Sena Pottackal doesn’t have any fear of public speaking. Legally blind in both eyes since her teen years, not even a speech at the famous Carnegie Hall could shake her confidence.
“No, I wasn’t really nervous. It did help that I couldn’t really see the audience,” she said in a phone conversation with The Sun on Sept. 24.
A graduate student at the NYU School of Professional Studies, Pottackal spoke there on Sept. 20 at the PR Council’s Critical Issues of the Modern Workforce Forum. Her topic was “Bada** Blind Girl Doing Good through PR.” Good timing, as October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month.
“I spoke about adjustments to my disability. Specifically, I told them about how I broke into the work force and how they (employers) can welcome people with disabilities into the workplace. They were really receptive; I got a standing ovation.”
The 30-year-old former Cherry Hill resident came to the area from Long Island when she was 14, and graduated from East in 2007. Shortly after arriving in the township, she was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa, a genetic eye disease — able to see only blurry shapes, color, and light.
“When I was 15, I did really well in my first year of high school. I already needed large print, but I was told I could drive. But after the appointment, I found out I could no longer drive. I could no longer see the chart with my right eye which had 20/200 vision. In my good eye, it was 20/80,” she related.
“I struggled a lot to be honest. I’m a planner. It was hard for me to accept that things would be so much different than I planned.”
But Pottackal soldiered on, with time spent as an undergraduate at both Camden County College in Blackwood and then Rowan University, where she majored in public relations and double-minored in advertising and communications.
She’s now tackling her graduate studies three miles south of Carnegie Hall, pursuing a master’s in public relations and corporate communications with a concentration in corporate and organizational communication.
Currently an NBC Universal diversity and inclusion intern who will graduate in December, Pottackal also presented at the NYU United Arab Emirates Education Ambassador’s Program on how to create a disability-inclusive learning environment.
“I spoke to teachers and administrators about what an inclusive environment entails. It starts with embracing inclusion as a mindset. A classroom is about starting a conversation with students and coworkers about what do people need to be successful, what does an individual need to be successful. Regardless of abilities, we all have to work together. By having these talks, we make people comfortable in discussing what they need to be successful,” she related.
Last year, Pottackal won the 2018 American Association of People with Disabilities NBC Universal Media Scholarship and then 2019 New York Women in Communications Interpublic Group Scholarship and Internship at Weber Shandwick.
After completing her degree, she plans to continue advocating for disability rights. She credits her upbringing for cementing her resolve to fight for those who need it.
“I was really lucky to be surrounded by amazing people: my parents believed so deeply in my ability to be successful, and that has helped me so much since then; having siblings who are supportive and really good friends. I am still good friends with people from high school, we’re all over the place, but it’s been a constant source of support. Cherry Hill was a great place for me to find my support system. They helped me adjust and embrace things, helped me realize I could still continue to live life fully,” she added.
Pottackal also obtained training at the Colorado Center for the Blind, where she mentored blind youth – an experience that has deepened her drive to help other disabled individuals achieve their personal and professional goals.
“When I was in high school, I knew I was passionate about consuming and conveying stories, and I wanted to pursue a career in communications. However, I didn’t know anyone who was visually imparied or blind, who wanted to do what I wanted,” she explained.
“I couldn’t find that mentorship or role model who could translate that life experience for me. Hopefully now, since there’s someone else with a similar experience, they can see that they can not only pursue their dreams, but they can exceed their expectations.”