This post is part of our month-long series featuring Greatest Women of the Day, in recognition of Women's History Month.
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For over 37 years, Donna Karlson has been advising and counseling students who are hearing and visually impaired and helping them forge a path for their futures. She also serves as an activist for encouraging the employment and further education of disabled people in America.
As a young woman growing up in the Bronx, Donna was very close with her siblings. Her parents died at a young age. She always knew she wanted to be a teacher, but never imagined she'd find herself working in special education.
"All I knew was that I wanted to work with kids. When I started, I didn't know anything about special education -- I didn't think I had the experience -- but my supervisor helped me to feel supported."
A humble educator far more eager to celebrate the successes of her co-workers and former students, Donna has spent her entire career with the New York Institute for Special Education (itself a 170-year-old school), leaving only briefly to receive her masters in special education and obtain certifications in visual impairment and sign language.
One of her proudest achievments has been leading the NYISE student council and making them active in the Pelham Bay community. "So many of these students were on the edge," Donna says. "So to see them participating and voting and making decisions, to see them speaking beautifully at a council meeting about their disabilities -- it's those moments where you just step back and feel so good."
A visually impaired former student of Donna's, Jose de la Cruz, says, "Her passion is contagious and her spirit is the most uplifting presence I have ever encountered. She is an unbelievable and helpful soul."
Donna taught Jose and her other students how to move beyond their impairments. "It is largely due to her encouragement and her belief in me that I have been able to do some amazing things with my life," Jose says.
Countless former students of Donna's have gone on to illustrious careers. Some are in law school, others are in management positions, and Jose himself graduated from Georgetown and received an M.A. from Edinburgh University. "Donna drove me 16 hours round trip through New York, Washington D.C., all on her own time, for university interviews," Jose says. "We mulled through university applications, finances and strategies together."
Today, Jose speaks four languages and has travelled around the world working for Deutsch Bank, Ernest & Young and IMN.
Surprisingly, Donna says, the hardest work can be getting the students' parents to understand their children's potential. "Many parents I've encountered don't do the work to help their children. One student's mother didn't even help him fill out paperwork for college, I had to take a notary public to her house personally to have her sign these papers."
But thanks to Donna's work, this student now attends St. Thomas Aquinas, working towards a degree in psychology. As a testament to Donna's support over the years, the student volunteers at the NYISE on the weekends.
In addition to her work as a counselor, Donna has also worked for years to increase post-graduate employment for the hearing and visually impaired. "Employers have told me they're willing to give many of these students internships and jobs," Donna says. "But visually impaired individuals are still some of the least employed in the United States."
She has coordinated countless events to raise awareness of this discrepancy, including an upcoming all-day event aboard the Intrepid, which will feature a plethora of activities, events, and vendors discussing new technology for the visually and hearing impaired. The keynote speaker is Matthew P. Sapolin, the Commissioner of the New York City Mayor's Office for People with Disabilities.
Some of Donna's proudest moments are when former students come back to visit. One former student, now 43 years old with a family, surprised Donna just last fall.
"Donna has been that spark for so many of us," Jose says. "And she continues to positively impact the following generation."