When 26-year-old Tyler Underwood sets his mind to doing something, he doesn’t let anything get in the way of accomplishing his dreams: not the challenge of academics, not the detailed work of his profession in aeronautics, not the perceptions of others about what he can or can’t do, and especially not his genetic eye disorder, achromatopsia. Typical characteristics of achromatopsia are decreased vision, light sensitivity, and the absence of color vision.
“It’s like walking out of a dark movie theater into the bright sunlight,” Tyler says about his vision disorder. He and his two younger brothers were all born with achromatopsia. For Tyler, this means he has 20/60 to 20/80 vision and his visual acuity, color vision and bright light vision are impacted.
As a young boy, Tyler was fully aware that he would need to find ways to overcome difficulties in the classroom, the work office and even just on the street. “It definitely can be frustrating, especially with little things like not being able to see overhead restaurant menus and having to ask the workers for help just to order food,” he says. In crowded rooms it can be difficult to remember faces he didn’t get to see clearly and instead he has learned to pick up visual cues to distinguish people, like recognizing face shapes or hairstyles. While this works for him most of the time, seeing people again out of context can be difficult.
Tyler became aware that he would never be able to drive due to his vision and he started relying on friends and family to get him where he needed to go; but when it came to academics, he relied solely on himself to succeed. Encouraged to use assistive tools like large print text books and a closed-circuit television by his parents and teachers, he often felt frustrated by the pressure to use devices that he felt weren’t actually helpful to him.
“It’s definitely important for parents to try and help--seeking out tools to aid their children and his or her disorder, but they need to let the child really advise them on what they personally find is actually useful and what isn’t,” says Tyler. For Tyler, that meant sticking with tools as simple as magnifying glasses. Even extended time on tests proved unnecessary, as he validated that a visual impairment didn’t have to affect his education. Tyler found that his vision slowed him down when reading and viewing the equations in math, but he took the initiative to spend time at home reading the textbook to himself, solidifying his day’s lesson.
Tyler resisted the “special treatment” that he felt people tried to put on him and wants to emphasize that it’s important to treat everyone like they’re normal, not like someone with a disability. “I don’t want to be treated like I have a disability,” says Tyler. “I don’t think that I have a disability.”
The most important thing to him was finding something that he liked to do, and working toward it. “I’m just living my life,” says Tyler. “If you want it, go do it.”
When he got to college, Tyler took his own advice and earned a bachelor’s degree in Physics from UCLA, then a master’s degree in Mechanical Engineering from Ohio State. In grad school, his professors provided him pre-printed PowerPoints and online notes so that he could keep up with the quick reading, but Tyler found that upon reading the textbook, he could teach himself much of the information that he didn’t retain in class.
His hard work clearly paid off. His impressive knowledge of engineering and natural curiosity led Tyler to the field of computational fluid dynamics, where he now works on modeling and simulation, trying to find mathematical solutions for engineering problems for the US Navy. He is driven by three goals—to serve his county, serve God, and advance humanity in some way.
“I might never be able to fly a plane,” says Tyler, “but I can be the one to design it.”