Itto Outini — Blindness is the Light

Itto Outini is a multilingual accessibility advocate and human rights activist. Born and raised in the mountains of Morocco, she was deprived of education as a child. At 17, her uncle’s wife blinded her, and her family abandoned her in the hospital. She spent six years homeless before graduating from high school at 23 and, with support from an American couple, pursuing her BA in applied linguistics. In 2017, she came to the United States on a Fulbright scholarship to pursue a Master’s in journalism. She’s now a permanent resident in the US, where she serves as a disability inclusion specialist with the United Nations Development Programme and as the founder and president of a chapter of the Fulbright Association, Fulbrighters with Disabilities. Her personal journey and late but transformative experience of education have motivated her to share her story, especially with those who are suffering invisible hardships, so they know they’re not alone. She is committed to building a more conscientious, inclusive and accessible world for all. ABILITY Magazine interviewed Itto and learned of her incredible journey and her connection with the ABILITY network.

Itto Outini Her journey from the Atlas Mountains of Morocco

ABILITY Magazine: Can you summarize your journey from Morocco to the UN?

Itto Outini: Sure! I was born and raised in the Atlas Mountains and started school for the first time when I was 17. I didn’t have any technology, assistive or otherwise; I had sighted friends who would read to me, help with oral exams and all of that. When I came to the US to do my MA at the University of Arkansas, it was the first time I ever used a smartphone, an iPad, a computer, even.

ABILITY: You didn’t start school until you were 17? Were you home-schooled?

Outini: No. There was no home-schooling in Morocco. I didn’t know how to count from one to three before I was 17. I didn’t even know how to spell my own name! There was no way to learn about the outside world. No electricity, no television, nothing.

ABILITY: Were you farmers?

Outini: Exactly.

ABILITY: And that’s why you couldn’t go to school?

Outini: Yes and no. Yes, we were far from the rest of the world, but I was more deprived than others because my family hated me. They abused me and refused to give me any kind of education, and my uncle’s wife blinded me when I was 17.

ABILITY: Do you mind sharing a little bit more? Is that too sensitive?

Outini: It’s fine. It’s public. It was painful in the beginning, but I’m working on my autobiography now, “Blindness is the Light of My Life,” because if she hadn’t blinded me, I’d never have gone to school. She threw something sharp at my face–a knife, I think–and they left me in the hospital, and when I was discharged a few months later, I had nowhere to go. A stranger helped me find the blind school. I started from the seventh grade. I was homeless all six years I was in high school, but then I graduated, and I went to the university, and I worked so hard, and I was awarded the Fulbright scholarship and came to America.

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ABILITY: How were you able to finance your schooling?

Outini: Education is free in Morocco. But as for food and all of that, it was really difficult. I worked in restaurants. I cleaned. Sometimes, out of pity or sympathy, people would hand me something on the street. When they gave me money, I wouldn’t even use it to buy food. I would go to the capital and buy books in Braille, which are very expensive, and carry them around with me in a plastic bag so they wouldn’t get ruined by rain or snow. That’s how committed I was to my education. I struggled, and I suffered, but I didn’t die! (laughs)

ABILITY: Okay. So, you’re homeless, you’re trying to survive and find shelter. You created some kind of camp for yourself that was somewhat secure, and you went to school?

Outini: No, no, there was no secure shelter at all. We don’t have homeless shelters in Morocco. Mostly, I stayed at the bus station. I slept in the snow. My body still hasn’t completely recovered; I still have pain in my back and my joints, especially my hips and knees. But then, after six years, I was rescued by an American couple, and they helped me find housing. They’re like my family now.

ABILITY: And where do they live?

Outini: They travel all over, but right now they’re in Oregon.

ABILITY: Did they bring you to the States?

Outini: They helped me apply for the Fulbright. And they helped me learn English. When I first started–see, I’m very confident! I knew how to say, “What is your name and how do you spell it?” so I thought I knew English! But my American family, they pushed me, they would only talk to me in English even though they spoke other languages, and they took me to the American Language Center. That’s how I learned.

Itto Outini busy writing on her laptop
Itto Outini busy writing

ABILITY: In your UNPD blog you wrote you learned Braille in a day and within one semester learned—was it English? Arabic?

Outini: It was Arabic and French, and then English in six months.

ABILITY: That’s incredible! Can you talk what about the Fulbright?

Outini: The Fulbright is very competitive. When I applied, I was competing with hundreds of candidates in Morocco and thousands around the world. I had to take exams, the TOEFL and the GRE, to enroll in grad school in the States. But when I got all the documents together, and the letters of recommendation, and my grades were good, the Fulbright offices in Morocco and in Washington DC were very helpful. I hope other people with disabilities hear about the Fulbright and apply. It’s a wonderful community. Very supportive. We call it a global family.

ABILITY: For people who don’t know, what does getting a Fulbright entail?

