes in a Word document, which he can then send to professors. When on his laptop, Des prefers to use the standard keyboard which he has memorized over the years.

“I’ve grown to be much faster typing on the standard QWERTY keyboard than in actual braille,” he said.

When Des wants to read something, he glides his fingers left to right and feels the white dots move up and down on his notetaker. The white dots that push to the top transform the words into braille.

“I­t’s like a screen, but the screen, instead of something that you can visually look at, is a braille display you can touch,” Des said.

Unlike most college students who use earphones to listen to music while working on their computer, Des uses them to listen to the voice recognition software already installed in his Macbook. His voice of choice is a man who recites Des’ every computer move in a speed much too fast for anybody who listens to it for the first time to understand.

He has a variety of voices he can pick from.

“I actually like the voice that I have right now,” Des said. “It sounds like it’s breathing when it’s reading a long paragraph.”

Hal Hargrave, who is paralyzed and has limited mobility in his hands as a result of a rollover truck accident, worked with Des on a group project and said he became inspired by the way he worked with his disability.

“He can’t view what he’s typing but he nails it every time,” Hargrave said. “It’s funny how we have our different ways of going about doing things with the same result.”

Most of the time, Des refuses to have voice recognition read to him.

“I’d rather read it in braille because it feels like you’re interacting more with the text and you can process it better,” Des said. “I really don’t like things being read to me”

Des said he uses the Students with Disabilities Department only to obtain books in PDF format.

Special Education Program Chair Patricia Taylor said some visually impaired students do not even register through ADA. “They’re very independent,” she said.

Getting Around

Des keeps this same independence in all aspects of school life. He uses a paratransit service to travel to and from school, and to his comedy shows. He describes his life as trial and error.

“When I want to get around places, I have a map in my head and have to put it together,” he said. “Every semester I always account for (getting lost time). Eventually I get the visual construct in my head.”

At this point, he said he is confident enough to give visitors directions to any building at ULV. Des uses the rest of his senses, especially sound and touch, to recall memories and places.

“My conscience is all words. My life is pretty much words,” Des said. “I just associate words with the other four senses that are actually intact.”

Des uses a cane to get around except when he is at home. Although he is comfortable with it now, at an early age, he said he was reluctant to use it. “I guess I didn’t want people to label me,” Des said.

Des is not afraid to venture off to new places by himself, but he said he always knows when to ask for help. When he first started at ULV, the many halls, doors and passageways of the Arts and Communications Building were confusing to him. He asked for directions until he was finally able to memorize the building.

“I have always struggled with being a burden on people, but one of the things that was stressed to me is don’t be afraid to ask for help because that’s a sign of independence,” Des said.

A Life Changing Diagnosis

Des’ mom, Rose Gamez, said she almost walked out of the room when a doctor said, “Your son is going to be blind,” after inspecting his eyes. “At that moment, I just went numb,” she said. “I didn’t believe it. I was in disbelief.”

Grasping onto hope that the doctor was wrong, Gamez took her newborn to see other doctors and gather different opinions. They all had the same diagnosis: congenital glaucoma – damage in the optic nerve that can be diagnosed as early as birth. From then, Gamez said she lived in hospitals. “I went into that mommy mode,” she said. “I didn’t have any time to mourn. Even now, I don’t think I ever did. I felt sad, but it was more of a worry.”

After multiple failed surgeries, Gamez decided to stop the medical procedures that attempted to stick his retina to the optic nerve. Gamez said a breaking point was when Des turned purple as he was having trouble breathing while coming out of anaesthesia. She said it was painful to hear him cry for food before a surgery. “Just to see him suffer through that – it was getting worse as he was getting older,” she said. Doctors were honest with her from the start that the chances for him to be able to see were slim. Des said his father left because he could not handle the stress of having a blind son.

“He couldn’t deal with the reality, and now that I’m old enough to think about it, I empathize with my dad – I wouldn’t be able to deal with it either,” Des said. Although he and his father always kept in touch, Des said he felt his father was just a check in the mail until they opened up to each other a couple years ago. “We had this incredible heart to heart,” Des said. “I love my dad, he’s a big part of my life now because we reconnected and put it all out there, how we both felt and why I chose not to really speak with him for so long.”

From the beginning of Des’ academic career, Gamez decided to mainstream him.

“That was I think the godsend – my mom never looked at me like her blind son, she looked at me as her son who happened to be blind,” he said. “I think that’s why I’m where I am today.”

Experiencing La Verne

Des said he has always wanted to be a writer, but did not know he wanted to be a journalist until he discovered his high school newspaper.

“I wanted to help people in some way through my ability to articulate on paper,” he said.

Des is copy chief of the Campus Times and recently his article, “La Verne fights 11 percent cut to Cal Grants” was picked up by Association of Independent California Colleges and Universities.

Des’ academic adviser Associate Professor of Journalism Elizabeth Zwerling said she is working with Des to design a major that combines auditory media and the written word.

With Des as copy chief, Zwerling said she is continually brainstorming how to best use his editorial skills.

