When Roderick Thomas walked across the stage for the hooding ceremony last month, the applause was louder than for the rest of the graduates.
“I hope I can bring hope to someone; I hope I can bring encouragement to someone. I think that’s my purpose,” Thomas said. “I still can’t believe it, but it’s just a testament of the school and where our school is and how much our students and our family really, really encouraged me, and they really love me.”
The cheers weren’t because he’s a successful athlete at the school or because he had the highest grades; it’s because of the hurdles he jumped to get that Juris Doctorate degree from the Florida A&M University College of Law.
“At the age of 15, just as I was thinking I was getting ready to drive and get into things that normal teenagers do, my vision took a turn for the worse,” Thomas said. “I went from 20/30 to 20/400. It was a challenge. My senior year, things got kind of bad. My vision got even worse, and I wound up dropping out of school my senior year.”
Thomas has congenital glaucoma, so loss of vision runs in his family. His mother lost her vision three days after Thomas was born. One of his sons and one of his sisters are blind, too.
After dropping out of high school, Thomas earned a high-school diploma from Seminole Community College (now Seminole State College). Then, he earned his associate degree from Valencia College and a bachelor’s degree in communications from Rollins College.
When Thomas has a goal, he puts himself where that goal would put him and dreams of the future.
“What I used to do before I even got to FAMU is I’d come and sit in the library. I’d come and sit in the library and just dream and be like, ‘One day, I’ma be right here,’” Thomas said. “Now, sometimes what I’ll do is I go to the courthouse, and I sit, and I watch the court cases, and I watch the judges and say, ‘One day, I’ll be sitting in this courtroom trying cases.’
“So that’s how I learned to overcome my challenges and overcome my fears — with just dreaming.”
Adapting to schooling without vision
Thomas lost his vision while he was a student at FAMU, and, just as he had to adjust to life without vision, FAMU had to adjust to helping a student without vision succeed. When Thomas first lost his vision, the school didn’t have the accommodations that a blind student needed. He took a break from classes, and the school worked to bring braille textbooks and specialized software to the university so Thomas could continue his studies.
“He taught us as much as we taught him,” said Darryll Jones, a professor of law and Thomas’ advisor at FAMU. “It’s something that he’s entitled to. I mean, he’s a taxpayer just like everybody else. And so the institution needed to provide him services just like it provides any other students services. Honestly, I don’t think we were prepared initially. To his credit, he was extraordinarily patient with us.
“Other people might have said, ‘You guys aren’t in compliance. I’m taking you to court right now.’ And maybe he could’ve done that, and we might have been in a little trouble. But, instead, he was always transparent and very frank with us about his needs. He never articulated his needs as something that we were obligated to do, even though we were. Because he worked with us, he made this institution stronger and better.”
Jones said another visually impaired student recently started classes at FAMU College of Law and that the school is better equipped to serve him thanks to Thomas. Jones praises Thomas’ positive attitude and determination to succeed.
“He talks about his disability like he’s talking about the weather. He’s not impressed with himself, but I’m impressed with him,” Jones said. “I’ve been privileged to watch his growth as an attorney.”
Life at home
Thomas became a father at the age of 20. Just five years later, the mother to his two sons left.
“When my boys were four and five, my boys’ mother came to me and told me she couldn’t take care of the kids,” Thomas said. “I became a single father really young, but it was still a blessing.”
Then he met Theresa Thomas, and they’ve been married for 13 years now. Roderick was working at a theme park when his vision took another drastic turn. This time, he couldn’t see at all. He called his wife and told her his sight was gone completely.
Roderick said he would understand if she wanted to leave him and that there would be no hard feelings from him.
“It wasn’t like a gradual thing. It was just like a normal day. He went to work, and he had his vision, and he called me up on the phone and was like, ‘Hey, I can’t see — at all.’ So I went and picked him up from work, and he had that conversation with me,” Theresa said. “It made me angry because I said, ‘For better, for worse, for richer, for poorer.’ Those were the vows I made, and I meant it when I said it.”
He structures his life one goal at a time. He said the only thing he’s worrying about in the immediate future is passing the Bar exam. But, eventually, Thomas said he would like to become a board-certified attorney.
“There’s probably hundreds of thousands of attorneys in the state of Florida, but I think less than two percent are board-certified,” Thomas said. “I’m willing to bet even less than that are blind and board¬-certified.”
Roderick said he eventually would like to start his own firm, practice in civil court and set up scholarships and foundations as a way to give back. He has high goals, but he has already proven that his determination and confidence can take him to places that seem unlikely. Thomas said he may have lost his vision, but he never lost his vision for the future.
“No matter what you lose in life — you can lose your family; you can lose your kids; you can lose a lot of things,” Thomas said. “But never lose your vision, no matter what life throws at you.”