The doctors told him his blindness was temporary, a result of swelling in the brain. But after a few months of frustrated coping, Bryan Duarte went to see an optometrist.
“He told me I would be blind for the rest of my life,” Duarte said. “It felt like someone was sitting on my chest. I couldn't breathe. It didn't make sense to me. I thought he was lying. … I was angry, I was hurt, (and) I was confused.”
This was 2004, and Duarte had been in a major motorcycle accident that resulted in serious injuries. He was able to heal all his wounds, except his new blindness.
He said initially it was difficult to deal with this new reality, after he had believed for several months that he would eventually be able to return to normal life. But instead, everything changed.
“I used to talk like, ‘When I can drive again,’ (or) ‘When I go to school,’” Duarte said. “When he told me that, I realized that would never be true anymore.”
He found inspiration to overcome these challenges, however, in his faith in God and in a few simple song lyrics, he said.
“There’s a quote I heard in ('Survive' by Rise Against), it’s ‘We’ve all been sorry, we’ve all been hurt. But how we survive is what makes us who we are,’” Duarte quoted. “I have faith in God. I have two tattoos on my arm and one says, ‘Jesus saves,’ and one says, ‘Jesus freak.’”
He said these two factors have helped him to see his disability in a new light.
“I survived that accident,” Duarte said. “The fact is that all I retained was blindness, so I’m blessed to be blind. Also, I’m a survivor. If I would have just layed down, I would have just become another statistic. So I want to use that and help those who don’t have the ability to make change.”
With this attitude in mind, Duarte, now a software engineering junior, prepares to take Qwik Eyes, his project, to the prestigious Clinton Global Initiative University meeting on Friday and Saturday.
The program is a live video calling service for the blind, designed to provide an immediate assistance when a blind person needs someone who can see because their technology or other methods have failed them.
“I’ve been there and I am there, and I’m confronted with that daily and almost hourly,” he said. “We’re trying to give an empowering confidence to blind people so they don't have to feel like they can’t do things on there own … whether that’s a business card or the color of a shirt or a prescription bottle.”
Duarte said his accident has made him uniquely qualified to develop such a product that incorporates elements of both blind and sighted life.
Duarte is excited to see what the CGIU meeting will bring, he said.
“I’m really looking to shine light on Qwik Eyes in the fact that I want people to see the potential of universal design,” Duarte said. “What I mean by that is that I’m doing something simple that is already out there, but I’m using it to help a demographic that is overlooked.”
Bryan Azeka, a global technology and entrepreneurship graduate student, is Duarte’s business mentor, and uses his undergraduate education from the W. P. Carey School of Business to help him make smart business decisions.
He said he admires Duarte’s tenacity and his willingness to take risks to achieve success.
“It’s just amazing that he has the heart to go out and do this,” Azeka said. “Sometimes I wonder, ‘If I was like that, would I have the heart go out and do that?’ It’s hard to know unless you’re in the situation, but you never really know, but he answered that question. … I have eyes, and I couldn't do software engineering.”
He said he looks forward to the benefits of the the exposure Duarte will receive at the meeting and how that could positively impact his project.
“This is something that is right there (and) it should've happened already,” Azeka said. “Because of the technology we have and the way everything is moving, the fact that it hasn't is kind of a shame. And it’s cool to see Bryan actually doing this.”
Duarte and his wife Danielle married in 2009, about five years after his accident.
She said she is amazed by her husband’s dedication to his academics and to solving problems for others that he may experience himself.
“Everything he does is focused around his passion, which is working with people with disabilities and also the software engineering piece,” Danielle said. “It’s become his whole life. He leaves the house at 6 o’clock in the morning and he doesn't come home until 10 o'clock at night, sometimes six or seven days a week.”
She said it was this sense of dedication that made her happily unsurprised when Duarte was accepted into the CGIU meeting.
“I think that Qwik Eyes is a great idea. I always have, and I think it’s going to be helpful to a lot of people once it gets up and running and is able to service people,” Danielle said. “Bryan’s pretty amazing, so I wasn’t really surprised, but I was really happy, and I’m really proud of him.”
Although the acceptance is prestigious, Danielle said it likely won’t be Duarte’s biggest accomplishment because he has so much success ahead of him.
“The sky’s the limit,” she said. “He’s always coming up with a new idea, and he’s always thinking. … He doesn’t rest until he has action behind it. I definitely expect big things from him. I don’t think this will be his only adventure or his only big thing. This is only the beginning.”
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