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Massapequa senior with ocular albinism pursues artistic dreams

Elizabeth Schafer, a student of Massapequa High School,

Elizabeth Schafer, a student of Massapequa High School, was born with ocular albinism a condition that affects the eyes. She poses with the dress she designed for her fashion design class, with other artwork she has created behind her. Credit: Uli Seit

When Elizabeth Schafer is creating art, she focuses on the details.

Schafer, 18, is legally blind, but that doesn’t stifle her creativity or imagination.

She was born with ocular albinism, a genetic condition that reduces pigment in the iris or retina, causing light sensitivity and visual impairment. Those with albinism also have fair skin, a result of little or no production of the pigment melanin.

“I always viewed it as a very positive thing because, yeah, maybe I can’t see as well, and I need to use a lot of sunscreen, but it didn’t hold me back from doing anything,” she said. “It just helped me become who I am.”

Schafer, who lives in Massapequa, has found ways to adapt. She uses a camera system and other applications to zoom in to see PowerPoint presentations, board work and handouts during her classes. Her teachers also enlarge papers for her.

It takes her longer to read, and her eyes often get tired, she said. “There have been nights where I’ll be up until 4 in the morning doing homework and wake up at 6.”

Schafer has completed several Advanced Placement courses and is ranked sixth in her class of 585 students.

She discovered a love of dance at a young age and enjoys hip-hop, ballet, tap, lyrical and jazz. She dances at Legacy Dance Center in Massapequa and was part of its competition team, but she found her true passion in art.

“I think it’s a way for me to sort of learn what the world looks like, because I can’t see that well,” Schafer said. “If I take a picture of something and then when I draw it, I zoom in really close and I get to study something. For me, it’s a way for me to learn how things look, and also show my story and tell my story.”

Schafer works with a number of mediums and uses technology to zoom in on photographs to see details that “normally can be overlooked,” she said. “I want to make sure that when I’m creating a piece of art, it has as much detail as everyone else sees.”

She is president of the National Art Honor Society and the district’s Art Association, student associations focused on art and community service whose members must maintain high academic standing. She teaches preschoolers, creates murals for local businesses and organizes fundraisers to help the Art Association.

Schafer works after school at The Tiny Artist Children’s Art Studio in Massapequa and plans to be an art teacher.

“I want to be able to really impact their lives and show them what they can do and how they can be in the future,” Schafer said.

Giving back is a large part of Schafer’s life. She is involved with the National Organization of Albinism and Hypopigmentation, hosting fundraisers, writing articles and even speaking at the group’s national conference.

“I’ve always gotten so much help myself, and people have been so eager to help me and give me what I needed to adapt,” Schafer said. “I always wanted to return the favor to whoever I could and give back as much as I could.”

Her guidance counselor, Colleen Parks, said Schafer doesn’t use her diagnosis as an excuse.

“I honestly do not know how Liz manages the academic pressure placed on her, the social responsibilities that she has created and the emotional strain of having an impairment,” Parkes said. “But what I do know is she handles it all seamlessly, beautifully, and to others it looks effortless.”

HIGHER ED: Schafer plans to major in art education at Massachusetts College of Art and Design.

FRESHMAN YEAR: “One of the things I am looking forward to the most is being able to be consistently immersed in the arts and be able to learn new things.”

IF I RULED THE WORLD: “One thing I would change is, I think just people being more open and people being able to kind of accept people for who they are, but also just focusing more on the positive.”

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