Girl with her dog

With the wide range of kids High Desert Education Service District serves through local schools, there’s one idea educators have in common: A person’s challenges or limitations don’t define them.

Sierra Abbott, who recently graduated Bend High School with honors, is a perfect example of that. Sierra excelled in her classes, took International Baccalaureate courses, and ran and skied on the school’s cross country sports teams. This fall, she’s headed to Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, where she wants to study to become a history teacher. Sierra also has albinism and is legally blind.

Albinism is a genetic condition that reduces the amount of melanin, or pigment, including in the skin, hair and eyes, according to the National Organization for Albinism and Hypopigmentation. People with albinism are extra sensitive to the sun’s effects and have vision impairment.

Sierra’s mom, Nancy Abbott, is a teacher of the visually impaired and an orientation and mobility specialist with HDESD. She works with Central Oregon children who are visually impaired, including with kids who have albinism. About 10 percent of the visually impaired children HDESD serves have albinism.

Abbott’s career choice is no coincidence with her daughter’s condition. More than 23 years ago, Abbott went back to school to earn her master’s degree as a teacher of the visually impaired after her son, who is 30, was born with albinism.

Abbott wanted to better understand the condition, ensure he received the education he deserved and be a resource for children with visual impairment. While Sierra didn’t work with her mom directly, she did work with other teachers of the visually impaired throughout her school career. There are four such teachers at HDESD, who also work with children in homes from age birth to three.

From them, Sierra learned how to use her vision to the best of her abilities, adapt in everyday situations and be an advocate for herself. It’s evidence of the wide range of services special education provides.

“You can be gifted and still have special education needs,” Abbott said.

In Sierra’s case, many people don’t even realize she has albinism unless she tells them, she said. Her hair is blond and her skin is light, but because Sierra is white, it’s not as noticeable as it may be if a person of color has albinism.

Abbott has worked with kids of a variety of races and ethnicities, for whom having albinism sometimes meant more of an exploration of identity — of what it means to be a person of color with no pigment.

She teaches students real-world skills including how to safely cross the street, how to use their white cane if they have one and how to read Braille. Depending on the student, the teachers will work on different skills with them.

Sierra can see well enough to read, but she may need to adapt to the situation. In a classroom, for example, she often takes pictures of what’s written on the board so she can zoom into the photos on her iPad. She also downloaded all of her books on her iPad, where she could adjust text size, to make reading for class easier. Running cross country, Sierra simply ran with a partner, and skiing, she could either navigate her way or follow a skier leading her.

There are some aspects of heading off to college that make Sierra nervous. In high school, seats are assigned so she could make sure she sat in the front row. But in college, where it’s a free-for-all, she plans on getting to class extra early.

While Sierra’s albinism and the challenges it presents are an everyday part of her life, they are far from defining her. It’s other aspects, like being an honors grad, student athlete and future history teacher that shine through most.