Syed Rizvi

A Vision Without Sight: A Blind Student’s Journey to Making the World a Better Place

By Rachel Berry

As a blind student, Syed Rizvi has overcome what could’ve been insurmountable barriers to reach the point where he is in life. After facing these challenges, he’s been inspired to pursue a career in law to become an advocate for others, pushing for more inclusivity and equity for the blind community.

Sitting in a hotel room in Washington, D.C. on a cold February morning, Syed, 23, was getting ready to address members of Congress on behalf of the National Federation of the Blind opens in new window, an organization he had become involved with which was laying out legislative priorities. While reviewing his notes, he received an email alerting him that Harvard Law School had updated his applicant portal. This was the moment that could change his life, letting him know if he was accepted or rejected to his dream law program.

He paused before opening the email. An appearance before members of Congress was nerve-wracking enough. If he opened it, and it was a rejection, he didn’t want that hanging over his head during the presentation. But what if it was an acceptance?

Syed risked it.

He opened his applicant portal, and read the first line, “Congratulations....”

Immediately, he facetimed his mom. He was crying. She was confused at first, thinking something was wrong.

"No. It’s good news," he explained. He was accepted to Harvard.

They cried together, and she ran to get his grandparents to share the good news.

“I saw my whole family’s history flash before my eyes,” Syed said, looking back on the moment.

Difficult School Years

Syed’s family journey to the United States was a difficult one. His family is part of the Shia Muhajir ethnic group in southeast Asia. Due to war, genocide, and other factors, his grandparents and parents moved from India, to Bangladesh, to Pakistan and later to Europe and, finally, to America.

Each place they went, they had to rebuild their lives with next to nothing. Because of this, his family greatly values education. Everything physical could be taken away from them, but their knowledge and their education they would keep wherever life took them.

When Syed was preparing to begin kindergarten, he took the typical medical exams required to attend school in the United States. He kept failing the eye exam.

He was diagnosed with macular degeneration and told his eyesight would slowly deteriorate and eventually disappear completely. This news was difficult for him and his family, as cultural norms in Southeast Asia would mean that people with disabilities were disenfranchised from society and weren’t given many opportunities.

“They really took that news as quite devastating because they thought it would really characterize the rest of my life and what I would be able to achieve,” Syed said.

His family, particularly his mother, though, didn’t give up on him. Throughout his childhood, she would send him stories of extremely successful blind people. But this frustrated him.

“Either they’re faking or there’s something innately wrong with me that doesn’t allow me to be like them,” he thought.

Syed struggled a lot throughout his school years. Although he attended what he described as a great school system in Massachusetts, instead of teaching him to read braille or giving him access to screen readers, his schools functioned on the "traditional model," instead giving him magnifiers and other visual aids to use with his residual vision. The lack of accessibility made school really difficult for Syed.

“I always took my failures in academia as a reflection of my own intellectual capabilities,” he said.

A Big Risk and a Bigger Reward

Syed’s interest in law was first sparked as a young child by the early 2000s movie Daredevil, in which a blind superhero is a lawyer by day and vigilante by night. Seeing this character on screen was Syed’s first time realizing, even if it was a fictional character, that someone like him could pursue a career in law.

His struggles in school made him think law wasn’t an option, though. He thought he would never be able to live independently, and after high school he enrolled at a small college near his parents’ house.

It was while attending this college that he connected with a blind student at Harvard Law School. He invited Syed to Cambridge to visit and walking around campus, Syed was inspired by the thought of all the world leaders who had attended there.

Syed thought he would never be smart enough to attend a school like Harvard, but his new friend told him if he changed his approach, Harvard Law would be a possibility for him. Syed bought into the idea.

“When you have nothing to lose, you’re willing to risk it all,” he said.

The Harvard student connected Syed with the National Federation of the Blind (NFB), an advocacy organization for blind individuals in the United States.

Syed attended NFB’s national conference that year and, for the first time, was surrounded by people like him, many of whom were practicing attorneys. Attendees at the conference told him about a training program at the Louisiana Center for the Blind that taught blind people about braille, technology, and living independently. The center also teaches its students philosophy and discusses a mindset on blindness: that blindness isn’t inherently negative or positive but is merely a physical attribute.

Syed, who had never been away from his family, enrolled in the program and moved from his home in Massachusetts to Louisianna. His time in Louisianna not only taught him how to live on his own, but also made him realize the possibilities available to him.

“Within that organization, I found this example of blind people that are not only independent and able to sustain themselves but in fact be advocates and empower other disenfranchised communities,” he said.

One of the last tasks the center gives its students before they complete the program is to navigate throughout the city with no assistance. They blindfold the student (so they can’t use any residual vision), drive them around the city, and leave them alone in an unknown location. They must then navigate home without asking for directions or using their phone.

“Their philosophy is that in the real world there’s not going to be somebody looking out for you,” Syed said. “You have to learn to look out for yourself.”

Syed eventually made it back, but lessons like this gave him the skills to navigate the world on his own as well as, if not better, than someone with vision.

After completing the program, Syed enrolled at the University of Texas at Austin, where he studied political science and government.

“I really wanted to study the structures that had impeded me from being able to manifest my American dream and figure out how perhaps I could best change those structures,” Syed said.

During his undergraduate journey, he worked extensively with the NFB, traveling across the country to give empowerment seminars and to speak on Capitol Hill regarding legislation on education, equal access to employment, and similar topics.

Throughout this work, Syed realized that even if Congress passed laws to increase equity, change wouldn’t occur unless those laws were enforced. This further solidified his desire to become a lawyer.

Syed took the LSAT, scored well, and was admitted to Harvard Law School that day on Capitol Hill, which had been his goal since visiting campus all those years ago.

During his time at Harvard, Syed has been able to study the structures that prevent himself and others like him from obtaining employment and participating fully in society. His time at Harvard has also enabled him to further his work as an advocate for the blind community.

Along with a student in Harvard’s MBA program, Syed started a nonprofit called the Together Achieving Dreams Foundation. Through this foundation, he works with law firms to help them make their internship programs accessible to individuals with disabilities.

Syed is passionate about advocating for blind individuals in all sectors but particularly in relation to employment, which he sees as one of the largest barriers the blind community faces. In some American jurisdictions, it is still legal to pay people with disabilities a “subminimum wage opens in new window,” or less than the minimum wage. Blind people also face a higher unemployment rate than those without disabilities. According to data from the American Community Survey opens in new window, in 2022, 36.6% of those aged 21 to 64 with a visual disability were employed full time for the full year. That same year, 71% of the general population opens in new window was employed full time for the full year. 

As Syed looks forward to graduation later this semester, his future is uncertain. Anyone else with a resume like his and a JD from Harvard Law School would have their pick of law firm jobs. For him, accessibility barriers still prevail, making many law firm jobs inaccessible to him.

Syed is pushing forward, though, working to change this and to make employment more accessible for those who come after him.

Looking back on all the hurdles he faced to get to where he is today, Syed wants to tell those in his same position that they will face difficulties, but perseverance is worth it.

“I think the toolkit and the ability that a law degree gives you to be able to give back to society in regard to leadership and advocacy is priceless,” Syed said, “that it’s really worth having to overcome all those different trials.”