A blind Wellington schoolgirl is set to go into orbit after winning a coveted scholarship to attend Space Camp in the United States, which she calls “Disneyland for nerds”. Wellington Girls’ College pupil Renee Patete has been blind since birth and has no light perception, but that hasn’t stopped the multi-talented 15-year-old from achieving across the academic spectrum. Her condition is called persistent hyperplastic primary vitreous, which means her vitreous or jelly behind the lens in her eyes is cloudy rather than clear, which affects vision.
Last year, she won a German-speaking competition, a language that she learnt using braille. After writing essays on her Maori heritage and her rare eye condition, Patete became the first blind student from New Zealand chosen to attend the summer camp in Alabama. Late next month, she will spend a week at Space Camp doing simulated astronaut training, including diving, with 200 other young visually impaired people from the US and around the world.
Afterwards, she will jet to Los Angeles for three days to visit the famous theme park, Disneyland.
“I’m going to Disneyland for nerds followed by a trip to the real Disneyland,” she said.
She plans to spend her time in Alabama acting as a cultural ambassador for New Zealand while also enlightening the Americans on the braille display/mobile device technology she has helped pioneer. It allows her to text, communicate and stay connected to the digital world through her smartphone.
The languages, maths and science student is writing an accompaniment on the piano to the traditional Maori love song Pokarekare Ana, which she will sing at the camp. She is looking forward to breaking out of the confines of school learning and embracing the space-training immersion course.
“It’s more creative and adventurous than normal classroom science,” she said.
Patete’s braille tutor, Cathy West, will accompany her on the mission on the 25th anniversary of the camp’s programme for visually impaired students. For many, it is often the first chance to interact with others of similar abilities, a sentiment summed up in the programme’s motto: “Just because I can’t see the stars, doesn’t mean I can’t reach for them.”