Outini: It’s very prestigious. A lot of people say that if you get the Fulbright, you’re the smartest. I don’t know about one that because lots of smart people are living in poverty like I was and don’t know about the Fulbright, so maybe they never even knew to apply. I hope more people hear about it. I think if someone works hard and fits the criteria, they will get it. The Fulbright Association likes people who work hard to bring peace through education. That’s their mission.

ABILITY: How did you navigate grad school in America, as a blind woman from the Atlas Mountains?

Outini: My first year at the University of Arkansas, there was a lot of adjusting. Remember, I’d never even used a smartphone. I thought it would have buttons I could memorize, but then I found out they’re all touchscreens! I literally had to sit for hundreds and hundreds of hours, listening to YouTube videos that my host parents would download for me, before I could learn how to answer an email. That was my first year.

My second year, I was working on my thesis, and then I got diagnosed with a rare disease, pigmented villonodular synovitis (PVNS), which causes tumors. It was the worst pain! Last year, I had surgery to remove my eyes because they were damaged and might get infected, and I did that with no painkillers because I don’t like oxycodone, but even that pain wasn’t as bad! They say PVNS is the worst one, and it’s true. I had hip surgery in 2019 and defended my thesis in January 2020 because I couldn’t do it in December.

ABILITY: For those of us who aren’t medical doctors–

Outini: Right. PVNS. In Morocco, in 2014, my right side from my hip down to my toes started hurting. I couldn’t even walk! My American family took me to the doctor, but they misdiagnosed me. They said it was sciatica. Everyone told me sciatica’s something you can’t fix, you just have to live with it. And I was like, “Okay, fine, this is very painful, but what can I do?”

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It’s really interesting how the body and the mind work together. In Morocco, I was in survival mode 24/7, and that distracted me from the pain. When I came to America, that’s when it changed. I was staying with a host family in Arkansas–not the one who rescued me, a different couple–and my host father is a retired doctor. He called the emergency room one day and said, “I’m bringing her, you have to do an MRI.” They looked at my hips and found two tumors. Technically, PVNS tumors are benign, but the pain makes it impossible to function. They did the surgery a few weeks later, and now I’m tumor-free!

ABILITY: Congratulations!

Outini: Yes! I’m good now! I had hip surgery in 2019, I had eye surgery in 2020, and now I’m good, I’m safe, I’m mostly pain-free, and I’m ready to share my story with the world so I can help others.

ABILITY: By working with UNDP.

Outini: Exactly.

ABILITY: How did you get connected with them?

Outini: After graduating, I started looking for jobs. Because of my MA, and my seven languages, and being a Fulbright alumna, I would apply for jobs and get interviews, but then the recruiters would say something like, “Well, you can’t see, and this job requires driving!” And I would say, “But there’s no driving in the job description!” I wasted hours and hours that way, filling out applications, submitting forms, searching for jobs, and I didn’t get anything.

Then I came across ABILITY Job Fair. For me, the worst thing I struggle with as a screen-reader user is navigating websites, but ABILITY Jobs has a good one. I was able to create a profile there, and that’s how I met Erik Kinnhammar, who’s now my supervisor at UNDP.

ABILITY: Your blog says it was a dream come true, coming to the US and working with the UN.

Outini: Yes, literally! When I was homeless and suffering, the only way for me to stay happy and positive was by using fantasies and dreams. One of those dreams was to work for the UN and tell my story to the world. I really believed I would do it, even when I was sleeping in the snow! And then my dream came true in 2021, thanks to ABILITY Job Fair and UNPD for believing in persons with disabilities like myself and recognizing what we can offer the world.

ABILITY: Glad to hear the job fair is working as intended.

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Outini: Yes! I think it’s really important to have job fairs like this one, focused specifically on persons with disabilities. When organizations attend ABILITY Job Fairs, it’s not like with other job fairs: they know they’re going to hire persons with disabilities, so they don’t come to us with a bunch of biases or assumptions about what we can’t do. They don’t discriminate against us. They’re more honest about their intentions. It’s never perfect, but it’s better to have all those conversations out in the open instead of hiding things, pretending we’re not disabled, all of that.

Personally, I’m proud of my disability. I’m public about it. I never hide! It’s impossible to hide blindness, anyway! But when I apply for jobs, I don’t apply as a blind person. I apply as a Fulbright scholar, as a person with an MA in journalism, as a multilingual person. There’s no such thing as a job that hires you just for being blind, and there shouldn’t be, but there are lots of jobs I can do. All I need is for employers to recognize my abilities and give me opportunities to prove myself. My hope is that if we keep proving ourselves and building on the work done by organizations like ABILITY Corps‘ ABILITY Job Fair, then we’ll be able to come together as human beings to overcome the social ideologies that persons with disabilities face around the world. That’s my mission. That’s the dream I’m working on now, like I did with the UN, to make it come true.

Itto Outini

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