At 20 years old, Christopher Suplice has lived through more than some people do in their whole lives.
At 15, he started to lose his vision, going mostly blind before doctors could diagnose him.
At 16, he moved to Boston by himself, leaving his parents and younger sister in Haiti.
And through it all he has had an unshakable faith in himself and his ability to adapt, allowing him to thrive in a situation that few others could have. Suplice graduated from Boston Community Leadership Academy in the spring, and will study computer science at Northeastern starting this fall. He wants to use computer science to create adaptive technology for people with visual impairments.
Suplice has Leber’s hereditary optic neuropathy, an inherited form of vision loss. He has lost much of his central vision, but still has his peripheral vision, which he uses to navigate the world. Still, he says, if he looks for too long or focuses too hard, his vision becomes blurry.
When Suplice first came to Boston in 2016, the move wasn’t supposed to be permanent. He came for a doctor’s appointment, but one appointment became two, which became three, and soon Suplice’s family realized he would need to be in Boston every six months for appointments. Flying back and forth from Haiti just wasn’t a feasible plan.
Neither of Suplice’s parents were able to get a visa to come to the United States with him, so his family made the difficult decision for Suplice to move to Boston by himself, to live with his uncle and then his grandmother, he says.
Moving to a new country wasn’t easy, especially when he didn’t know the language well, Suplice says. Suplice recalls getting lost in the Atlanta airport, and later asking a stranger to lend him their phone when he arrived at Logan International Airport in Boston, so he could call his uncle.
The independence of exploring a new country was exciting nonetheless.
“I don’t know if ‘fun’ is the best way to describe it; it was hard, but at the same time I enjoyed it because it was one of the first times I really did something on my own without my vision,” Suplice says.
Like a lot of kids with low vision, Suplice first realized something was wrong when he couldn’t read the board at school. He moved to the front of the room while his class was taking notes, and it was OK. For a while. But soon, Suplice says he couldn’t see the board even when he was in the front row of desks.
Suplice’s parents took him all over Haiti, looking for answers. After a lot of doctors’ appointments, he finally got the diagnosis of Leber’s hereditary optic neuropathy. But the long search meant that Suplice had already lost most of his central vision, and he wouldn’t get it back.
Suplice losing his vision was hard on his whole family, he says, especially because in Haiti “people think that if you have a disability you become useless.”
“They had to deal with that in their mind as well, seeing me lose my vision—it was like seeing me lose my life,” Suplice says. “The thing is, I, myself, never felt like I was losing my life. I just kept on going.”
A turning point for his family was going to La Société Haïtienne d’Aide aux Aveugles, the Haitian Aid Society for the Blind. There they were able to see people who were visually impaired living their lives with a disability, helping Suplice’s family see there was life after losing your vision.
Suplice never slowed down. In Boston, he’s used technology to aid his schoolwork. Suplice uses a computer with long-distance and short-distance magnifying cameras, so that things written on the board as well as small text on a paper are enlarged so he can see them. It’s a major asset, Suplice says, because back in Haiti, he had to have another person read and write for him. Being able to do work on his own is important, Suplice says.
Nalida Besson is a teacher of students with visual impairments in Boston Public Schools, and she worked with Suplice throughout his time at Boston Community Leadership Academy.
The first day she met Suplice, Besson asked him what he wanted to do after high school, she says. Suplice said he used to want to go into computer science, but didn’t think it was possible now that he couldn’t see.
“I said, ‘You can still do computer science,’” she recalls. “‘I’m going to make sure you have the technology to use so you can still be a computer scientist.’”
That was the only time she saw Suplice doubt his own abilities. He has a remarkable ability to adapt, Besson says, and not lose sight of his goals.
“I’m just so proud of him,” she says. “I’m incredibly proud of him—to see where he started, and his positive attitude is a great thing for him. He decided he wants to do great things and he’s not afraid to work hard to do that.”
Long before he was admitted to Northeastern, Suplice found his passion in computer science on the campus. The summer after ninth grade, one of Suplice’s teachers recommended he attend Bridge to Calculus, a summer program Northeastern offers for Boston high school students. There, Suplice studied precalculus, and after class, got the opportunity to learn some coding basics. He was hooked.
“It was once a week at first and then they did that more and more, and there I started learning Python and that’s when I started a passion for computer science,” Suplice says, referring to the programming language. “I was seeing all the things that could happen just with a computer and that gave me ideas.”
And he has a lot of ideas for how to use computer science to help visually impaired people like himself. He wants to write the program for a self-driving car. Sleeker glasses with cameras embedded that allow the user to zoom in. Voice recognition for Haitian Creole, and more.
When asked what he would tell his younger self, Suplice says he would tell him not to give up.
“Things change in ways that you can’t keep up with at first, but you will be able to keep up in the long run,” he says. “Never give up and keep adapting.”