Hannah and her mom, Patricia, with Spritz, photographed at the UC Davis Arboretum in February.

Photo: Gregory Urquiaga/UC Davis

Beyond Barriers

by | May 30, 2016 | Aggie Families, Spring 2016

When senior Hannah Chadwick walks around campus, Spritz helps her find a clear path. And much to the dismay of other students, petting the black Labrador is discouraged.

Hannah, who is almost totally blind, uses a seeing-eye dog instead of a cane because she allows her to walk fast and blend in. She said she’s spent her entire life working to be treated like anyone else and not be limited by her inability to see.

“I had no idea there were visually impaired people,” she said. “When I was little I thought I was the only person.”

Hannah was born in China to parents she never knew and spent her early childhood with an adoptive family on a farm. Like other children, she played in rice paddies and helped with the harvests. The family later sent her to an orphanage so she could get an education.

At age 12, she was adopted by Patricia Chadwick and Stephen Dias and moved to Arcata. They expected Hannah to be self sufficient and encouraged her to hike and ride a bicycle.

“My mom was, like, ‘Yeah, go ahead and have fun,’” Hannah said. “I think that helped a lot with me being independent.”

Dias, who died in 2012, used a wheelchair because of a spinal cord injury, and he and his wife were longtime advocates for disability rights. They had adopted another girl, Rosa, from the same orphanage in China years earlier, and when they heard about Hannah, they felt uniquely qualified to raise her.

Patricia said she and her husband never treated their daughter’s visual impairment like something to be “cured” or pitied.

“That’s just who she is — it’s not something that is bad or good. It’s just a part of who the person is,” Patricia said.

Hannah in China with her study abroad roommate, UC Riverside sophomore Ruby Krause, and her sister, Rosa. (courtesy)

She’s also a humanitarian in the making. Hannah said she hopes to be able to improve life for others in the future.

When she graduates from UC Davis in June, she will look for a job helping developing nations, recalling her rural start in a village where everyone had to grow their own food.

She said she is especially interested in positions that would allow her to travel. She’s already been to Bahrain, Mexico, and last summer studied in China.

As an international relations and Chinese double major, Hannah is required to study abroad, but she said her first-choice university in Taiwan was hesitant to admit a blind student. After more searching, she wound up at Beijing Normal University — but not without a few hiccups along the way.

When Hannah stepped off the plane, her university escort was nowhere to be found, so she hopped in a taxi and made her own way, much to the surprise of the staff.

“She’s pretty brave about traveling,” Patricia said. “She’s always been able to take care of herself.”

Hannah stood out in Beijing in other ways. She couldn’t bring her dog, and her cane couldn’t help her maneuver around the drivers who run red lights and go on the sidewalk. So after a couple days, she worked up the courage to ask her roommate to guide her through the city.

“What, am I going to deny her? Of course not,” said her roommate, UC Riverside sophomore Ruby Krause.

Together, the 6-foot blonde Krause and Hannah, with her cane, made their way through the streets of Beijing.

“Sometimes we’d be walking down the street, and people, as soon as they passed us, would turn their heads and look at us,”  Krause said, adding that they usually laughed off the attention and waved to strangers who stopped to gawk. (Hannah can see vague shapes but no detail and nothing at night. She said her vision continues to slowly deteriorate.)

These days, Hannah said she’s not as fearless as she was as a child. In her years of riding a bike, she only hit one parked car. She even tried driving a car — in a parking lot with her uncle in the passenger seat telling her when to turn. And while she probably won’t try driving again, she said she’s looking forward to her next challenge.