“I want to make sure he is not sitting there waiting for somebody to give him work to do,” she said.

“I want to put his talents to good use.”

Zwerling said she looking into providing the technology necessary for Des to thrive in future leadership positions with Campus Times.

“He’s very clear in letting me know what he needs and he doesn’t really seem to need much in the way of accommodations, but as he moves up in the editorial ranks, I’ll have some technology questions,” Zwerling said.

Des said his disability sometimes takes people by surprise when they meet him for the first time for an interview.

“You can tell there’s always hesitation and it’s awesome because I don’t understand why people associate blindness with incompetence,” he said.

Des is also a radio DJ for LeoFM every Tuesday from 10 a.m. to noon.

The idea of hosting a radio show was at first intimidating.

“If you go into the radio studio there’s like a thousand buttons. I memorize them,” Des said. “At first it’s daunting.”

Mike Laponis, professor of communications, said he gave Des just as much or less instruction than the rest of his students on how to work the radio controls for LeoFM. “He’s been super inspiring,” he said. “He’s as fast as anybody else on editing. It’s been amazing to watch him work.”

A Comedian’s Journey

Des said his venture into comedy started as a way out of boredom the summer of 2013.

“Comedy is so cathartic. It’s a therapy session,” Des said. “You take the things that you’re really insecure about and you turn them into something funny.”

At first, Des was hesitant to tell blind jokes. “I didn’t want to be known as the blind comedian,” he said. “I didn’t want to be pigeonholed for my disability.”

His view changed when a comedy mentor told him that comedy is about talking about what you know. “He said go up there and be blind. So that kind of built my confidence up,” Des said.

His reluctance to being stereotyped as a blind person also transferred to the way Des asked to be treated by other comedians. Comedians would often pick on each other but they were always scared to make fun of his disability, Des said.

“We’re telling jokes about the Holocaust and things that are so not funny and we’re trying to spin them into something that is, yet people were reluctant to make a joke about the blind comedian,” Des said. “And I call people on it.”

Running a Podcast

Des said he recently started integrating his experience in comedy into his podcast on ThingsDesSays.net. In addition to his weekly wrestling podcast, he now does a pop culture show. “I think it’s broader and it’s accessible for more people,” he said.

“It’s not something as niche as guys in their underwear pretending to fight each other.”

Des’ idea to start a podcast surged from the question people constantly asked him: “You can’t see anything, why are you a fan of professional wrestling?”

He said it is the story line that drives him to the sport.

“You can very easily get sucked into the story without necessarily having to see it,” Des said. “They’re using physicality and moves to tell a story of oppression and somebody being held down and eventually rise up and conquer. Once I learned what the rules of wrestling and their fictional universe, it’s not hard at all to follow.”

Currently, his podcast averages about 3,000 downloads and plays a month. From the recording to the editing process, Des does everything from his room.

“I’m a radio guy so I try to run it like we’re doing a morning show,” he said. “It’s pretty professional, but at the same time it’s just me and friends having a conversation.”

He learned how to edit sound by himself. A skill set which Des said Laponis was surprised he already knew how to do when he first took an intro radio class.

Des said his podcast has made him popular among a small independent scene of professional wrestling flourishing in Southern California.

“Many people know me on the wrestling scene as the blind guy who goes to wrestling shows,” he said.

“Now I go to shows and wrestlers will stop to say hello.” In a video posted on YouTube, Des is interviewing wrestler Drake Younger after a match in the midst of loud talking and cheering. Des stands his own and proves his expertise on wrestling when he asks him about past matches and opponents.

Des said that some wrestlers now invite him backstage before a match.

“The fact that I’m allowed into the fraternity in some way because of what I do and who I am, it’s awesome,” he said. “It’s all I ever wanted.”

Almost 20 years later Des says he believes his mom made the right decision for him when she told doctors to stop trying to save his eyesight.

“She is the strongest person I’ve ever met,” he said. Des said everything he does in and out of school is a creative outlet for him, and does not plan to stop any time soon.

“I want to do stand up, have a radio show, write on a TV show, write a book, write a weekly column in a newspaper, be a journalist, be a news director for a newspaper,” Des said. “I’m probably going to be the journey man who jumps from thing to thing every couple of years.”

Like any mother, Gamez said she is proud of her son. “Every day I see him and it’s like ‘Wow, what is this kid going to do now?’” she said. “He has done more things in his 20 years than I have.”

Des said he cannot fathom the thought of seeing, and he does not like the idea of gaining sight.

“My world would suck because I would have this whole new sense that I’ve never learned how to use and all of a sudden all these new things would be going to my brain,” he said.

“As far as I can remember, this right now, me seeing absolutely nothing – it’s always been my life. You grow up and this is what you know, so there’s nothing to be afraid of.”

Mariela Patron can be reached at mariela.patron@laverne.edu.

Special Report: Demystifying Disabilities
University adapts to disabled students
Delgadillo embraces love of language
New coordinator hopes to connect with faculty

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