Legally-Blind SPS Grad Student Continues to Dream Big

When Sena Pottackal became legally blind, she never thought she would speak at Carnegie Hall.

SPS graduate student Sena Pottackal gave a presentation at Carnegie Hall earlier this year. (Via NYU SPS)

SPS graduate student Sena Pottackal dreamt of going to NYU ever since her father described the university to her as “where the smartest people go to learn to become the best people they can be.” Unfortunately, when Pottackal became legally blind at 16, attending NYU became a seemingly distant fantasy. 

Despite incredible support from her family and friends, Pottackal almost abandoned her dream of working for a communications powerhouse when she found a lack of employment opportunities for the blind in the field. Pottackal was on the brink of going to culinary school, when her sister encouraged her to pursue her talent in public speaking and interacting with others.

 “My sister sat me down and said, ‘Girl, you are making a mistake. You have a mouth. Go learn how to use it,’” Pottackal said. “Instead of going to the cooking program I got into at Drexel, I told my parents I would be going to community college.”

During her time at Camden County College, Pottackal found her niche in public relations, which she describes as the intersection of business and communications. After earning a two-year degree at Camden County, she went on to attend Rowan University. 

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“Just talking to the professors was amazing,” she said. “You could see that these people just really cared about the students and were just deeply invested in contributing to the growth of the profession.”

At Rowan, Pottackal fell in love with the campus and sat on the recruitment and philanthropy committees of the school’s Public Relations Student Society of America chapter. However, she struggled to find a way to connect with disabled peers. It was only during her last semester at Rowan, when Pottackal joined Delta Alpha Pi, the disabled students honors society, that she found a community of people with similar experiences.

Pottackal struggled to adjust to college life as a blind student for other reasons too. She did not have access to important digital content since she hadn’t gotten a smartphone yet.

“Having an iPhone with a screen-reader called VoiceOver was the threshold that separated me from the digital divide,” Pottackal said.

After earning her bachelor’s degree in public relations with a minor in advertising, Pottackal was finally able to attend her dream school: NYU. She chose SPS to pursue her master’s in public relations and corporate communication because it filled the gaps in her education at Rowan, in the areas of social media, media relations and crisis communication, by offering specific classes on these topics. 

Even though NYU prides itself on being a diverse and inclusive institution, Pottackal found critical issues with accessibility here. Three years ago, the NYUClasses Tools button was not accessible by screen reading tools, leaving her unable to access important services like forms and syllabi. After speaking to a supervisor at the technology center, Pottackal was able to work personally to make NYUClasses more accessible for all.

Pottackal has gone beyond NYU to champion for disabled communities. This September, she gave a presentation titled “Badass Blind Girl Doing Good Through PR” to the PR Council’s “Critical Issues of the Modern Workforce Forum” at Carnegie Hall. She focused her presentation on what companies can do to make the workforce more inclusive, including using the four E’s of disability inclusion (employ, enable, engage and empower) and ensuring that their job portals are fully accessible.

In the future, Pottackal wants to use her communication skills to advocate for accessibility. After graduating, she hopes to work for an established company for three to five years before starting her own venture, which will offer various communication services and hire a diverse workforce — especially those with disabilities. Her company will also allocate a portion of their profits to a fund for students with disabilities.

“I decided that I’m going to take my frustration and use it to make sure that future students have to struggle less, and hopefully one day, not at all,” Pottackal said.

Email Gaby Baldovino at [email protected]

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