Aser Tolentino just collected his first ever paycheck. After years of law school and volunteer legal positions, he thought his first paycheck would be from a district attorney’s office, but when his vision became so bad he couldn’t read the computer, the Natomas resident knew it would be awhile before he would receive paid employment.
Though Aser was born legally blind due to glaucoma and congenital eye conditions, he still had some vision through law school and played a lot of video games as a kid.
“It was fun while it lasted,” he joked. “After all, they’re never going to make another Super Nintendo.”
Through his teen years and undergraduate career at UC Davis, he could see well enough to walk around campus and read large print font. He experienced a gradual decline through law school and lost his right eye in the middle of his worst semester in fall 2009. He was volunteering for the Yolo County district attorney’s office and his eye started hurting terribly. It would be three weeks before they could remove the eye and relieve the pain.
“I still got a 4.0 that semester,” Aser said laughing. “When I came back, a lot of my friends gave me notes from classes I had missed and told me about upcoming study sessions. We’d always been really good about helping each other with group study, but they really picked me up and carried me that last bit. That actually ended up being the high point of my academic career.”
After he graduated from UC Davis Law School in the top 5 percent of his class, passed the bar exam and had been volunteering with the deputy district attorney’s office in Placer County for a year, he walked into work one day and realized he couldn’t read his computer. That started a year of biweekly doctor’s visits to discover what was going wrong. In the span of a year, Aser had cataract surgery and two corneal transplants, but nothing was working.
“I cried like a baby a few times when I started losing my vision,” he said. “I was intellectually prepared for my vision to get worse, but not emotionally. It was a shock.”
Aser had already been concerned about what life after law school would be like. He knew there were quite a few blind prosecutors, but most became blind after practicing for many years. Very few entered the field with visual impairments, and those that did, did not live in the area. As his vision was getting worse, he also realized he did not have solid answers to interview questions about how he would get around his visual impairment.
“To be honest, you’ve got a guy who’s top 5 percent of his law school who can’t see and one who can, you might be more inclined to pick the one that can see,” Aser said.
He began to isolate himself, spending time online. In 2013, he read 150 books. When he couldn’t take the isolation anymore, he began making friends online through role-playing games and met his girlfriend on Twitter.
He also started searching for jobs and started with training. Fortunately, he had received some adaptive aids from Society for the Blind as a teen, so he knew right where to go. In July 2014, he began mobility training, and in October, he began taking Society for the Blind’s assistive technology classes – an area in which he had always been interested. Sometimes he would assist the instructor by helping another student. When his course was completed, Aser was asked to become a volunteer teaching assistant. In April 2015, he was hired as an Assistive Technology Instructor at Society for the Blind.
“If there’s one thing you learn as a lawyer, it’s to think on your feet,” Aser said. “With assistive technology, things don’t always work the first, second or third time so you have to come at it from different angles and use novel solutions.”
Recently, Aser helped a woman find a specific book through the National Library Service’s Braille and Audio Reading Download program. He wondered why she wanted to read the book so badly and then learned it was because she was in the middle of the book when she lost her sight. She wanted to see how it ended.
“Making these services accessible to people who are blind goes beyond simple communication and access to information, although those are vitally important,” Aser said. “But they also provide the ability to live your life the way you want to. That’s what I find most appealing about this field.”
He says one day he may go back into the legal field, but if he does, it will be to work in disability advocacy, an area he studied for about 10 weeks in law school through an internship in Berkeley. He now feels equipped with the right assistive technology to compete in the field. For now, he’s happy to be collecting a paycheck doing something he loves that he knows makes a difference in people’s lives.
“I loved my job to death as a prosecutor, but there were some days I didn’t feel so good about society,” Aser said. “I don’t have to do that in this job. Helping people in this job, I get to go home really happy knowing I helped someone reach out and touch the world in a way that’s personally fulfilling.”