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updated: 1/31/2013 5:26 AM

Legally blind, Palatine teen's vision for life is clear

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  • Alex Taikwel

      Alex Taikwel

  • Fremd High School student Alex Taikwel is one of just 16 legally blind, college-bound seniors from across the U.S. to win a $10,000 scholarship from the Jewish Guild Healthcare. The 18-year-old hasn't let his vision interfere with his ability to excel in the classroom or anywhere else.

       Fremd High School student Alex Taikwel is one of just 16 legally blind, college-bound seniors from across the U.S. to win a $10,000 scholarship from the Jewish Guild Healthcare. The 18-year-old hasn't let his vision interfere with his ability to excel in the classroom or anywhere else.
    Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

 

Alex Taikwel won't become a traditional medical doctor, but every weekend you'll find him volunteering in a hospital.

Reading his short stories in front of a packed auditorium for Fremd High School's annual Writers Week may not be feasible, but he'll churn one narrative after the next.

And the Palatine teen can't take the football field for the marching band's halftime performance, but that won't stop him from playing instruments just as enthusiastically.

Being legally blind, he says, is no reason to sit on the sidelines altogether.

"Sometimes it's frustrating that I face limitations," Alex, a senior, says. "But I've come to terms with it and take advantage of opportunities that might be a good fit."

Alex's attitude has materialized into success in and out of the classroom, most recently with the news he won a prestigious scholarship from Jewish Guild Healthcare.

The Manhattan-based, nonsectarian organization, which has served blind and visually impaired people since 1914, awarded at least $10,000 to Alex and 15 other high school seniors across the country. In addition to legal blindness, judging took into account academic excellence, community involvement, essays and other criteria.

The lone winner from Illinois, Alex's recognition came as no surprise to Fremd social studies teacher Martin Zacharia, who taught the teen as a sophomore in his AP U.S. history class.

"His vision isn't his defining characteristic," Zacharia said. "What stands out about Alex is the way he advocates for himself and his realization that even the smartest people need to do better and improve themselves."

Cherry Taikwel first questioned her son's vision when his early steps led to frequent run-ins with walls and objects. A specialist diagnosed Alex with retinoschisis, a genetic disease of the eye's nerve tissue.

In his left eye, Alex can see just 2 inches in front of him. He sees worse than 20/200 in his right.

His vision forced Alex to sit out most physical activities growing up. Although the disease has been stable for some time, even the slightest injury could cause a retina to detach.

Alex spends each day adapting in some way.

In the classroom, he sits up front and often moves around to get a better angle. He receives large-print books whenever they're available and uses a powerful magnifying glass to read. Teachers email him PowerPoint presentations.

Alex can usually be found hunched over a book, his eyes hovering just an inch off the text. The result is frequent headaches and a sore upper torso, which requires massages.

Though uncomfortable at times, Alex is an avid reader and writer who enjoys entering writing contests and tries to come up with a new idea or genre each week. Alex estimates he's penned at least 100 short stories and essays on his own time.

Creative Communication, a Utah company that promotes writing, teaching and appreciation of student writing, published his essay on the Reagan presidency as part of a compilation of student work.

Alex, who's also a member of Fremd's Math Team and National Honor Society and was named an Illinois State Scholar, has applied to several top-tier colleges including Ivy League schools.

While he's thrived in the classroom, he's never let his vision deter him from his love of music, either.

He began playing piano at age 5 and the flute in the fifth grade. He can't read sheet music easily, so he memorizes notes and then practices a ton. He's played in Fremd's band all four years.

Alex volunteers as a member of Fremd's Service Over Self club and the True Light Lutheran Church in Streamwood. He also spends his Saturdays at St. Alexius Medical Center in Hoffman Estates, where he's charged with various tasks.

Since driving isn't in the cards, his friends or his mom are happy to help out.

"When he was young, I was very sad because of his situation and because his dad passed away when he was 4," Cherry Taikwel said. "But I never treat him as disabled. He can handle things. I trust him."

Despite his knack for writing, Alex hopes to study molecular biology. He said he's fascinated by how the human body functions, and how one seemingly tiny thing can cause a significant chain reaction.

Alex believes his vision challenges give him interpersonal skills he wouldn't possess otherwise.

"People who acquire a disability, I can understand having a hard time," Alex said. "But this is all I've ever known. And since I come with my own struggles, I have an open mind and know we all have our flaws."

• Kimberly Pohl wrote today's column. She and Elena Ferrarin always are looking for Suburban Standouts to profile. If you know of someone whose story just wows you, please send a note including name, town, email and phone contacts for you and the nominee to standouts@dailyherald.com or call our Standouts hotline at (847) 608-2733.

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